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COLUMN ONE : Life After Taps Plays at the Base : In 1978, the Air Force closed Kincheloe, but the Michigan area thrives again. It offers lessons for other communities facing the loss of their military bread and butter.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was as though a neutron bomb had hit Kincheloe Air Force Base in 1978. The buildings, desks and equipment were there, but the people were gone--700 civilian workers laid off and 3,200 military personnel transferred.

The eerie scene--in Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula, 18 miles south of Sault Ste. Marie--materialized after the federal government decided it no longer needed the Strategic Air Command base in the wake of the Vietnam War.

Highly dependent on Kincheloe’s $45-million annual payroll, the rural area was devastated. The county’s stubbornly high unemployment rate soon soared to more than 23%. Schools, hospitals and clinics closed, and scores of support businesses collapsed.

“I’m one of the victims,” said Francis M. (Bud) Mansfield, who lost his car dealership in Sault (pronounced Soo) Ste. Marie after the base closed. “We lost 46% of our business. It was an insurmountable problem.”

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But Mansfield and other residents of this hardscrabble area near the Canadian border are survivors. Not long after the closing, industrial, governmental and commercial activity began sprouting up on the base, located in Chippewa County.

Today, the site is a small, nearly self-contained town and a major contributor to the eastern Upper Peninsula’s vitality.

Indeed, Kincheloe’s conversion to civilian use has turned out to be among the most successful of its kind among the scores of military bases closed across the country in the 1970s.

County officials say that while their experience is unique because of their area’s remoteness, they did learn some valuable lessons that can be applied by the 31 communities, including several in California, now faced with base closings under the Pentagon’s latest round of defense cutbacks. Some of their advice:

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* Develop a reuse plan before the base is closed. Seek federal funding for the study but insist on local control.

* Form a strong organization of state and local government officials to deal with federal authorities. Consider a base conversion authority to serve as an interim local government.

* Aggressively pursue funding for the transition on all levels--local, state and federal.

* Organize a broad-based conversion effort that is determined, persistent and draws on the skills of a wide range of individuals and groups.

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Of course, there is no simple formula for success. Kincheloe’s revival came about through aggressive local leadership combined with a willingness of the state and federal governments to help financially. Unlike today, it occurred when budget constraints were less pressing.

In fact, the conversion of Kincheloe is as much a result of luck and good timing as it is of hard work and foresighted planning. While the hope had been to develop a solid manufacturing base for Chippewa County, anchored by an airport industrial park, the result is a hub of state prisons surrounded by a few small industries.

There are five correctional facilities now located at the former base, employing 1,200 workers. Seven manufacturers employ about 250 workers, and service businesses employ an additional 350.

Kincheloe was among the 150 major bases closed from 1969 to 1979, as the Pentagon mothballed facilities after the Vietnam War. No bases were closed in the next decade as President Ronald Reagan oversaw a military buildup. But since 1989, the government has proposed closing about 150 more bases, including dozens announced only recently.

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The history of Kincheloe dates to 1941. With war raging in Europe and threats arising in the Pacific, the federal government rushed to build Kinross AFB to protect the Soo Locks, which allow shipping to traverse the St. Mary’s River connecting Lake Superior and Lake Huron.

There was some talk of closing the base after World War II, but Cold War tensions and the Korean War kept it alive. In 1956, Kinross--named for the township in which it is located--made the Pentagon list for base closings. The community organized and effectively fought the closing. (The base’s name was changed in 1959 to honor Capt. Iven C. Kincheloe, a Michigan test pilot who died in a training flight over the California desert.)

During Vietnam, Kincheloe housed B-52s and subsequently become part of the SAC defense system, largely serving as a refueling station. The Pentagon announced on March 10, 1976, that Kincheloe would be closed.

Many residents simply did not believe it. “We were not too uneasy,” said Mansfield. “They had cried wolf so many times before.”

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But this time the Pentagon was serious. As the reality sank in, the Sault Ste. Marie area first expressed outrage, then panic and finally slipped into a sullen depression.

“People thought this would become a wasteland,” recalled John Campbell, executive director of the Eastern U. P. Regional Planning & Development Commission.

There was good reason for gloom and doom. Scores of businesses near the base--restaurants, gas stations and small stores--immediately closed. Teachers were laid off as students moved away.

The impact was felt everywhere, even by the long-established merchants in nearby Sault Ste. Marie. Base personnel accounted for more than half the receipts for many of these concerns.

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“We started feeling it right after the base closed,” said Jerry Jean, owner of Jean’s Jewelry Store, a family business open since 1907. “Everybody just clammed up, didn’t want to spend.”

Jean, who took over the store in 1958, laid off five of his seven employees and tried to ride it out. He succeeded, but only after exhausting a $125,000 family nest egg.

Mansfield was less fortunate. As soon as the base closed, sales at his Pontiac and Buick dealership plummeted. It did not help that the second energy crisis was about to hit and interest rates were about to skyrocket.

“The whole thing came down on us,” he said. “I lost everything.” (He is now executive director of the Sault Area Chamber of Commerce.)

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Amid the disruption, several efforts were launched to convert the base to civilian use. The process actually began before the base closed--while officials were still trying to persuade the Pentagon to keep it open.

Business leaders formed the New Soo Committee to develop a recovery strategy. They traveled to Lansing and Washington to lobby various agencies for help.

And they scored an initial success, persuading the Air Force to leave all the equipment--$5-million worth of snowplows, firetrucks and other equipment needed to run the 3,600-acre base, with its 175 commercial buildings and 1,383 houses.

Local officials formed the county Economic Development Commission to oversee transition of the base to a civilian facility with particular emphasis on job creation. Their plan focused on development of an industrial park built around the abandoned airfield.

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Then-Gov. William Milliken appointed a local-state committee to assess the impact of the closing and explore reuse possibilities. An important element to emerge from that study was the possibility of using part of the base for a state prison.

The state also formed the Base Conversion Authority, a state-local body given power to operate the transitional facility for three years. The authority, with $500,000 provided by the state, performed local government functions, including maintaining the utilities, until they could be turned over to Kinross Township.

Funding for all these efforts came from a number of sources.

Chippewa County and Sault Ste. Marie each contributed $50,000 to the EDC, while Michigan provided $200,000. The Department of Defense kicked in $300,000 for engineering studies for utility and facility modifications. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, General Services Administration and Federal Aviation Administration all made contributions.

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The GSA sold the base housing at auction to a California-based developer.

Local officials wanted to attract new businesses as quickly as possible. Fortuitously, the state was looking for a prison site, and the Kincheloe barracks and recreation areas were readily converted. The prison created 350 jobs.

“At first, the local community objected to the prison, some very heatedly,” said Campbell. “Once they saw what it was like, they wanted more.”

At the same time, the EDC moved forward to develop an industrial park. As luck would have it, the county was looking for a new site for its airport. Soon the Chippewa County International Airport was open for commercial traffic at the old base with a 7,200-foot runway.

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To attract new industry, the agency created a $4-million revolving loan fund to help fledgling operations get started. They offered attractive lease rates--10 cents a square foot--in the old base facilities, such as former B-52 hangars that could be cheaply converted to manufacturing.

The success of the first prison soon led to clamoring for more jails for job-hungry Kinross Township. The state initially resisted because its policy called for locating jails near the homes of prisoners. But as opposition to prisons increased throughout Michigan, the state agreed to build several more at the former base.

Today, there are four maximum-security prisons and a work camp at Kinross. The Michigan Department of Corrections is the largest single employer in the eastern U. P., which includes Chippewa, Luce and Mackinac counties.

“It’s a nice clean industry,” said Kathy Noel, executive vice president of the Chippewa County EDC.

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And it has been instrumental in turning around the economy of Chippewa. Today, the area is riding a tourist boom, long its leading draw. That has been helped by a booming casino business run by the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians that has helped make the tourist season year-round.

The county’s population hit 35,000 in 1990--up 19% in the decade. Job growth increased 3,000. The unemployment rate is 11%, far from its peak a decade ago. The retail sector is booming, with Sault Ste. Marie sporting both a new K mart as well as a Wal-Mart. Canadian shoppers fill the local shops.

That doesn’t mean there are no clouds on the horizon. Recent state budget cuts have caused some job losses at the prisons. There is even concern that one prison could be shut down, although Gov. John Engler proposed increasing allocations for the Department of Corrections in the new state budget.

Manufacturers have struggled at the industrial park--some for inadequate funding, some because the region is so remote from their markets. Lake City Forge and Chippewa Archery closed up shop in the past year or so. Attracting replacements continues to be difficult.

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“When I came here in 1978, I was told I would put myself out of a job in three years,” said Noel. “But it’s a never-ending process.”

STATE BASES BACK ON LIST: McClellan Air Force Base and the Army’s Presidio language institute again face closure. A3

Base-Closing Survivor

Transformation of Kincheloe Air Force Base is proof that base closings, while incredibly painful, are not necessarily fatal to even the most dependent of communities.

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