COMMENTARY ON EL TORO : Only a Unified Front Can Minimize Losses From Base Closure : It will hurt no matter what county and cities do, but cooperation at all levels of government, and between public and private sectors, can alleviate the pain of conversion.

Despite the significant possibilities created by the projected closure of the El Toro Marine Corps air base, the immediate loss to Orange County can be significant. This loss would be magnified if the various interest groups move from negotiation to litigation over who will determine the base's future.

For instance, in California, numerous other bases have been, or are in the process of being, closed. In virtually every case, conflicting interests have either failed to produce a consensus on development plans or have resulted in lawsuits. For example, the former George Air Force Base in San Bernardino County was slated for closure more than four years ago.

The local communities are now locked in litigation over competing proposals.

How can we position the county for the transition from short-term loss to long-term benefits regarding El Toro? Successful transitions require a collaborative planning approach based on the following points:

* Bear in mind the risks of not pursuing a cooperative approach. Divided control of a base presents a planning nightmare and will result in significant delays. Even worse, a community that fails to reach a consensus risks forfeiting to the state and federal government significant control over base-reuse alternatives. Defense Department officials have warned that they will not consider competing proposals for El Toro.

* Understand the broad base of interests in the local community before formulating final plans. In Orange County, the local jurisdictions have failed to agree to a single task force to develop a reuse proposal for El Toro. Business groups on the task force are unhappy about their level of participation, and the League of United Latin American Citizens has filed a complaint with the Defense Department about the lack of minority representation. The task force must recognize and attempt to accommodate a broad range of interested groups, to avoid being derailed down the road.

* Work with interested parties to develop a plan for reuse. This plan should focus on the broad goals of the community that will shape the reuse decisions. In Orange County, this involves a broader focus than the airport/no-airport debate. The plan should also set realistic goals, recognizing that base closure and reuse planning is a long process.

* Communities can work with the state and various public and nonprofit institutions on reuse alternatives that may be eligible for federal funding. President Clinton has also asked Congress to change current law to allow the Department of Defense to transfer bases to communities at a discount from market value, or possibly at no cost, for purposes of economic development.

* Encourage the state and federal governments to pass legislation to facilitate cooperative planning efforts. Disposition and use of base assets will ultimately be driven by land use control. Both the public and private sector can better assess opportunities and ultimate property values if a general reuse plan and zoning are established before the property is offered for sale.

* Encourage the state to broaden existing financial incentives such as redevelopment financing and enterprise zones. Explore creative local financing mechanisms such as tax-increment districts and assessment districts. If infrastructure improvements are identified and assessment districts created when property is offered for purchase, potential purchasers may be able to negotiate appropriate purchase price reductions and the public can still obtain the necessary infrastructure.

* Work with the state in creating clearinghouses for defense conversion funding and information. For example, in Pennsylvania, the state's Department of Commerce coordinates a program that acts as a technology transfer network, providing matching funds on a project basis to companies or entrepreneurs. The grant money is matched largely with money from private sources such as working capital loan funds and venture and capital funds.

* Support proposed federal legislative changes that would allow flexible, creative approaches to environmental cleanup. Changes that are being considered include involving installation commanders more directly in remediation plans and facility cleanup, and setting up variable federal cleanup standards that are tailored to the eventual reuse proposed by the community.

* Maintaining community involvement. Base closure and reuse planning is a long-term process. One of the keys to successful planning is to develop a plan to maintain ongoing communication and interaction with the community over time as the project progresses.

Many communities, local governments, businesses and community groups are mobilizing to participate in the base-closure process.

Reuse and redevelopment will not be possible, however, unless both the public and private sectors participate in a flexible and collaborative planning process, both to avoid the risks and to capture the opportunities presented by the El Toro Marine base closure.

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