Thursday, April 1, 2004

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — After 60 years, the U.S. Navy yesterday officially closed its sprawling Roosevelt Roads Naval Air Station in eastern Puerto Rico — already dropping property values and flooding the surplus housing market.

In the short term, Puerto Rico expected to suffer with closure of the base, which pumped an estimated $300 million a year into the U.S. commonwealth’s economy. Long term, nearly 4 percent of the island’s land area will be available for tourism, housing and industrial development.

Rosy Roads, as the military installation has long been nicknamed, was shut because the Navy could no longer use the nearby island of Vieques for bombing practice after May 2003. At one time, as many as 10,000 soldiers, civilian employees, outside contractors and their dependents lived on the base, though that number has shrunk throughout the years.

The Puerto Rican government is giving the nearby municipalities of Ceiba and Naguabo $1.2 million each to make up for what they lost in gross sales and excise taxes. A skeleton staff of 200 Navy personnel will maintain the base and keep it secure until it is disposed of sometime in late 2005.

“We’re trying to make the best of it,” said Milton Segarra, Puerto Rico’s secretary of economic development, in a phone interview from San Juan. “We’re talking about a once-in-a-lifetime asset management opportunity that could bring a significant positive impact to our economy.”

As of Sept. 30, when President Bush signed legislation directing the Navy to close the base within six months, the naval base’s population had already dropped to about 4,500.

“Rosy Roads supported the Vieques bombing range, and with the closure of that, the requirement for a support base evaporated,” said David MacKinnon, associate director of the Pentagon’s Office of Economic Adjustment.

“Any base closure that removes jobs from an area will have at least a temporary negative effect,” Mr. MacKinnon said. “The military people will all go somewhere else, and their dependents go with them. Our role is to help make a transition from a military facility to a civilian one through technical and financial assistance.”

About 85 percent of the base lies in the municipality of Ceiba; the remaining 15 percent is in Naguabo. As such, the nine-member local redevelopment authority includes the mayors of both towns as well as private and public-sector officials.

Mr. Segarra said that a small number of federal agencies, including the Army Reserve, the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs, have asked to hold onto 255 of the base’s 8,612 acres. The rest could be opened up to a combination of hotels, tourist resorts, middle-class housing, a marina, a cruise-ship port — even a science park geared toward the island’s booming pharmaceutical industry.

“It’s not going to be all tourism,” he said. “The key is to have a well-balanced mix of economic development. You will not see a plan from this government that puts all efforts in just one sector.”

Among other things, the base contains more than 1,200 residential units and a number of buildings; more than 50 percent of the area consists of environmentally sensitive wetlands that are home to the yellow-shouldered blackbird and other endangered species.

Clouding the shutdown is the issue of contamination, including groundwater polluted with heavy metals and volatile organic compounds, and soil with PCB and sediments, according to the EPA. Mr. Segarra said “it’s a priority for the Local Redevelopment Authority that the Navy comply with its obligation to clean up the lands,” though Mr. MacKinnon said contamination levels are relatively modest.

“It won’t be a big problem to clean it up. Rosy Roads was not an industrial site, and the airfield was used only for transport, not training,” Mr. MacKinnon said.

In the long term, said Mr. Segarra, the naval base’s nine piers and geographic proximity to Vieques, Culebra and the Virgin Islands offer “tremendous maritime opportunities” for the area.

“Every single year, the cruise companies are adding luxury liners to their fleets, and I see an excellent opportunity to make Ceiba a port of call for some of these cruise ships, as well as develop opportunities in nautical tourism,” Mr. Segarra said. “Ceiba is located in such a position that it opens up the Caribbean for cruise ships as well as private yachts.”

He added that offering ferry service between Ceiba and Vieques will shave 20 to 30 minutes off the travel time of the current ferry, which serves Vieques from the town of Fajardo, about five miles north of Rosy Roads.

The base also boasts an airport with an 11,000-foot runway, leading some to speculate that the facility could someday supplement or even eclipse San Juan’s Luis Munoz Marin International Airport.

What’s eventually done with the former naval base is the subject of a $600,000 reuse master plan being drawn up by C.B. Richard Ellis Inc. The plan is expected to be submitted to Mr. Segarra’s office by August.

“The idea is that the airport would tie into tourism and take some pressure off San Juan’s airport,” Mr. MacKinnon said. “There’s also some discussion about moving the Puerto Rico Air National Guard from San Juan to Rosy Roads.”

What surprises Mr. MacKinnon, a 30-year veteran of the Pentagon, about this particular base closing is the speed at which it’s happening.

“Six months is basically unheard of for a major base and employment center,” he said. “In the 1990s, with all of the bases that closed — several hundred in total, including 97 major ones — the shortest time frame for closure was 18 months. More typical was two to three years. It really depended on how quickly the mission could be shut down.”

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