October 3, 2015 – Press-Republican, By Joe LoTemplio
PLATTSBURGH — When the reality settled in that Plattsburgh Air Force Base would close and officials began the arduous task of planning for the redevelopment, the journey was anything but smooth. “But in the end, it all came together, and it is one of the biggest base redevelopment success stories in the country,” former City of Plattsburgh Mayor Daniel Stewart told the Press-Republican.
Walt Hallett (from left), Detective David Favro (now Clinton County Sheriff) and Detective Kurt Tobrocke of the Plattsburgh City Police Department participate in a “save the base” rally attended by thousands in June 1993.
The base was slated for closure by the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission in the early days of summer in 1993.
It wasn’t until later that summer that the community learned the actual closure date would be in 1995.
“We had two years of grieving to go through, but we also had two years of pre-planning for the closure,” said Clyde Rabideau Jr., who was city mayor when the base closed and now holds that post in Saranac Lake.
In the early days after the closure announcement, community leaders gathered at the United Way of Clinton and Essex County building on Tom Miller Road to figure out what to do.
They created the Plattsburgh Intermunicipal Development Council, and local car dealer Bill McBride was chosen to lead the efforts.
McBride’s selection has become local folklore, as he was chosen by the point of a finger from State Sen. Ronald B. Stafford across the United Way conference table with the command: “You are going to do it.”
Stafford, the powerful veteran of the State Senate and de facto political leader of the area at the time, was clearly in charge.
“When the old man points his finger, you don’t have a choice,” McBride said at the time.
But while Stafford may have been the political leader, officials in the city and town of Plattsburgh and Clinton County Legislature all had their stakes to protect as well.
“There were a lot of ideologies, and everyone thought they had the best ideas,” Stewart said.
Former County Administrator William Bingel said the county was concerned that it would get left out when the base property was divided up.
“I remember Bob Bruno (then legislature chairman) was worried that Clyde and Art (Plattsburgh Town Supervisor Arthur LeFevre) would gobble everything up,” Bingel said.
“He told me to get in there.”
Rodney Brown, deputy county administrator, was instrumental in helping form PIDC and then Plattsburgh Airbase Redevelopment Corp.
“Rodney did all of the dirty work, and he never complained once,” Bingel said.
As the process wore on, PIDC turned into PARC, and David Holmes was hired to run the redevelopment efforts.
Holmes, however, conflicted with area leaders and did not last long.
He was replaced by Northern Tier real estate veteran Mark L. Barie, who had been president of the North Country Chamber of Commerce two years earlier when BRACC made its fateful decision.
One of the first items Barie had to deal with was a massive three-day concert on the base flight line in August 1996 by the popular band Phish.
“I tried to cancel it, but I couldn’t,” said Barie, who didn’t think it was a good use of the property.
“The concert went OK, but that was not how we were going to redevelop the base.”
PARC was dependent on federal and state funding, and the early days were scary, Barie said.
“When I took over, we were bouncing paychecks,” he said.
“Within 24 months, we had a line of credit, and we had righted our financial ship.”
When Barie left, his second in command, Daniel Wieneke, took over PARC.
Rabideau remembers that one of his main concerns in the early days of redevelopment was to make sure the federal government left the community with sound infrastructure on the base.
The military installation was divided into two parts: the “Old Base” portion, located in the city, and the “New Base,” in the town.
“We had to make sure the infrastructure was up to snuff,” Rabideau said.
“Part of my job as mayor was to get as much value out of the property as we could.”
Another concern was the fence surrounding the base property, separating it from the community.
“There was an emotional and mental block with that fence, and it had to come down,” Rabideau said.
That happened a few years after Rabideau left office, and Stewart marked the occasion with a ceremony featuring a Ronald Reagan mask for himself and a Mikhail Gorbachev mask for Wieneke.
“Mr. Wieneke, tear down this fence,” Stewart said with a laugh as the two posed for pictures near the barrier on U.S. Avenue.
“No one really knew where the development effort was going to go, and there were a lot of challenges, but in the end, everyone came together, and it turned out to be a great success story.”
In the early days of PARC, controversy sizzled over how the base properties would be marketed.
The decision was that no local companies would get first crack at parcels, with the idea that the area wanted to attract outside investors.
Local businesses objected to that, which made redevelopment difficult, Barie said.
“It was frustrating to find out just how much redevelopment depended on politics,” he said.
“We leased what we could, but the big difference wasn’t until PARC was allowed to market to locals.”
When that did happen, controversy still arose whenever an outside developer bought a parcel. Stewart said he had an easy answer for local business people who complained about the marketing policies.
“I told them to get out their checkbooks,” he said.
“If not, keep your mouths shut.”
Politicians were not the only figures involved in the redevelopment efforts. Area business leaders also had a big hand in the outcome.
One of them was Herb Carpenter.
He had retired as chief of the City of Plattsburgh Police Department in 1981 and become a successful businessman, founding what is now the Northeast Group.
“In hindsight (the BRACC decision), it was a defining moment in the history of the North Country, and it was an absolutely positive event for us,” Carpenter said.
“We went through some tough times emotionally but not so tough economically. The economic impact on the community ended up much less than what many people and many organizations thought it would be.”
He said the base’s annual economic impact was about $150 million a year, “but in terms of what the overall economy of the North Country is, that’s not a significant piece.”
Life on base “was pretty self contained,” he points out, with military personnel and their families having their own shopping areas, housing, churches and even bowling alleys.
“So most of that economic impact was replaced in a couple of years,” he said.
“There’s no question today that the economic impact to the North Country is dramatically better than it would have been had the Air Force stayed.“
The Air Force left the 5,000-acre property in excellent condition and ripe for redevelopment.
“I’d be surprised if there is anybody around that is sorry for the way things happened the way they did,” Carpenter said.
“There is very little tax-exempt property. It’s on the tax rolls, and there is a significant amount of employment there.”
Today, in the Town of Plattsburgh, nearly 3,000 acres have been redeveloped with a taxable assessed value of more than $40 million, generating more than $1.6 million in taxes for the town, county and Peru Central School District.
In the city, there is more than $96 million of assessed taxable property, generating about $3.7 million in city, county and school taxes.
North Country Chamber of Commerce President Garry Douglas was also part of Team Plattsburgh and served on both PIDC and PARC.
The chamber helped navigate the tricky landscape of obtaining title of the base property for the county and eventually played a key role in the development of Plattsburgh International Airport on the flight line, which it continues to market.
“Importantly, unlike some bases, no one gave us some big new federal or state presence. That meant that we had to do it all the hard way — one deal and investment at a time,” Douglas said.
“And in the end, this has given us greater economic diversity and a stronger business orientation.
“It also prompted the chamber and others, such as PARC and the Development Corp., to really focus on sustained, long-term strategies for maximizing the opportunities for Canadian investment that were on the upswing at the same time the Air Force had to leave us.
“The impact of our Canadian connection is all over the former base, from the companies who are there to the redevelopment of the newer housing, which was done by a Vancouver company, to all that is now happening at the airport.”
Douglas said the number of jobs created on the base property is not tracked, but he estimates that it is more than 1,000.
The base has become home to numerous businesses and housing developments.
The city moved its Recreation and Public Works departments and City Court onto base properties, and the Oval, the former base parade ground, has become a focal point of the community.
“The base is now a place where people go to work, live and play,” Barie said.
“We are no longer dependent on crooked politicians in Washington. We have created a very diverse economic base.”
The biggest change perhaps, was the opening of Plattsburgh International Airport on the flight line in 2007.
Bingel remembers that it was LeFevre, as town supervisor, who first suggested moving the airport from its tiny Route 3 location to the base.
“I didn’t think we should do that, but looking back, it was the right thing to do,” Bingel said.
LeFevre thinks an expanded airport with capability to serve large aircraft was critical.
“With Montreal, Burlington and Lake Placid, we were in the center of that triangle, and I’ve always been a big believer that having an airport was very important,” said LeFevre, now 87.
According to federal reports, Plattsburgh did extremely well in rebuilding the civilian job market after the Air Base closed.
The Department of Defense conducted an annual review of BRACC programs for some 10 years.
In March 1998, the DOD Office of Economic Adjustment reported 353 civilian jobs were lost with closure of PAFB.
Civilian job recovery rate at that point — three years out — was set at 70.74 percent with the creation of 249 jobs.
Learn more at http://bit.ly/1KqXzgP.
By January 2005, the report from DOD calculated a total 352 jobs (one less) lost, but an estimated 1,001 had been created, about a 284 percent recovery rate.
See the numbers at http://bit.ly/1Oqb985.
The information above is for general awareness only and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Office of Economic Adjustment or the Department of Defense as a whole.