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What Happens When a Military Base is Decommissioned?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jan 30, 2024
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In the late 1990s Base Realignment and Closure, a standard for decommissioning military bases and retooling them for other uses, began to sweep across the United States. Many areas which formerly had a heavy cluster of military bases were left with only a handful of bases, and the remainder were decommissioned to wait in a political limbo. In some areas, proactive communities have worked with the military to rezone the base and make it suitable for alternate uses, while other parts of the United States have abandoned decommissioned military bases waiting for attention.

Base Realignment and Closure was a program which sprang up in recognition of the fact that the United States did not need such an extensive network of military bases. Many bases requiring major upgrades could simply be decommissioned and turned over to civilian or other uses. The large standing military which existed throughout the Cold War could be downsized, saving money for the Federal government and allowing the military to invest in more advanced technology.

When a base is decommissioned, a very specific process is followed. First personnel and equipment are removed from the base so that an assessment of the area can be made, with a focus on areas of potential environmental hazard. Due to extensive mishandling of a wide variety of toxic substances, most military bases are heavily contaminated and require years of environmental cleanup before they can be developed or turned over to another agency.

After the base has been officially decommissioned, a redevelopment agency is formed, which brings together members of the military and the community, who work together on a development plan for the base. Many communities have realized the development potential for decommissioned bases, many of which are located on prime real estate and could be a source of lucrative revenue. Especially in regions which relied on the military base for income, a decommissioned base can be a death knell, but the potential for redevelopment can be revitalizing.

The military begins environmental cleanup on the base, along with removal of structures. In some cases infrastructure may be left intact to assist with development, and in other cases parts of the base are opened to civilian use. This is the case on San Francisco's Treasure Island, which has a small housing community located on the northern end of the decommissioned base. Other bases are fully closed until they can be cleaned up.

The redevelopment agency works with the military and the community to establish a sustainable development plan. Most decommissioned base developments include low cost housing, as well as higher end communities, and place a value on open space as well as room for economic growth. Some decommissioned base developments use parts of the former base housing, with civilians living in the former staff quarters.

Once the base has been fully cleaned and a development plan has been established, the military turns the land over to the developing agency. Revenues from the development are applied to upkeep, and the decommissioned base becomes a functional contribution to the community. Most regional areas are eager to assist with base redevelopment, because the loss of the base represents a substantial decline in economy for the area which a development may be able to revitalize.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon927169 — On Jan 22, 2014

I've heard more than one story about investors or city leaders trying to buy decommissioned military bases, only to discover that the entire area is heavily contaminated. It would cost millions of dollars to remove all of the contaminated dirt and install protective gear for the environment. There's no doubt that an average military base has enough developed land to support a shopping complex or new housing development, but there's also a lot of deconstruction work that would need to be done first.

By MrSmirnov — On May 07, 2011

@anon1018 - There are actually special realtors you can deal with that work on selling decommissioned military bases and assets that are still located there. A simple Google search should pull up some.

They vary in price from a few hundred thousand dollars to in the millions. It really depends on how large a property you want, as well as what is left on the property. I have found that those that have large underground compounds to be the most expensive.

There have actually been a few TV specials about people who have taken decommissioned military properties and turned them into things like townhouses and commercial properties. Pretty much once the area has been cleaned for you, the possibilities are endless for what you can build.

By anon1018 — On May 11, 2007

who would I contact if I wanted to purchase one of these decommissioned bases or some of the assetts that are located on them?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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