Military base closings can change… lands to parks

John T. Kelly

The end of the Cold War, as well as the fundamental restructuring of the U.S. military has resulted in a series of military base closures which, with the exception of the massive drawdown after World War II, is unprecedented in terms of land transfer and economic impact. In fact, after the 1995 round of closings, over 500 bases will have been slated for closure or major realignment. For many communities affected by the closure process, the prospect of losing so many jobs is an economic and political nightmare.

As the saying goes, however, every cloud has its silver lining. In this case, the silver lining can benefit parks and recreation. Through a little-known federal program, municipal leaders and parks and recreation professionals can acquire land and facilities on closing bases from recreation use at no cost. The National Park Service (NPS), through its Federal Lands to Parks Program (FLPP) program, will assist communities in the identification, application and acquisition of valuable recreation assets throughout the base disposal process.

Recreation Assets Found on

Military Bases

Many people view military bases as gated compounds with industrial buildings and heavy equipment focused on non-commercial uses. In some ways, this is true. What many people who live outside the security gates do not know, however, is that most military bases are literally self-contained communities, complete with their own housing, utilities, medical and dental clinics, retail facilities and other community support activities, known commonly within the military as Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR).

The MWR programs typically found on a base can be classified into one of five major activity areas. These include recreation, sports and fitness, lodging, food and beverage, and child and youth care. The number and type of available MWR facilities can vary based on the size, location and mission of the closing installation. Figure 1 provides a snapshot of some of the recreation amenities often found on military bases. All of the facilities listed have significant potential for reuse within the surrounding communities. Those listed under the first two categories are resources which are typically transferred under the FLPP.



In attempting to gain control of parks and recreation resources for state, local or regional use, it is important to consider the goals and objectives of elected officials and local reuse authorities (LRAs). As with most major plant or office closings, local leaders will likely be most concerned with devastating economic effects, particularly the loss of jobs. As such, recreation professionals should argue first in terms of economic benefits and then in terms of qualitative gains.

Economic Benefits of Assets

The study of the economic benefits associated with open space or recreation land uses typically revolves around a discussion of direct and indirect economic benefits. Direct benefits are those which result from the immediate quantifiable results of a new business entity, such as full and part-time jobs, revenue generation and the resultant taxes, and direct expenditures within the local economy. Direct economic benefits are generally much greater for profit-oriented recreation activities such as golf courses, marinas, campgrounds and bowling centers. Conversely, proving significant direct economic benefits associated with open space, walking and riding trails, and playing fields is difficult. Indirect economic benefits are generally derived from the spin-off effects (often termed multipliers) associated with business activities. Furthermore, even if a recreation land use, such as open space, is not a defined business entity, it often has indirect economic benefits including improved residential land values and the associated tax receipts. The following examples illustrate these points.

Probably the best example of a recreation asset found on most military bases with direct economic benefits is a golf course. For instance, an 18-hole military golf course with clubhouse and support facilities will generate, on average, 50-60,000 annual rounds and employ approximately 20 full-time equivalent employees. The total associated salaries and benefits could range from $500,000 to $600,000 per year. Gross receipts on a military course achieving this level of business would range from $1.25 million to $1.5 million per year. Importantly, most military golf course fees are priced below market and could therefore achieve significantly higher revenue levels. A town “acquiring” a golf course through the FLPP program could clearly benefit through direct golf course revenue, increased tax revenue, and increased employment. Perhaps most importantly, the local redevelopment authority or recreation department could effectively deploy this new-found revenue to finance the maintenance and expansion of open space and other recreation amenities.

The indirect economic benefits associated with the golf course example are not so readily apparent. The golf course employee earning wages in a community will, in turn, spend part of this income on goods and services within the local area. Further, the golf course superintendent orders chemicals, supplies and services from local companies that, in turn, employ individuals from the area.

Through the use of a regional or area “input-output” model, these multipliers can be developed to estimate the effect that each $1.00 of direct spending for golf has on increased employment, business expansion, wage increases, and incremental tax receipts. The National Golf Foundation, in conjunction with various economic research teams has developed such multipliers for a number of metropolitan areas that can be used in estimating the, economic effects of golf course operations. This data suggests that golf courses typically have significant positive direct and indirect economic effects on the areas in which they are located.

Other indirect Economic Benefits

The golf course example provides a relatively cogent case for the benefit of retaining recreation assets within a community. Me economic benefits associated with other forms of recreation and open space land, however, are more difficult to ascertain. For instance, how can we justify acquiring and preserving such amenities as parks, playgrounds, picnic areas, and athletic fields within a community when other development opportunities might exist?

The economic arguments for preserving parks and open space include increases in residential land values (and the resultant increased tax revenues), boosting tourism and recreation expenditures within a community, and, for the development community, accelerating the absorption of real estate. Understanding the complexity associated with these arguments, let’s focus our attention on residential land value.

As far back as the 1850s, the renowned urban planner Frederick law Olmstead recognized the benefits of creating an open space in New York City. His mission at the time was to argue the economics of purchasing and setting aside the large tract of land that became Central Park. In so doing, Olmstead tracked the value of the surrounding real estate before, during and after construction of the park. He compared “the higher tax revenues received from this adjacent property to the interest the city was paying for the cost of the land and its improvement.”

When it was only half complete, Central Park began to generate revenue. Olmstead documented a $55,880 net return in annual taxes in 1864. In today’s dollars, this net return would be worth millions.

Since Olmstead’s time, numerous studies have shown similar positive gains in residential land values. Recent studies throughout the U.S. suggest that the value of land surrounding parks, open space and waterways is worth significantly more than property that is further away from such amenities.

One economic benefit which should not be overlooked in this debate, is the thriftiness of acquiring surplus federal property through the FLPP process. A community attempting to assemble land and develop a municipal golf course or outdoor recreation area can easily spend millions of dollars in the process. The FLPP process allows a community to embark on such an aggressive venture at minimal capital cost.


In addition to the direct and indirect economic benefits realized by communities, parks and recreation assets contribute to the public good in several ways that are perhaps not as easily quantified. While the importance of the economic vitality of a community cannot be overstated, parks also provide benefits in terms of environmental quality and community identity.

Environmental Quality

The environmental quality of a community call be improved in a variety of ways through the presence of undeveloped open space and parks. These areas may occur as small “pocket” parks nestled between skyscrapers, large areas of open space, or strips of forest along rivers or transportation corridors commonly described as greenways. Whatever the size, park and recreation areas provide relief from the built environment which makes living in developed areas more enjoyable.

Parks help control pollution by absorbing sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, heavy metals, and other airborne pollutants through vegetation and soil. On and below the ground, vegetation and soil also reduce non-point source pollution by filtering runoff before it reaches rivers, lakes, and aquifers. Similarly, floodplains that are restricted from development as public parks not only reduce non-point source pollution, but also help prevent the erosion and sedimentation of waterways. The filtering effect of vegetation and soil provides a healthier source of ground water for human consumption and agricultural uses.

Natural settings such as parks and recreation areas can buffer noise and moderate temperature. Depending on their size, configuration, and vegetative cover, parks can significantly reduce decibel levels in developed areas by absorbing noise from construction, vehicle traffic and the bustle of urban and suburban life. The presence of larger natural landscapes intertwined with developed areas can moderate the climate through the cooling effect of tree cover and improved air circulation.

Community Identity

The geographical focal point of a community is often a park, such as a town square, mall, waterfront, or similar setting. A park can be a key ingredient in a community’s identity and can bolster community unity as a primary gathering place for public events and social interaction, even on the grand scale of Central Park in New York City. Besides being a valued amenity for residents, parks are often a primary attraction for tourists. Even in large cities that offer numerous visitor attractions, parks are routinely included in lists of favorite sites to see. Familiar examples of this include Discovery Park in Seattle, Grant Park in Chicago, and the Boston Common. At any level, the popularity and characteristic features of parks can contribute significantly to providing a community with a unique sense of place and pride.



As one of several methods of base disposal, Congress has authorized the transfer of federal surplus real estate property to state and local governments, and in certain cases to non-profit organizations, for specific public purposes under the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949, as amended. These purposes include public health, education, corrections, airports, homeless assistance, wildlife conservation, historic preservation, and park and recreation use. Me disposal process used for this property is referred to as a “public benefit conveyance.” In general, the law allows public benefit conveyances to be made without monetary consideration in return for the public benefit that is derived. Use restrictions are placed on properties conveyed through this method to ensure that they will be used for the intended public purpose.

Park and Recreation Public

Benefit Conveyances

Under authority from the Secretary of the Interior, the NPS helps state and local governments acquire federal surplus property for public park and recreation use through the FLPP Under this type of public benefit conveyance, property may be transferred to a public agency at a 100 percent public benefit discount, in other words. at no cost if it is used for parks and recreation in perpetuity. Only states, counties, municipalities, and similar public entities can acquire federal surplus property through the FLPP

The goals of the FLPP are two fold: 1.) to expand and enhance public recreation opportunities in a variety of activities, such as hiking, biking, camping, picnicking, hunting, cross-country skiing, horseback riding, swimming, boating, tennis, golf, and playing organized sports; and 2.) to protect and provide access to recreation resources, including lakes, livers, forests, rangeland, wetlands, shorelines, and open space.

Since 1949, the Department of the Interior has transferred 1,274 properties totaling more than 142,000 acres for park and recreation use. The smallest parcels are smaller than one acre and the largest single parcel, Croft State Park in South Carolina, is larger than 7,000 acres. Re NPS currently monitors compliance with the deed restrictions on 935 properties totaling more than 103,000 acres. These properties were transferred with perpetual deed restrictions, which permanently preserve the land for public park and recreation use.


The procedure for acquiring property through the FLPP begins when the disposal agency, typically a military department or the General Services Administration, issues a notice announcing the availability of federal property. After other federal agencies are given the opportunity to acquire the property, the disposal agency designates the property as “surplus” to the needs of the federal government and makes it available for state or local government use assuming no requests have been made to use the property for homeless assistance under the McKinney Act. At this stage, any eligible state or local government agency wishing to acquire the property for park and recreation use must submit an expression of interest in writing to the NPS. The NPS, in turn, notifies the disposal agency of the interest in the property and requests time for a state or local government agency to submit an application.

The state or local government agency must then submit an application to the NPS which describes the need, suitability, and proposed use of the property, as well as the capability of the applicant in administering a park and recreation program. The disposal agency decides whether the property will be offered for disposal through a park and recreation public benefit conveyance.

If the disposal agency authorizes a conveyance, the NPS requests assignment of the property from the disposal agency and then conveys the property to the local government based on an approved application. The legislative authorities for the program do not give priority for acquiring federal surplus property to any particular level of government.

After the property is conveyed to a state or local government, the NPS monitors the use of the land and facilities to ensure that they are managed according to the terms and conditions of the deed. The monitoring component of the program ensures public access to the property for recreation use and the continued protection of the property’s natural and cultural resources. Importantly, property acquired through the FLPP cannot be used for any public purpose other than park and recreation use.


A number of well-known state and local parks have been established as a result of FLPP and its predecessor programs. These include such destinations as Aloha Stadium in Hawaii, Fox Creek and Legacy Links Golf Courses Georgia, and the Biltmore Golf Course in Coral Gables, Florida. Two military base closure cases stand out as excellent examples of the benefits of the FLPP program.

* Bangor, Maine

An example of a typical conveyance is Hayford Park located in the heart of Bangor, Maine. In 1969, the City of Bangor requested 26 acres of federal surplus property which was formerly a proposed housing site for Dow Air Force Base. Over the years, the City has transformed a barren tract of land into a lively city park which offers a wide range of recreation facilities including an ice rink, playground, basketball courts, outdoor swimming pool, and open space. The park has become a center of community activity and received the generous gift of local resident and author Stephen King who funded the construction of a lighted baseball field in 1992.

* Rantoul, Illinois

Since Chanute Air Force Base was designated for closure, the Village of Rantoul effectively converted the 2,000-acre base to private commercial and residential use. In addition, the Village requested 147 acres for 1)ark and recreation use through a public benefit conveyance. The property includes a youth activity center, athletic forum, swimming pool, arts and crafts building, open space, and lake. The conveyance is expected to take place in 1996, pending the completion of the Air Force’s environmental compliance requirements.


The benefits associated with claiming excess federal land should not be overlooked by local leaders and parks and recreation professionals. The end result of employing the FLPP program could easily be free land to meet community open space and recreation needs. Communities are often left spinning with the news of a base closure in their area. If you find your community in this situation, take action quickly. You will need to argue for the benefit of claiming this land for park and recreation uses. For assistance in navigating the conveyance request process, contact your regional representative from the NPS, see Figure 3.


National Office Wendy Ormont National Center for Community Conservation and Outdoor Recreation (NC490) National Park Service P.O. Box 37127 Washington, DC 20013-7127 (202) 343-3759

NPS Boston Office Steve Golden Northeast Field Area National Park Service 15 State Street Boston, MA 02109 (617) 223-5123

NPS San Francisco Office Pete Sy Pacific West Field Area National Park Service 600 Harrison Street, Suite 600 San Francisco, CA 94107-1372 (415) 7440-3972

NPS Atlanta Office Bill Huie Southeast Field Area National Park Service 75 Spring Street, S.W. Atlanta, GA 30303 (404) 331-5465

Washington, D.C. Office Margaret Bailey Curt Cornelssen Landauer Associates 8133 Leesburg Pike, Suite 720 Vienna, VA 22182 (703) 883-9500


Flink, Charles A. and Robert M. Sterns, Greenways: A Guide to Planning, Design, and Development, Island Press, Washington, D.C., 1993.

General Accounting Office, Military Bases: Reuse Plans for Selected Bases Closed in 1988 and 1991, GAO/NSAIAD-95-3, November 1, 1994.

General Services Administration, Disposal of Surplus Real Property – For Public and Private Use, April 1988.

National Park Service, Winning Support for Parks and Recreation, Venture Publishing, Inc., State College, Pennsylvania, 1979.

NRPA Congress for Recreation and Parks Education and Training Conference, The Federal Lands-to-Parks Program: Military Base Re-Use, October, 1995.

NAID News, National Association of Installation Developers, August-September 1995.

Fox, Tom, 1990. Urban Open Space: An Investment that Pays. New York: The Neighborhood Open Space Coalition.

Correll, Mark R., Jane H. Lillydahl and Larry D. Singell, 1978. The Effects of Greenbelts on Residential Property Values: Some Findings on the Political Economy of Open Space, Land Economics, s4(2).

Office of Economic Adjustment, Community Guide to Base Reuse, May, 1995.

Cornelssen, Curits E., Planning for the Reuse of Closing Military Bases: The Need for Consensus Building, July 1993.

COPYRIGHT 1996 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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