SACRAMENTO, Calif. --
There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but Public Benefit Conveyances come pretty close. Since 1995, the Air Force has used PBCs to transfer more than 27,000 acres of surplus property, usually at little or no cost, back to the community. These former Air Force properties, identified by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, are deeded to eligible public entities and non-profit groups. Most of these deeds are in perpetuity, although some cases involve leases of 25-plus years.
Such land - often including improvements such as buildings and other infrastructure - can be important in meeting public facility needs, especially during lean economic times. For many communities which formerly hosted Air Force bases, PBCs can be seen as one key benefit of BRAC.
"The intent of a PBC is to return to the public those properties that benefit the community as a whole," according to Robert Moore, Director of the Air Force Real Property Agency, which spearheads PBC transactions at closed Air Force bases across the country.
Surplus property can be used for all kinds of purposes -- as airports, schools, parks and recreation, wildlife management, public health, historic monuments, housing for the homeless, correctional support facilities and others. Generally, a Federal agency with expertise in the proposed conveyance category serves as a sponsoring or approving agency, such as the Department of Education proposing a PBC for a primary or secondary school, technical school, community college or state university. Approved recipients may receive conveyances at a discount of up to 100 percent of fair market value.
Not surprisingly, the vast majority of PBCs involving former Air Force bases have become public airports. Of the total 27,692 acres deeded by AFRPA as PBCs, 24,457 acres (over 88 percent) were for airports, according to Office of Economic Adjustment data.
Major airports benefiting from Air Force PBCs are at closed bases scattered around the U.S. The largest occurred at the former Williams AFB, in Mesa, Arizona, now known as Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, which received a PBC of 3,022 acres. The Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport was designed as a reliever airport for Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, about 30 miles away, one of the nation's 10 busiest airports.
Five member governments comprise the airport authority which operates Gateway: the cities of Phoenix, Mesa, Gilbert, and Queen Creek; and the Gila River Indian Community.
The Gateway Airport opened a new terminal in November 2010, and served 956,665 passengers in 2011, flying nonstop to 32 destinations out of Gateway on Allegiant Airlines. In early 2012, a second commercial carrier - Spirit Airlines - began flying nonstop to Las Vegas and Dallas/Ft. Worth.
Numerous other airport PBCs of more than 1,000 acres apiece have been awarded around the country. (See chart.) However, it should be noted that some airport PBCs involving much smaller pieces of land - such as General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, with a PBC of about 102 acres - have resulted in significant economic benefits for their communities.
In terms of educational facilities benefiting from PBCs, the Cheney School District got a boost when the Air Force agreed to transfer the former Four Lakes Communication Station in Cheney, Washington, to the district in a PBC sponsored by the Department of Education. The District serves a 380-square-mile area, according to District Finance Director Brian Aiken, and the former Four Lakes site is located "right dab in the middle."
The 63-acre Cheney site is a former Nike missile storage facility consisting of warehouses and office buildings. The district plans to use one of the warehouses for food storage, saving itself the cost of buying land and building a new warehouse, and plans to locate classrooms for two different schools in existing buildings on the site. The transaction, begun in 2006, was a complex long-term effort. On March 7, 2012, school district officials voted to buy the property at an 80 percent discount of estimated value. They paid $29,117 for property appraised in 2011 for $145,585. "We are thrilled to be getting the Nike site," Aiken said. "We're going to get an awful lot of public good out of this purchase."
Across the country, back in 1992, Hurricane Andrew whacked Florida, becoming one of the costliest hurricanes -- in terms of property damage -- ever to hit the U.S. Andrew destroyed most buildings on the former Homestead Air Force Base in Miami, and severely impacted local business and housing.
Following base closure in 1994, about two-thirds of the 2,938-acre installation became Homestead Air Reserve Base. Approximately 80 acres were transferred by PBC to the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, a coalition of service providers created in 1992 to deal with policies affecting South Dade County's homeless, estimated at about 1,800 people at that time. The Trust subsequently built and currently operates an $8 million facility for temporary housing and training of about 300 homeless individuals and families.
David Raymond, Director of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, described how the project has evolved: "In addition to the emergency housing, we have constructed 200 beds of transitional housing and 580 beds of permanent supportive housing on this site. The permanent housing was just LEED gold certified -- the first homeless project in Florida to achieve this. Equally important, we have a 22-acre organic farm and a farmers market, all benefiting homeless people." The County Trust is staffed by a team of professionals who receive policy direction from a 27-member Advisory Board comprised of elected officials, former homeless people, business leaders, religious leaders and homeless providers, Raymond explained. Another PBC provided the Miami Dade County Parks and Recreation Department with property for a 213-acre regional park.
And in Riverside, Calif., a public safety PBC at the former March AFB allowed 365 acres and classroom buildings and dormitories associated with the former NCO Academy to morph into the Ben Clark Training Center (BCTC). Hundreds of students take Moreno Valley College's public safety courses there, training for careers as law enforcement officers, dispatchers, paramedics, firefighters, probation or correctional officers, and juvenile correctional counselors.
The regional center involves a partnership between the college, Riverside County Sheriff's Office, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Riverside County Fire Department, California Highway Patrol and the Riverside County Probation Department. According to the facility's website, students at BCTC are able to learn how various emergency service disciplines interface in order to provide quality emergency services in the real world.
PBCs are just one way the Air Force Real Property Agency returns surplus land to individual communities. Across the U.S., Air Force base closure efforts have returned more than 24 former installations for public use. In total, more than 78,000 acres of former Air Force property, an area twice the size of the District of Columbia, have been returned to communities across the country. Redevelopment at these former bases has created more than 48,000 jobs as well as parks, golf courses, 13 public airports, college campuses, medical facilities, and other beneficial uses, all at a fraction of the cost of building elsewhere.