Small city has redevelopment hopes after base closure

INGLESIDE, Texas (AP) – The sign just outside town boasts that it’s “Navy Country,” but this quiet city on the edge of Corpus Christi Bay will have to find something else to brag about.

Cruise Ship Center? Research Hub? Rig Yard Country?

Since the Pentagon’s decision last year to shut down Naval Station Ingleside by 2011 in the latest round of military base closures, local officials have been busy figuring out what to do with the sprawling installation.

“I think we’ll have a lot of the best minds in the area working on it and we’re guardedly optimistic,” Ingleside Mayor Gene Stewart said. “It’s going to be a challenge. Obviously, we’re looking for a facility to replace it that has a lot of high-paying jobs. That’s our dream.”

Since opening in 1992, the base has more than doubled the town’s population to 9,400. More than 3,000 military and civilian personnel worked to find and dismantle sea mines and torpedoes around the world. But the Department of Defense decided to concentrate its mainland Navy bases on the East and West coasts, pulling out of the Gulf Coast.

Ingleside is among the more than 100 base conversions under way across the nation following decades of closures. The process can be so complex _ involving law, environmental science, marketing, engineering and other expertise _ that base conversion is considered an emerging career field. Some graduate schools have even offered courses in it.

If the track record set by other closed bases is any indication, it will take years to remake the base into something that can anchor the community’s identity and stoke its economy.

Greg Brubeck of the Coastal Bend Redevelopment Planning Committee said the process would start with an “economic diversification study” to take stock of the available work force and compare it with what employers might be looking for.

Early ideas include ship repair and satellite college campuses, he said. A study showed a cruise ship facilities would be affordable.

“We’re going to look at all kinds of ideas,” Brubeck said. “We’re trying to learn from some of the people that have gone before us.”

In Denver, the former Lowry Air Force Base now provides 1,700 residential units, 500,000 square feet of commercial space, six schools, and 6,000 jobs.

In Texas, the former Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio was remade into Kelly USA Business Park, which since the base closed in 2001 has leased space to 63 businesses creating 5,140 jobs.

Some communities have had a harder time.

Beeville, a rural town of about 13,000 located 75 miles inland from Ingleside, lost Chase Field Naval Air Station in 1993. The town announced in January _ well over a decade later _ that a helicopter maintenance and repair facility would bring jobs to the former base.

A runway and hangars in the middle of nowhere wasn’t exactly an easy sell, Beeville Mayor Kenneth Chesshir said.

“It was tedious,” he said. “So many times someone would offer to come or come down and talk about coming, but most of the time it fell apart. It’s a pretty tall order just to tell somebody to bring industry when the whole country’s trying to bring industry.”

Beeville suffered from its inland isolation, Chesshir said, while Ingleside is more strategically placed in an era when offshore oil and gas exploration is thriving and people are clamoring to live on the coast.

Stewart agreed.

New homes are going up and selling, Stewart said, and many to people like him work in Corpus Christi but want to live in a small town. While the power lines and fuel tanks of area industry are omnipresent in Ingleside, there’s still sea air, live oaks and a great skateboard park.

The base itself is like a bucolic college campus, and Stewart said one university has already expressed interest. The barracks could be converted to dormitories, and there’s a fitness center, Olympic-sized swimming pool, baseball diamond, tennis courts and a jogging track.

The base also has wharf and dock space on a deep water harbor with easy access to the Gulf of Mexico and the Intracoastal Waterway.

“It’s hard to imagine losing the number of jobs with Ingleside, but we’re a growing area,” Stewart said. “We’re seeing growth and a lot of this has come to pass since the announcement.”

Lined up to the west of the base are offshore rig building, chemical, and refining companies such as Kiewit Offshore Services, Oxychem Inc., DuPont Co., and Sherwin Alumina Co.

Permitting is under way for three, possibly four, liquefied natural gas plants, which would mean a 26-mile pipeline and about 300 short-term jobs and about 100 long-term jobs.

It’s all been a boon for the county airport, which now has new hangars and terminal space with a pilot’s lounge, business center, a flight simulator.

One possible sign the town’s economy won’t sag soon was the line of workers taking a break during a recent training session for Dynamic Industries.

The Louisiana-based company has trained some 300 people since January to help build and repair oil and gas rigs, said Olga Galvan, Dynamic Industries’ director of personnel. It’s one of four new building and maintenance yards catering to the offshore exploration industry in a short stretch of roadway east of the base. She said the hiring was accelerated by hurricane damage to offshore rigs, but the jobs are here to stay.

“Ingleside’s still going to keep growing up and getting bigger,” said Trinidad Nunez, a 36-year-old who was hired away from another yard.

Pete Bhakta, general manager of the town’s Best Western and Studio 6 motels, said business is better than ever with all the offshore activity.

“We expected the base would be a permanent fixture,” he said. “It will have an impact to our business and to a lot of businesses.

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