April Fool's--when Johnny Comes Marching Home
What will it mean to Monterey County when the Army re-deploys troops at Fort Ord?
Thursday, April 1, 1999
In what may come as the most stunning news of the century for Monterey County, the U.S. Army is planning to reclaim Fort Ord. Last week, the Weekly received an apparently misdirected fax that outlined the Pentagon's intention to reopen Fort Ord, possibly as early as September of this year.
A former Monterey County resident, who now works at the Pentagon, confirmed that, even as the frenzy over the planned Marine "invasion" dominated local news last month, frustrated military brass were making the decision to bring the troops back.
According to the source, "Basically, everyone around here [at the Pentagon] is fed up. They feel they gave away a prime military location and that they''ve spent years negotiating with local politicians who don''t know what they''re doing. They were encouraged by the warm reception the Marines received prior to the Urban Warrior exercise and, rather than prolong the negotiations, they decided to re-occupy Fort Ord."
Although officials were initially reluctant to speak with the Weekly, when confronted with the faxed memo, they revealed an ambitious plan for Fort Ord''s future.
This abrupt about-face by the Pentagon stands to have a huge impact on local communities and institutions--perhaps most notably California State University Monterey Bay and the cities of Seaside and Marina--that have been counting on the Fort Ord lands for future growth and development. In this exclusive report, the Weekly examines the possible ramifications to the community when Johnny comes marching home.
Students or Soldiers?
When the Army originally announced it was pulling out of Fort Ord in 1991, a new university on the old military site was perceived as the key to saving Monterey County''s economy. Although military dollars accounted for approximately one-third of the county''s economy in the early ''90s, it was believed that a healthy university could, in time, more than erase the deficit. To that end, local community leaders--in particular then-Congressman Leon Pancetta--worked hard to bring CSUMB into existence.
Does the military''s charge into the past mean a defeat for those university dreams? Apparently not. In fact, say some, the county will find itself doubly blessed as both the troops and the students will coexist side by side.
According to sources, a deal has been cut with the California State University system that brings new life to the term "co-educational." Not only will the campus remain in operation, it will also receive increased federal funding by providing services and facilities for the Army. Apparently, by making technology such a high priority on campus, it also made itself a high-profile target for the Army.
"We''re always looking for places where we can train troops in the use of computer technology, communications and counterinsurgency," says Colonel Cargill Cathcart. "With the nearby Naval Postgraduate School, the Monterey Institute of International Studies, the Defense Languages Institute and the National Weather Service already in place, the addition of university services--especially those so closely aligned with our goals--made the return to Fort Ord very desirable."
Although details of the negotiations were not released, it is rumored that the Army employed stick-and-carrot tactics to work out a deal with the campus. Essentially, the deal was ''either we can come in and take everything back, or we can pay you big bucks to work with us.'' If that rumor is true, CSUMB President Peter Smythe is putting the best face on the situation.
"It was a tough decision to make," says Smythe, "but, ultimately, it''s a good deal for everyone concerned. We''re even modifying some of our courses so that we can tie our curriculum more closely to the Army''s goals."
According to Smythe, the university will receive "substantial" annual reimbursements for providing free classes in certain undisclosed areas.
Additionally, the university has had to cede some buildings back to the military. Perhaps chief amongst those buildings is the newly renovated and re-opened World Theater. With its vast array of technological marvels, says General Buck Turgison of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the theater provides an excellent space for directing urban military operations both domestically and abroad.
"With the theater''s capacity for sending and receiving high quality satellite transmissions, we can create a war room that''s second to none," says Turgison. "We can assemble more than 400 generals and staff from around the world, who can watch and direct operations on a 30-foot movie screen with 48-channel sound. We can dial in on individual units anywhere in the world; with miniaturized cameras and GPS units, we''ll not only know where every single unit is, but we''ll be able to see where they are, what they''re encountering, and what they''re doing--in real time."
Also a casualty for the campus may be the Black Box Cabaret, which, on the memo mis-directed to the Weekly, has already been dubbed the "Black Ops Theater." Neither Turgison nor Smythe would comment on how the building would be used.
Aside from a few buildings and adjustments in the curriculum, however, Smythe says he doesn''t see that anything much will change.
"Look, bottom line, our business is education," says Smythe. "It doesn''t matter whether the students are wearing camouflage or hemp. As educators, it''s our job to teach.
"Besides," continues Smythe, "think about the benefit to the community. With an increase in budget and class offerings, we can attract more students. Those students, combined with the soldiers, mean more money coming into the county''s economy. This is a win-win situation for everyone involved."
It''s a sentiment echoed by Milo Minderbinder, spokesperson for Congressman Sam Far''s office. "The congressman has been working to bring the Army back to the Monterey Peninsula for some time now, and this is the achievement of which he is the most proud."
For some, the military''s return is a non-issue. In Carmel, a city official who declined to be quoted, said, "Who cares? We''re effectively insulated from whatever goes on in those other communities. And, if our plans for secession proceed according to plan, it just won''t matter."
But, across the Peninsula at Seaside City Hall, it matters a great deal to Seaside Mayor Jerry Smythe.
"What About Us?"
"I want to make one thing very clear," says Seaside''s Smythe. "If it hadn''t been for the city''s previous administration, none of this would be happening.
"If the previous two administrations hadn''t conducted so many negotiations behind closed doors, there would have been a clear consensus within the city about how to proceed in developing our share of Fort Ord. As it stands, we [the current city council] are forced to re-evaluate and make public nearly six years of negotiations, ask the public for input, and proceed from there.
"Basically, we''re back to square one. But that''s not necessarily a bad thing. Our emphasis, all along, should have been the redevelopment of our existing downtown. But now that the Army wants their land back, we have to ask, ''What about us? What are we going to get out of the deal?''"
Of particular interest to Smythe and others is the disposition of the two golf courses where a four-star resort has been imagined. If the Army chooses to reclaim those properties, the development of the parcel--and the hoped-for transient occupancy taxes (TOTs)--will never become reality.
"We are currently in negotiations with the Army, trying to salvage some portion of the land," says Smythe. According to the mayor, there are hopeful signs that a deal could be struck whereby the city could still build the resort on land leased from the Army--and collect the taxes.
The one downside may be that the military is eyeing a nearby parcel for a new chemical weapons research lab.
But the prospect of having a potentially volatile laboratory in close proximity to the golf courses and resorts doesn''t bother Smythe.
"Yes, the golf course is downwind from the proposed laboratory," he acknowledges, smiling. "But all golf courses have hazards."
Activist Gert Candy, however, is not as sanguine as Smythe.
"This is outrageous," she fumes. "First the Army lied about the amount of toxic cleanup that was needed when they left. Then they never cleaned up the mess they left behind them--as they promised to do. And now they''re bringing more toxics back to the environment.
"We feel that the Army''s return represents a betrayal of public confidence, and that it is being done so they don''t have to deal with the massive pollution they left behind in the ''60s and the ''70s and the ''80s and the ''90s."
Congressman Far''s Minderbinder agrees. "This is a bad compromise for everyone concerned. When the Army moved out, they gave up all rights to the property, and Far will work hard to block the return [of the Army]. Seaside deserves its turn."
If the military''s return puts a damper on Seaside''s dreams, two neighboring cities see the return as a veritable gold mine.
"Finally, Some Renters!"
The city of Marina had been hit hard by the Army''s move. As the 7th Infantry (Light) marched away to Fort Lewis, Marina''s population fell from about 27,000 in 1991 to less than 20,000 in 1994. The departure left some parts of the city looking like a ghost town, with unrented apartments and homes sitting empty, living reminders of the city''s dying history. Today''s population in Marina is less than 19,000, still well below the population at the turn of the decade.
Dr. "Doc" Daneeka, a planning consultant to the city of Marina, is perfectly gleeful at the prospects for renting many of those still-vacant homes.
"Finally, some renters!" Daneeka exults. "This will give the city a much-needed shot in the arm. With the greater cash flow, they''ll be able to move forward with many of their development plans, including those along Del Monte Avenue and Reservation Road.
"It also helps the city focus their vision for the future. While there has been much debate about whether they should concentrate their efforts on our Fort Ord properties or on the Armstrong Ranch, there is now only one option--they''ll be able to spend more time doing and less time talking. This provides both the carrot and the stick that will motivate the city to adopt a general plan, and to take action on it.
"Plus, with the projected increase in tax revenues, the city should be able to get started at Armstrong Ranch within two years."
But the benefits for Marina don''t stop with more tenants and a more focused vision. The Army''s ambitious plans include expanding Marina Airport (formerly Fritzsche Airfield). In a show of military/community partnership, plans are being made so that the expanded airfield can be used both militarily and commercially.
Plans for the new Marina International Airport call for 10,000-foot runways, large enough to accommodate landings by military flights of C130 transports and commercial flights by aircraft as large as 747-400 passenger jets, making debate over the expansion of the Monterey Peninsula Airport superfluous.
The expanded airport also raises the specter of nuclear weaponry being brought into Monterey County. The enlarged runways will make it possible for nuke-carrying B52 bombers to land in Marina.
Although military spokespeople deny the airfield would ever allow nuclear weapons to be landed at the airport, there are others in the community who are not convinced.
"That''s nonsense," snorts Bill Potts from the MIIS-based Center for Non-Proliferation Studies. "It''s like in Field of Dreams: ''If you build it, they will come.'' This is our worst nightmare come true."
But, if it''s a nightmare for Potts, it''s a dream come true for leaders in both the hospitality and agricultural communities of Monterey County, who have longed for an airport large enough to handle commercial flights of this size. For those in the hospitality industry, the larger airport represents an almost-guaranteed increase in the number of visitors to the area; the agricultural community, on the other hand, has long sought a way to quickly get fresh produce to hungry markets around the world, particularly in Asia.
A brief, but ebullient, memo from the mayor''s office in Monterey--written apparently with visions of filled hotel rooms and increased TOTs--comments: "It will be good for business, and that''s good enough for Monterey!"
And in Salinas, there is an equal enthusiasm.
"This is an unexpected godsend," says a spokesperson for Lucky Bunny, a produce shipper based in Salinas. "We''ll lose a few acres of farmland when they widen Blanco and Reservation roads to accommodate the increased traffic, but the net gain more than makes up for the loss."
"The return of the Army to Fort Ord," says Minderbinder, "has both its merits and its failings. Congressman Far is committed to mitigation on all levels, and vows he will investigate and take appropriate action, understanding that pressure may be placed upon him by external forces. In short, although he is disappointed, he is also delighted in prospects for the future."
Sand City developer Don Golden, for one, is unabashedly delighted at the prospects offered by the military''s return. According to Golden, the soldiers represent a two-fold benefit for the city. First, the increased number of consumers will increase sales at the already existing businesses, and second, they will force the construction of new businesses that can handle the influx of new buyers.
"Have you been to Costco on Saturday afternoon lately?" Golden asks. "It''s hard to find a parking place, you risk getting run over in the aisles and you stand in line forever. Same at Orchard Supply, Lucky''s, Target--all of ''em. With a whole bunch more families on fixed budgets coming into the area, there''s going to be a need for more shopping centers and reasonably priced retail outlets. Can you imagine the business we''ll do on the first and 15th of each month?
"They can''t build them in Carmel, or Pacific Grove or Monterey. Seaside and Marina have so much trouble agreeing on anything, they won''t be able to take advantage of the situation. And that leaves us [Sand City]. We have the property, the experience, and the political determination to make this happen."
Although the military is confident that it will find overwhelming community support for the plan, they aren''t taking any chances.
The anonymous memos forwarded to the Weekly indicate the Army will blitz the community with several high-profile public relations campaigns intended to foster a tight bond between soldiers and civilians.
Included in the plans are a number of potentially controversial interactive community promotions, including:
&bul; Civilian Training Weeks
"It has come to our attention that some members of the community are naturally suspicious about what goes on at a military base," says Commander Jack D. Ripper. "Just look at the fringe groups that protested the Urban Warrior exercise. So, to alleviate those concerns, we''re instituting Civilian Training Weeks in which we invite the public to come on base and participate in exercises alongside the enlisted soldiers and officers."
According to Ripper, during the twice-annual Civilian Training Weeks, civilians will be able to take part in all aspects of military training including the use of light and heavy firearms and artillery, and receive training in mechanized warfare.
"Although there was initial discussion about whether to use live or dummy rounds during these weeks," says Ripper, "we felt that, in order to make this an acceptable exercise for the community, it would be best to use dummy rounds."
Ripper says the Civilian Training Weeks will provide benefits to the community, and the military, on two levels. First, the community will get to know more about how the military really works and, second, it will help prepare the community in case of any foreign invasion on the West Coast.
"For too long, the military has looked at the civilian population as sheep that we needed to protect from the wolves," says Ripper. "In actuality, they are an untapped resource. By training them, we are able to establish small local cells of ground troops in communities around the country. If the Fort Ord experience is as successful as we believe it will be, we will duplicate this program at bases throughout the United States."
There are also plans in the works for developing a ''Base Commander of the Day'' program. A lottery will be held on a monthly basis to determine which of the applicants will be selected to direct all base operations on a specific day. Former Fort Ord base commander, and current Marina Councilmember, Ila McCutcheon is expected to be named as coordinator for this program.
&bul; Community Cleanup Week
"Over the years, the Army has become skilled in cleaning up big messes," says Ripper, "and we think we can take our expertise out into the community. On a recent tour of local cities--particularly our future neighbors, Seaside and Marina--we noticed that there were blighted alleys, vacant lots and abandoned industrial sites where we could put our know-how to work."
But, according to Ripper, it won''t be a one-way street. The Army will also be looking for civilian volunteers to help with the cleanup work that remains to be done at Fort Ord.
Noting that there have been some people in the community who have been critical of the Army''s efforts to expunge the toxins from Fort Ord, Ripper says the Army will welcome help from the community in future cleanup operations.
"There are, apparently, a number of people in the Monterey area who know more about cleaning up environmental disasters than we do," says Ripper. "And, seeing as they have so much knowledge, we welcome having them on our team, in the field, working together with us. We would like to express a special invitation to Ms. Candy to don a white suit and join us in working with these hazardous materials."
&bul; AprilSavings Daze
If the Civilian Training Weeks and Community Cleanups don''t work, the Army has a stealth tactic that''s sure to endear it to the community.
Beginning on April 1 of each year, the Army will open its gates to citizens of Monterey County for one week and allow them to shop at the on-base PX. Usually, the PX is only open to military personnel and their dependents, and offers highly discounted goods and groceries that are sold tax free.
"We''re not trying to compete with Costco," says Ripper, "but we do have better prices. We just feel that we owe a debt to our community. They''re working to pay our taxes--and salaries--300 and some days a year. We feel that this one week every year, we can give back to the community, by allowing them to shop in our stores."
When it was first announced, in 1991, that the troops for Fort Ord were pulling out, the community looked to the guidance of then-Congressman Pancetta. Now that it looks as if the troops are returning, many in the community are looking to our current congressman for guidance.
Says Minderbinder, "Congressman Far feels any cancellous enmity at this point, without further study, must be taken in an abecedarian manner--first things first. However, he is prepared to act, immediately, as long as plans have been thoroughly analyzed and rationalized with the quotidian good being completely digested for local residents."
But resistance to the idea may be futile, regardless of any politician''s intent. It is apparent that the Army wants the base back and is prepared to use whatever means are necessary--whether, as one source put it, that means "cajoling, bribing or berating the county."
"Basically," says Col. Cathcart, "this is still our land. You people had nearly 10 years to decide what to do with it, and you choked. We know what we want, we know how to get it, and we know what to do with it once we''ve got it. End of story."
Forrelated April 1 stories, see "Fort Ord Drama," page 37. Additional reporting by Sue Fishkoff, Richard Pitnick and Bradley Zeve.