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Economic Awakening in the Mohawk Valley


The transformation of Griffiss Air Force Base into a thriving business and technology park

Conventional psychiatry recognizes the Kubler-Ross model for people experiencing the grief associated with death and dying. The model more commonly is referred to as the “Five Stages of Grief,” which are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Though the Kubler-Ross model traditionally is applied to people dealing with human mortality, Steve DiMeo, president of Griffiss Local Development Corporation (GLDC), the agency charged with the redevelopment of Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, NY, witnessed the same emotional evolution on a regional level after the base realigned, first in 1993, and again in 1995.

“There was a definite sense of community-wide, catastrophic loss,” says DiMeo. “There was disbelief that it could ever happen to us, and there was a palpable anger and sense of betrayal. In the end, we were left with an overwhelming regional depression and a period of self-loathing.”

Acceptance, DiMeo notes, can only come from tangible results. During the past 15 years, the results are impressive: Griffiss Business and Technology Park now is home to 60 businesses, supported by more than $320 million in public and private investment and employing more than 5,600 people.

The diverse collection of enterprises that have set up shop at the former Air Force base include the Oneida Financial Center; AmeriCu; Nunn’s Home Medical Equipment; East Coast Olive Oil; Goodrich Corp., and Empire Aero Center.

Mohawk Valley Community College has established an aircraft repair school at Griffiss to support the region’s aviation industry. Some of its graduates work at Empire, a subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd., which operates an aircraft maintenance, repair, and overhaul facility that employs 500. The Oneida County Airport anchors the Griffiss Airfield, with its 11,820-foot-long runway Mascoma Corp. is developing a $30 million cellulosic biomass R&D plant at Griffiss this year, and Wingate Inn is about to open a 76-room hotel at the park.

Asset Valuation and Expectation Management

According to DiMeo, managing expectations was a critical part of the base transformation process.

“Leadership is critical, and you have to show the community that the region will gain more from the opportunities that private redevelopment provides than it could by holding onto its military installation,” he says.

“Sound planning and smart growth principles, managing regional expectations and leveraging physical assets for value-added growth are critical to any successful base redevelopment strategy,” DiMeo adds.

Leveraging of existing physical assets to support the redevelopment included the upgrade and extension of the Griffiss Rail Line, which enabled East Coast Olive Oil to open a $16 million production and distribution facility that employs 153 people.

GLDC also has succeeded in keeping at Griffiss specialized military facilities that originally were recommended for relocation by the federal Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC), including the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) center.

In 2005, GLDC persuaded BRAC to upgrade the DFAS facility from 380 to at least 1,000 workers, an employment level it will exceed later this year. Meanwhile, the Northeast Air Defense Sector is about to open a new $9.6 million headquarters adjacent to its operations center at Griffiss. GLDC also was successful in retaining the Air Force Research Laboratory, the region’s center for information technology.

The first step in the base redevelopment, according to Mark Reynolds, GLDC senior vice president of planning and development, was to create a comprehensive plan to leverage Griffiss’ assets, while at the same time avoiding a negative impact on an already depleted regional economy.

“For many closed military installations, housing is a quick score,” says Reynolds. “In Rome, the housing market, which was never extremely strong, had suffered significantly from the closure, and the decision to demolish a majority of the base housing came as a direct result of that reality.”

Asset valuation and expectation management went hand in hand as the GLDC sought buy-in for its plan from regional players, Reynolds says.

“Some people felt that redevelopment should mirror a 19th century land-grab, where everyone got to run out on the airfield and plant a flag for a dollar,” he explains.

“Others wanted to lock the gate and let the buildings and grounds slowly deteriorate into a kind of abandoned military wasteland. There was a regional learning curve when it came to understanding what we actually had— that Griffiss was not a burden, but a tremendous asset capable of transforming the community.”

Federal law required the Air Force to file an environmental impact statement built around the community reuse plan, and to provide caretaker funding for ongoing facility maintenance. This is a key difference between military closure and private sector closure or bankruptcy, Reynolds notes.

“Frequently, when large manufacturing facilities are shuttered, the community is left with an obsolete facility and an unfunded environmental legacy that may take years to sort through. With Griffiss, the Air Force was a responsible partner throughout the process,” Reynolds says.

More than a decade later, the Air Force continues to be an important partner in the redevelopment at Griffiss and is assisting GLDC in getting substantial tracks of land removed by the end of this year from the National Priorities List, a Brownfields listing issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which mandates additional investigation of known or threatened releases of hazardous contaminants.

Sticking to Core Principles of Redevelopment

GLDC took care to redevelop the land at Griffiss without straying significantly from the core principles that were generated during the planning process.

DiMeo says that adherence to smart growth principles and support from the private and public sectors to develop sites for their highest and best use, has, for the most part, prevailed.

“We have done everything in our power—and received the public and private sector support necessary—to structure and implement deals that benefited the developer and the region, rather than just the developer,” he says.

DiMeo emphasizes that public support must come from local and state government as well as from the federal government. Although GLDC always has maintained a significant private-sector component in its board composition, public-sector consensus remains an important part of the Griffiss success model.

“Working unilaterally is sometimes tempting, but you simply cannot work in a vacuum and expect to receive the public support that you need to close on a prospective deal,” DiMeo says, adding that strong bipartisan political support from federal, state, and local elected officials helped move the redevelopment process forward.

The final step in the acceptance stage was convincing the region that what was once a restricted facility, which had been cloaked in secrecy for the better part of four decades, is now a highly diversified business and technology park.

“It took time, but eventually people started to recognize that the character of our region’s economy had changed for the better and that, although it may be different than it was in the past, there can be life after a base closure,” says DiMeo.

Regarding economic diversification, Shawna Papale, GLDC senior vice president of economic development, says that the profile of employment has changed to the extent that Griffiss is attracting a better mix of private employment and higher-paying jobs than it did in its previous incarnation as a military base.

“The growth at Griffiss not only includes local growth, but actually draws new population to the region, as high-profile companies are attracting bright young college graduates and highly skilled workers from throughout the United States,” Papale says.

What does the future hold for Griffiss Business and Technology Park? DiMeo believes the key ingredients for continued success include attracting and retaining a skilled workforce, and the continued implementation of regional economic development strategies.

“The region has overcome a major economic dislocation, and has positioned itself for long-term economic growth. Now it just needs to embrace the attitude that it can continue to successfully compete in a global marketplace,” he says.

“Transforming Griffiss from an Air Force base to what it is now is not the ultimate objective. Griffiss will continue to evolve just as cities and regional economies will continue to change. The economic development successes of today will give way to what will become the successes of tomorrow.”

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