Former Military Bases Find New Purpose Through E-Commerce

Ruben Hernandez Martinez, a Mexican customs officer, arrives for work every day at SkyBridge Arizona, an international air cargo hub at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.

He processes packages that will enter his country over land at Nogales, Ariz., 180 miles south. But soon, he and an American counterpart from United States Customs and Border Protection will work together clearing air cargo shipments in and out of Latin America.

SkyBridge is the most recent addition to a complex project that has been developing over a quarter-century at the airport, formerly known as Williams Air Force Base, one of more than 300 military properties shuttered as part of a 1993 Defense Department program known as Base Realignment and Closure.

Real estate developers are now looking at these former military bases for large projects like warehouse and logistics centers, which are needed to sustain the growth in e-commerce.

When Williams closed, 3,800 local jobs were lost and the community suffered a $300 million annual economic hit in lost salaries, property and sales taxes and a consequent decline in associated business, said Mike Hutchinson, the assistant city manager in Mesa at the time. He was among many local leaders who tried unsuccessfully to keep the base open.

“We were disappointed,” Mr. Hutchinson said. He and others formed the East Valley Partnership to decide what to do with the real estate, infrastructure and transportation access they had inherited. Williams and other bases affected by the closure program turned out to be valuable assets.

CreditConor E. Ralph for The New York Times

The most notable base transformation is the Presidio, a former Army post on San Francisco Bay with 700 buildings, many of them historic. The base was transferred to the National Park Service in 1994 and now gets more than five million visitors each year.

“The way every base was transferred was different, and there are different challenges and different assets,” said Scott Ward, a real estate development manager at the Presidio Trust for five years before moving on to the repurposing of Hamilton Air Force Base in Novato, Calif. “Every one is a unique puzzle.”

Hamilton, which was developed in the early 1930s, closed in 1975 and sat unused for two decades. Work then began to convert it into a mixed-use development with homes and community buildings. Levees protecting the airfield were removed as part of a wetlands restoration project; the nine airplane hangars were converted into office buildings.

Scenes from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and “The Right Stuff” were filmed at Hamilton, which offered beautiful Spanish-style buildings and became known as the “Hollywood of military bases.”

“A big part of the fun is to see historic buildings coming back to life and figuring out what is the best use for them,” Mr. Ward said. “It’s different than seeing a family home built and inherently more satisfying.”

Other officials involved in redeveloping decommissioned military bases have also discovered that the properties could still provide economic opportunities in their next life.

“When this became available,” Mr. Hutchinson said of the aviation infrastructure at Williams Air Force Base, “with three runways and surrounding facilities, we said, ‘This is an opportunity.’”

By 2003, the newly christened Williams Airport was being promoted as an alternative to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, the nation’s 13th-busiest airport. In 2007, the new passenger airport served just under 54,000 travelers and was renamed Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport. Ten years later, it was serving more than a million passengers annually.

General, business and visiting military airplanes also use the airfield, along with two flight schools and aviation- and logistics-related businesses. The Federal Aviation Administration, which has provided $46 million in improvement money through a program for former military airports, reported that takeoffs and landings more than doubled over the last 20 years to nearly 300,000.

Even though operations at the airport were increasing, SkyBridge was not an obvious project at first.

The idea was the brainchild of Marco Lopez, who had worked for Customs and Border Protection and was familiar with government operations in the United States and Mexico. He said he saw a disparity in the e-commerce delivery times in the two countries that seemed ripe for a solution, and the former military base had the space and the infrastructure to provide one.

“We can’t have a system where you can get something delivered the next day in America and in Mexico it takes seven days,” he said. “Mexico is a key trade partner, and the customs services from the U.S. and Mexico have been looking for years for new technology to expedite trade and commerce.”

If the SkyBridge project allows retail and business products to be delivered directly to their international destinations, it could prompt new routes from Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, Mr. Lopez said.

Airfreight is the fastest growing method of transporting goods across the United States border at Arizona, according to the office of the governor, Doug Ducey. The annual value of goods shipped through the state is estimated to be $390 million and is expected to exceed $600 million in the next five years.

The SkyBridge plan was given a jolt at the end of May when President Trump said he was considering punitive tariffs on Mexican imports. Nine days later, an agreement with Mexico was announced. Mr. Lopez said he remained optimistic about the demand for a customs clearance center in Mesa.

“Mexico is not going anywhere, and the demand for American products into Mexico is going to increase,” he said.

Jeff Randolph, the managing director of Bluecup Ventures, a commercial real estate developer, is enthusiastic about the opportunities at former military bases.

“There’s significant value there that is only partially being realized,” he said. “They have the best infrastructure, roads, labor, power. It’s all there.”

When Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, N.H., closed in 1991, it included an airfield with an 11,000-foot runway and a deepwater port. Both are used for international freight on an industrial size, including products like nuclear reactors and fiber optic cable spools, said Dave Mullen, executive director of the Pease Development Authority, a state agency. He adds that air cargo sometimes arrives by Antonov An-124 Ruslan, the largest military transport plane in the world.

The authority built an office park, the Pease Tradeport, on 19,000 acres of developable land, Mr. Mullen said. About 10,500 people work at the park, which also contributes to the employment of another 5,100 off site.

“You’ve got about 15,000 people who are seeing employment as a result of what is happening at Pease,” Mr. Mullen said. “That’s $700 million in wages per year.”

Mr. Mullen said the region is comparatively better off now, not just in actual dollars but also in diversification of the job market.

“When it was an operational Air Force base, the region was at risk with all of its eggs in one basket,” Mr. Mullen said. “Today, we have 250 companies, more or less, which offer a diverse array that is less subject to economic recessions.”

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