An Indiana military base closure turns into a successful downtown.
With every new year's federal budget comes the threat of military base closures nationwide. Not surprisingly, the U.S. Congress shot down the idea in 2016. During an election year, elected officials will not support a budget that could possibly place constituents out of work and leave thousands of acres of unused land.
A closed military base, however, does not necessarily result in an economic death sentence. A base closure can give local leaders a blank slate with enough physical space to create exactly what their community needs.
For example, Lawrence, Ind., needed a downtown - a central community space that it lacked during its nearly 170-year history. The base closure of Fort Benjamin Harrison in Lawrence provided an opportunity for local leaders, residents, business owners, and developers to craft a new future for the city.
In 1991, the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission determined the 2,500-acre Fort Benjamin Harrison U.S. Army Base was no longer needed to support the military's overall mission. Following final approval from U.S. Congress to close the base, the state of Indiana acquired 1,700 acres of Fort Harrison to create a new state park, leaving 800 acres without a definitive purpose.
To ensure those 800 acres did not turn into an overgrown eyesore, state, county, and city leaders created the Fort Harrison Reuse Authority. Its mission was to reimagine and redevelop the former base as a modern downtown bustling with businesses and homes.
To create a new community, the FHRA first needed financial resources to initiate several major improvements. The funding would go toward repairing and replacing roads, renovating buildings more than a century old, and installing new infrastructure, including a multi-million-dollar bridge to connect Fort Harrison to the surrounding community. Also, the organization needed to develop incentive packages for prospective developers.
Understanding the FHRA's challenge, Indiana lawmakers moved to set FHRA and the future of Lawrence on the path to success. Within the state statute that formally created FHRA, state legislators had designated the area as a Tax Increment Financing district.
A TIF district is a common funding formula communities nationwide use to spur development. Since the FHRA's property is federally owned land, it is not required to pay real estate or property taxes. As a result, the FHRA retains 100 percent of the incremental revenue when the property is sold and redeveloped. This has been instrumental in supporting 20 years of economic growth.
With hundreds of acres of land and thousands of square feet of available building space, it's tempting for economic development organizations to greenlight redevelopment projects that are not good for the long-term community health.
Throughout the 20 years of FHRA's existence, however, its board and community partners have stuck to the tenets of the original Planned Unit Development Ordinance for Lawrence Village.
FHRA has purposely not pursued development that would be inconsistent with the PUD and has approved development to provide long-term benefits to residents and businesses.
The PUD created development standards to support the creation of an aesthetically pleasing destination for Lawrence Village. Those standards, such as requirements on building materials, architectural style, rooftops, streetscapes, and parking, protect both citizens and investors.
The standards celebrate both Fort Harrison's past and its future by embracing all modes of transportation, including automobiles, mass transit, cycling, and walking; requiring sustainable infrastructure and green buildings; and balancing a mix of land uses with intriguing art and architecture to create variety and green space.
Community partners have played crucial roles in the development and adherence to the PUD. Those partners include the City of Lawrence, local area chambers of commerce, citizen groups, and organizations such as Browning Investments, an Indianapolis-based investment firm that has partnered with the FHRA to foster business development.
Each of those partners has promoted and shared that vision with prospective developers, aiding the FHRA in its greatest challenge: changing the public perception of Fort Harrison and persuading people to believe in the new community.
To date, the FHRA has redeveloped 778 acres of land on the former army base and is headed toward the final phase of redevelopment in what is now known as Lawrence Village. Due to the long-term communitywide effort, Fort Harrison has been transformed into a downtown space. The former fort has become a walkable downtown, with a business and residential district where multiple generations live, work, and play.
This area includes a 1,700-acre state park, a golf course, and popular restaurants. Currently, more than 80 homes and several apartment complexes are close to these amenities. The local business community includes innovative tech companies, engineering and logistics firms, and start-ups, close to an Ivy Tech Community College campus.
The new development preserved the history of Fort Harrison. The living quarters of our nation's top military officers have been transformed into $500,000 private homes. Former army barracks have been converted into condominiums and office space. A former mule barn turned into a local craft brewery.
Current projects include a new library and a third section of single-family homes designed by David Weekley Homes. His residences at Lawrence Village have been popular, with the pace of sales exceeding projections.
Also, construction will begin on a third apartment community in 2018. With two other multifamily projects near capacity, the current housing projects will help meet the demand.
FHRA's last major piece of available land is roughly 20 acres of desirable property. As with the previous development projects, the FHRA will proceed by thoroughly evaluating whether a proposed development project will add to the FHRA's vision of the new downtown Lawrence, and whether the project will serve those who live, work, or visit the city.
The finish line is not yet in sight, but it is not far off either. What many considered a doomsday scenario has instead produced a beautiful new space for people in central Indiana.