Retired Arkansas Air Force Base Converted to Retirement Housing

Many Towns Looking to Offset Impact of Base Closings

As a result of the end of the cold war, many military installations have been reduced or closed throughout the United States. In the wake of this wave of closings, many towns and cities have been left with large parcels of land, buildings and infrastructure that once housed and supported military personnel. Now, these towns and cities must develop creative responses to the economic adjustment challenge presented by defense cutbacks.

A town in Arkansas that found itself faced with this situation is the city of Blytheville, former home of Eaker Air Force Base, which supported a group of Strategic Air Command B-52 bombers until its closure in 1992. After the closure and the departure of more than 6,000 people, officials tried to attract businesses to the base. When the federal government started its program of closing military installations, it developed a process to minimize the negative economic effects of the closures. In 1993, U.S. Sen. David Pryor of Arkansas oversaw the development of economic conveyances that would free up land associated with military base closures. Rural communities could receive government property free, providing an economic benefit was evident.

One of the organizations that envisioned potential uses for the Blytheville base is the Presbyterian church, which formed the Presbyterian Development Corporation (PDC) to pursue a multifaceted ministry at the base. PDC grew out of a vision of the presbyteries of Memphis and St. Andrew of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This plan encompasses an integrated project consisting of three elements: a retirement community, a college for Delta and Ozark residents unable to meet admission requirements at typical institutions, and a conference center. The retirement community is the first of these elements developed.

The government donated to PDC 828 family housing units, a chapel and community center, a dining facility, a recreation and activities center, and a swimming pool, among other structures. The PDC is combining these buildings to make a retirement community called Westminster Village with a full range of amenities for residents.

The community is located on a 225-acre tract featuring large, open grassy areas, as well as mature trees and extensive landscaping. With 12 different floor plans, the duplex housing ranges from 1,027 to 1,566 square feet and features extra outside storage space, garbage disposals, individually controlled heating and air conditioning, washer/dryer hookups, gas ranges and many more amenities. The majority of homes have three bedrooms, but two- and four-bedroom units are available in smaller numbers. PDC rents these units in the range of $395 to $495 per month-providing for the long-term financial independence of the retirement community by keeping them at this affordable rate.

PDC began a pioneer program of 58 units in December 1996. After rapidly outgrowing that initial phase, it acquired an additional 84 units and the chapel and religious education building last March. PDC has leased a total of 94 units, a figure that has exceeded initial business plans, and that number is expected to grow. PDC has an aggressive marketing plan to reach area residents that have annual incomes of less than $35,000. Generally, they do not have a substantial down payment from the sale of an existing home and are looking for rental. A market study revealed that more than 45,000 such individuals live within 100 miles of Blytheville.

The project has had help from several partners throughout the community. George Barber, president and CEO of PDC, says that one of the first and most critical commitments came from the Enterprise Corporation of the Delta (ECD). Although this was somewhat outside ECD's normal projects that involve manufacturing, or manufacturing-related businesses, ECD president Bill Bynum saw the economic development potential of the project. ECD was able to provide a $300,000 loan guarantee, which was leveraged to bring in community participation, and get additional guarantees from other organizations. This included a $75,000 loan guarantee from the Arkansas Community Foundation and another $75,000 from 12 individuals and businesses in the Blytheville area. These guarantees helped secure a line of credit for $600,000 from eight area banks. Mike Davis, CRA officer for one of the participating banks, First National Bank of Blytheville, has seen an impact from his bank's involvement in the form of new depositors and growth in the community.

"We were hit pretty hard with the base closure a few years ago, but now we are seeing an improvement," he said. "Not only do we see people from Blytheville coming to live at Westminster Village, but also from Memphis and the surrounding area. We felt like this was something the community really needed. Plus, we have realized a direct benefit through some of the new residents coming into our bank."

PDC continues to seek funding to complete the next phases of the project. For more information, contact George Barber, president and CEO of Westminster Village, at (870) 532-6696 or (800) 914-2516.

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