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FMA continues work after Army leaves
By Connie Smalls Casemate Staff Writer August 19, 2011
It doesn't feel like Fort Monroe is closing in a few weeks, and in fact, it isn't. When the Army's mission here ends Sept. 15, the work continues for the Fort Monroe Authority (FMA), hired by the Commonwealth to manage the installation after it reverts to state control.
The FMA, originally known as the Fort Monroe Federal Area Development Authority, is a political subdivision of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and was created after the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process in 2005 determined that the fort would be closed in 2011.
Fort Monroe's value can't be estimated in dollars and cents. Its history dates back four centuries, and it is the third oldest fort in America. Its "landmark status" is protected by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and officials have devised a plan to ensure the installation remains a vibrant, self-sustaining community after the Army leaves.
Historic preservation, environmental issues, infrastructure concerns, finances and the immense logistics of the transfer were a few of the challenges the Authority faced as they began their mission to study, plan and recommend the use of facilities here.
According to Bill Armbruster, FMA's executive director, the team's master plan titled "Fort Monroe Reuse Plan" determined the essentials and vision for the reuse of the installation.
"It was our overall vision in blueprint," he said, "and you'll see that number one on the list is protecting the historic legacy of the post."
Armbruster, a retired Navy captain, has worked with 25 military installations affected by BRAC in his former position as deputy secretary of the Army for privatization and partnerships. He was also in charge of the Office of Historic Properties that included all buildings of historic value owned by the Army.
When he came on board in the winter of 2008, the Authority and the Army needed to produce and agree on a list of management guidelines for maintaining the historic integrity of the fort. Certain actions were required under BRAC including a reuse plan, HUD Application, Programmatic Agreement and Environmental Impact Statement.
"The Reuse Plan was submitted and approved. It is a planning and visionary document - we're actually implementing the reuse plan," he said.
As they identify areas for improvement, money is needed to make those upgrades. According to Armbruster, they're looking at a capital improvement plan in the range of $35 to 40 million, and they also have a flood-control project (breakwater project) estimated in the same range.
"The improvement plan is projected to be completed over a 20-year period, so it's going to be phased. We are pursuing federal and state grants to assist with these costs, but one of the problems thus far is that the property still belongs to the Army. So that's hampered us in some respects with obtaining stimulus money."
Progress has been made with flood control and the FMA is working with the Army Corps of Engineers to complete a proposed plan to handle flood control in the future, he said.
"The first phase was the new seawall. It was completed by the Corps about two years ago, and they've done a terrific job," Armbruster said. "We made some progress with the Corps for the Water Resources Development Act grant to provide funding for the installation of back-flow preventers on storm-water outfalls, particularly in the Northern area. There are a number of other projects in our capital improvement plan that we will pursue over a 20-year time frame," he said.
Another source of revenue available to the Authority are private developers experienced in using historic rehabilitation tax credits for the adaptive reuse of historic property, which Armbruster said could create significant interest because of Virginia's attractive program in that area. Combining in the federal tax credit program with the state tax credits could be a great incentive for those who look to adaptively reuse these historic buildings, he said.
"The Chamberlin is a good example of using tax credits in a very successful way. It was ready to be torn down some years ago, but Drucker & Falk, a private developer, utilized historic tax credits to restore that beautiful former hotel to its original grandeur.
"You look at what the've done - that's in excess of a $50 million project. Historic tax credits facilitated Drucker & Falk to be able to do that," Armbruster said.
"So, it's out there - given the large inventory of the historic property that we have - it's a key part of our strategy to encourage any interested partners, potential tenants and developers to pursue tax credits."
The property at Fort Monroe totals 565 acres, and the Authority offers brochures that illustrate the various areas in a color-coded map. There are three parcels being discussed that the Army maintains were not part of the original reversionary deed, so negotiations are ongoing to resolve the issue, Armbruster said.
"We have a document called the Programmatic Agreement that tells us what we can and cannot do, and it divides up those 565 acres to management zones. For example, inside the stone fort the plan calls for no new construction. So what you will see inside the stone fort are units that are there now: family housing, office buildings, the museum, the chapel. This is the nucleus of Fort Monroe.
"We have an area we call the historic village where you come in the main gate down Ingalls Road to Fenwick. That is predominantly historic structures - family housing units, office facilities, the former dispensary, Star of the Sea church, fitness center - with limited opportunity for any new construction, so we are going to adaptively reuse the buildings we already have in the historic village," he said.
An area surrounding the marina is also part of the historic village, and there are limited opportunities for expansion of facilities there to make it a great destination for supporting facilities for the marina and for visitors and tourists coming in.
The North Gate property includes public works, storage, and maintenance facilities that might provide an opportunity for limited mixed-use development -but there are historic buildings in that area as well, he said.
Other areas include the Wherry Quarter which contains Wherry Housing, the post exchange and bowling center, and there's the Northern area that includes Dog Beach.
"That's all intended to be open area, and that's the place the National Park Service is interested in. They will also be looking at a boundary that includes the area surrounding the stone fort, and they've identified specific facilities within the stone fort they want to manage. Probably half of the acreage at Fort Monroe will be managed by the National Park Service unit," Armbruster said.
During his three years as FMA director, Armbruster has seen some of his short-term goals realized. The development, approval and use of the Fort Monroe Reuse Plan (essential as their road map for management success); completion of the first phase for flood control with future improvements being phased; and keeping Fort Monroe an active community in spite of the transition were key objectives.
"My experience working with the Army and with a lot of communities that were affected by base closure and realignments has shown me the negative impact ... and what we're trying to do here is avoid a traditional BRAC closure, where the Army empties everything out and turns out the lights and hands you the keys - and then it's the community's responsibility.
"That's why we're assuming management of all the housing before the Army leaves so we don't have a large inventory of empty housing," he said.
The Authority offered an arrangement for those military families that want to continue to live here, staying in their homes at the same basic housing rate they paid under Army control. That took effect Aug. 1, and the FMA had an excellent response from those military families whose duty stations are in the Tidewater area, Armbruster said.
"We gave them the opportunity to remain in their housing at the same rate for the remainder of their tours, and that's unique when you're talking about base closure.
"It's so important to have the buildings occupied. It looks alive, it looks vibrant and that's what we're trying to maintain. When the Army moves its mission on Sept. 15 we want Fort Monroe to still be a vibrant community. Yes, there will be mothballed buildings - empty buildings - we know that. There's over two million square feet of real estate here, so we can't hope to have it fully occupied, but we're off to a good start with the housing units," he said.
The FMA has a significant interest in attracting a variety of businesses, academic facilities, retail, cultural-type institutions and residential, according to Armbruster.
"We're currently talking to a number of people, and negotiations continue. But, it is a mix. The people who live, work and play here will not only be able to enjoy the historic assets, but also the natural areas. It's remarkable - we've got eight miles of waterfront with three miles of beaches - a wonderful place to live and work.
"And you'll see an increased interest in tourism also. But you're not going to see high-rise buildings, gambling casinos, and dense, new urban development because it's not in our plan."
The Authority's focus initially, said Armbruster, was to work with what we have. There will be some limited new construction but it will be compatible with what's here now. The Programmatic Agreement indicates what the FMA can and cannot do in various management scenarios at Fort Monroe because of the historic nature of the property.
That (Programmatic Agreement) is one of our governing documents - the Reuse Plan - and the Preservation Manual and Design Standards are the three documents that govern the FMA, he said.
"Those are major things we needed to do, along with completing an environmental impact statement and working closely with the Army on environmental issues, to move forward and make this transition as seamless as possible.
Armbruster retires in September and envisions a future Fort Monroe "looking pretty much as it does today."
"I hope it looks like it does now ... a place where people live, work and play in a vibrant community."