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News of possible base closure alarms area business leaders

It's the third largest employer in Hillsborough County. Its annual economic impact in the Tampa Bay area is estimated at $808-million. It serves an estimated military retiree population of 100,000 to 250,000. It is MacDill Air Force Base, and shutting it down could rattle the bay area economy. The news Friday that a federal commission will study completely closing the base took some bay area business leaders by surprise.

"It would be pretty dramatic," said Tampa developer Joe Taggart. "Whatever that land ends up becoming, temporarily it would be a pretty major impact to the community."

Only about 45 days ago, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney proposed closing only some of the base.

"You're kidding me," Daryl Blume, vice president of BCH Mechanical Inc., said when told of the announcement by the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission.

Blume said his electrical contracting company in Largo gets 10 percent to 15 percent of its business from the base and would have to seek work elsewhere.

Al Austin, chairman of the MacDill Response Team, compared the base to Salomon Brothers Inc., the New York brokerage house that will move its back room operations to Tampa and employ 600.

"You'd need 30 Salomon Brothers or 10 Fortune 500 companies here to match the effect of MacDill Air Force Base," said Austin, whose task is trying keep the base open or lessen the impact of its closing.

David Denslow, a University of Florida economist, agrees that closing MacDill could hurt the area's economy and devastate some businesses. But he said it may only be a blip in the bay area economy.

"The Tampa-St. Petersburg economy is so massive it can bear this," Denslow said.

The 8,000 civilian and military jobs at MacDill account for almost 1 percent of the 894,000 jobs in the area. Denslow forecasts the bay area economy will grow by 100,000 jobs, or 125 MacDill Air Force Bases, by 1994, the year Cheney proposes for a partial closing.

Tampa could have up to three years to prepare for MacDill's closing and, hopefully, the economy will be healthy again, Denslow said.

Yet before the base can be sold and developed, the military has a massive environmental cleanup ahead. Developers would be wary of purchasing the property unless the environmental problems were resolved.

"There are not too many people who would want to be in the chain of title until it's cleaned up," said Taggart, the developer. "It's just a nightmare."