In Our View: Alchemy at the Barracks?

No, transition to historic site was more than municipal magic; it was hard work

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Many American communities live in constant fear of hearing these mortifying words: "You're losing your Army base." Mere mention of "BRAC" (Base Realignment and Closure) sends local politicians and economic development leaders into hysterical fits and apocalyptic wailing.Not around here. We're a little different. We've lost our Army base, but those 163 years of military history are being replaced by an exciting change at a national park.

Monday's formal transfer of the Vancouver Barracks to the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site was deeply historical in a community that takes its history very seriously. The ceremony was steeped in nostalgia, reverie and poignant reflections about how much the Army has meant to this city.

But the ceremony also trumpeted a new era for our local historic site, one of 397 national parks. By acquiring 33 acres and 28 buildings from the Army, the park service strengthens its already solid foothold in Southwest Washington. And, even though the Army is officially gone now (other ceremonies and departing maintenance chores will continue), our community is fortunate to escape the economic ravages that military base closings cause in many places across America.

Credit for this gradual, successful conversion belongs to many agencies, especially the Army, the park service and the historic site. But it was gatherings of people and not bureaucracies that meticulously planned and caringly carried out the transfer. It might have been good fortune that at least three significant local public figures have deep personal ties to the Vancouver Barracks. Former Mayor Royce Pollard was barracks commander from 1985 to 1988. Clark College President Bob Knight held the same position from 1997 to 2000. Vancouver City Councilor Larry Smith's last military assignment was at the barracks.

More likely, though, it wasn't just good fortune that made this deal work. Pollard, Knight and Smith are among countless municipal, military and parks officials who shared this vision, and who for many years turned a loss into a different kind of gain.

Monday's spotlight fell on Brig. Gen. Alton Berry, deputy commanding general of the Army Reserve's 88th Regional Support Command, and Chris Lehnertz, Pacific West regional director for the National Park Service. When the former ceremonially handed the United States flag to the latter, the gesture carried a unique blend of change and continuation. The change is in the identity of the caretaker, one federal office to another. But the continuation is seen in the rich, new role of preserving not just history, but 33 of the most pastoral and picturesque acres in our community.

So, instead of saying farewell to the Army, we will see the Barracks property serve as a pedestal for a branch of the military, and justly so for individual heroes such as Ulysses S. Grant, George C. Marshall and others who served there.

We can think of n000000000o better guardian of that pedestal than the National Park Service.

Other cities will look at Vancouver and see this transition as some kind of municipal alchemy. Others will wonder: How did they pull that off? How did they turn what should've been the ore tailings of a BRAC disaster into parks gold?

The answer — it was a vision — might be simple. But the work was more complex and required more collaborative skills than many communities can muster.

We say well done … to the Army, the park service and the many local officials involved.