Future of Navy Center uncertain

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By SETH STERN

The future of the Forest Park Naval Reserve Center still appears to be uncertain despite recent talk of potential development at the 6.5 acre site.

The center, located at 7410 Roosevelt Rd. next to the Forest Park Mall, is among several military sites throughout the state and country scheduled for closure by the federal Base Realignment and Closing Commission (BRACC) last year.

"The site is absolutely scheduled to close, and we've started the process of figuring out how (the closure) is going to work," said Mayor Anthony Calderone at the March 27 meeting of the Village Council.

Calderone said that he had recently met with a representative from the Secretary of Defense Office of Economic Adjustment regarding the future of the property and the process of closing the base, which he said could take several years.

Army and Navy representatives on both the local and national levels, however, tell another story.

"The Army has responded to the notice of availability by requesting the use of the 6.5 acres currently used by the Navy Reserve," said US Navy public affairs officer Kathy Sandoz. "The request is currently being processed."

Aaron Jenkins, an Army public affairs officer stationed in Forest Park, said that the Army's request calls for the five Army Reserve units currently stationed at the naval center to stay put, and for a postal unit and a psychological operations unit to be transferred to the center from elsewhere in the state.

According to Jenkins, the Army's request was submitted by Joseph Whitaker, assistant secretary of the US Army's Installations and Housing Department, and is awaiting a response from the Navy as well as results from environmental tests performed on the building.

The request was first submitted in January, but was just finalized on March 24, according to Commander Barbara Franklin, the manager of the Forest Park center and director of its 12 Navy units.

"We're pretty sure (the request) will be approved," said Jenkins. "The military has had a longstanding relationship with Forest Park and we'd like to see that continue and flourish."

Though the 20 full-time Navy employees and rotation of around 500 Navy reservists comprise about 75 percent of those currently utilizing the center, Jenkins said he thinks the Army will be able to bring in enough people to justify its continued use.

Still, Calderone sees the land occupied by the center as prime space for development.

"Six acres in a busy business district lends itself to any number of retail opportunities," he said. "I would hope the village wants to get in a position where it can control, at least to some degree, the type of development (at the site)."

Calderone said after the council meeting that according to procedures outlined by the Office of Economic Adjustment, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) would first be given the opportunity to acquire the property following its closing, after which the village or private developers would have the opportunity to purchase the site.

Calderone has not returned calls since the council meeting seeking comment on the Army's appeal, but Village Administrator Michael Sturino said that the village was unaware of the appeal and is at this point simply following the procedure outlined by the federal government.

Forest Park resident Debbie Hartman, a unit administrator with the 318 Public Affairs Detachment who has worked at the center since 1980, is doing her best to remain informed of decisions being made by those at much higher ranks concerning the center's future. She said she believes a closing would inconvenience reservists who live in the area and would overcrowd the facilities to which they would be transferred.

"You think these kids can afford to get to Arlington Heights? A lot of them don't have cars," she said. "I know our Mayor wants (the land) but he may have to wait for that building by the park instead," she said, referring to the long vacant Roos property at 7329 Harrison St.

The current confusion is not the first time that the BRACC recommendations have resulted in uncertainty in regards to the center's future.

Franklin, the manager of the center, said she was under the impression from the outset that only the Navy units would be closing since the BRACC list specifically used the term "Naval Reserve" and did not mention the Army units.

Though many shared this assumption, which was repeated in articles in both the Forest Park Review and Chicago Tribune, the original intent apparently was for the entire center to close. Franklin said that environmental inspectors who have visited the center since the closing was announced were not even aware that there were Army units there.

She said she expects to have final word on the center's future by September.

"The Army seems to feel that they have enough people stepping on top of each other at other locations that they have need (to keep the center open)," she said. "No one's talked to me. My concern is to close the center. The only issue I've got is do we give our wonderful new furniture to the Army or ship it up to Great Lakes," she said.

Franklin said that she and the rest of the center's staff and reservists would be transferred to other reserve centers throughout the state if the entire center or part of it were to close.

The Forest Park School District would also experience some headaches if the center were to close, as it would have to find a new place to store its five busses and one Chevrolet Suburban SUV when they are not in use. The school board approved an agreement with the center to use the space for another year at its March meeting.

"If in fact we had to find another place, an obvious place would be the playground at Field Stevenson and the Middle School, but that would be a last choice," said Superintendent Randolph Tinder. "We'd look for some place that had an underutilized parking lot ... one nice thing about (the center) is that it was always under lock and key," he said.

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