Just How Friendly Can a Military Base Be?
Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, the 905-acre military enclave located on D.C.'s southern corner, is walled off from the rest of the city, with four gates that demand identification before you're allowed to enter. Most of the 13,200 people who work there don't live there, and those who live there have all their needs provided for without ever having to leave.
A few months ago, the D.C. Council passed a resolution blasting an environmental assessment for the Navy's long range master plan, saying that it increased the installation's isolation from the rest of Ward 8. Since then, the base's public relations staff has been working overtime, meeting with the District's economic development team and Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, to demonstrate that they are trying to integrate with the rest of the city. Really!
"Contrary to what some people think, we're not a closed base. The citizens can come if they have a reason to be there," says public affairs officer Joe Cirone. "We exist to help people. We are Ward 8 residents. We consider ourselves part of Ward 8."
What does he mean by that, exactly? Well, they just did their first ever job fair with the District's Department of Employment Services, collecting 93 applications for six full-time job opportunities. The base's fire trucks are deployed to help flight blazes in D.C. and Prince Georges County. There's a bowling alley that civilians can come use, if they sign up for a league. The area's Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner lives on base. They're even working to build a playground in Ward 8, although the money isn't quite there yet.
But in a lot of ways, the base doesn't contribute much—usually just by virtue of standard operating procedure. All of the goods in the Army and Air Force Exchange Service's "Target-like" store, which is open only to members of the military, are exempt from sales taxes. Although base commander Captain Anthony Calandra apparently commutes by bicycle most days from Alexandria, the private vehicle is king, in part because funding restrictions make it difficult to arrange a shuttle from the Anacostia metro station (those rules also complicate Cirone's desire to start a bikesharing system for getting around within the base). There are 719 privately-built townhouses that the military doesn't own, but Cirone didn't know if they're on the D.C. tax rolls; D.C.'s Office of Tax and Revenue says they're not. To help employees who can't or prefer not to live at Anacostia-Bolling, a housing office has contracts with 120 apartment buildings for rooms at lower rates, only four of which are in the District.
All of D.C.'s military installations are closed off to the city to some extent. You can't just wander onto the 272-acre Armed Forces Retirement Home. Walter Reed Army Medical Center closed itself off to casual visitors after September 11, 2001. The Navy Yard is also closed to the public, and has only hesitatingly opened up its riverfront to connect to Yards Park.
And as much as JBAB brass might want to reach out, they're limited in the degree to which they can become an economic engine for the city. At the Ward 8 Community Summit a few weeks ago, I chatted with some of the JBAB officials about that problem.
"What's not well known is that Captain Calandra is like the landlord of an office park, and the tenants in that park don't really work for him," said Naval District Washington corporate information officer John Imparato, referring to users like the highly-secure Defense Intelligence Agency and the White House Communications office. "We provide services to our tenants, but they have a mission. We can't tell them how to hire. It's like if you have an apartment, and you want to paint a wall, the landlord is limited in what he is allowed to tell you. You can't put holes in the wall, but you can certainly put a carpet down."
"I think a better parallel would be a shopping plaza," added Calandra. "I own the plaza, but I don't account for the hiring practices of the individual stores in the plaza."
So of course, District politicians and officials can't have unrealistic expectations of their military neighbors. But they can ask for as much cooperation as possible on transportation, communication about available jobs, and any measures that would encourage employees to live in the communities surrounding their workplace. From the talk, at least, JBAB is willing to meet them half way.