Arlington County has created a task force to help elected leaders, businesses and residents prepare for the impact the recommendations of the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) will have on the county.

The BRAC recommendations last summer to downsize and consolidate military installations will spirit nearly 20,000 jobs away from the county and leave about 4 million square feet of office space empty. The changes will be the equivalent of closing four military bases.

"Arlington was the hardest-hit area in the country," said Terry Holzheimer, director of the Arlington Economic Development Commission. The military's biggest moves, however, won't be made for another five or six years. "That gives us time, if we're smart, to minimize the negative impacts."

With that in mind, the Arlington County board voted Dec. 14 to create a BRAC Transition Task Force that would include members of the Economic Development Commission and outside experts. The group will begin meeting next month and plans to offer recommendations to county leaders in June on how to make the best of the impending changes.

"It's an overwhelming task, but it's not like the sky is falling down," said Marty Almquist, a commission member who will lead the task force. "There is going to be a move, there is going to be a change. We don't want to be naive and think, 'Arlington is a perfect location, [so] let's wait for new companies to come in.' We want to be as strategic, as scientific and as proactive as we can be."

The BRAC task force has identified four areas of strategic focus:

* Redeveloping Crystal City.

* Retaining some of the area's highly educated workforce.

* Mitigating job losses and vacancies among small businesses and in the hospitality industry.

* Re-tenanting leased office space.

Crystal City was built in the 1960s, and many of its buildings are 30 years old. Some are considered class B, or less than prime office space.

"The question is, do we want to look at the physical redevelopment of Crystal City, either new, more modern office buildings or residential buildings?" Holzheimer said. "Can we create the kind of modern streetscape that wasn't envisioned 40 years ago, with lively street use, interesting public spaces, street-level retail and sidewalk cafes?"

Until recently, Crystal City had an almost post-nuclear feel with underground shops, impenetrable high-rises and deserted-looking streets. Holzheimer wonders whether changes would attract a different kind of tenant.

Cynthia Richmond, the Economic Development Commission's deputy director, hopes they will.

"Can we start looking at drifting away from Department of Defense-dependent tenants to the private sector?" said Richmond, who is spearheading work on the BRAC Task Force. "It's a real exciting way of looking at things."

To retain workforce, Richmond said, the task force wants to help people whose jobs are moving but who may not want to relocate. Arlington leaders mounted a "Save the Brains" campaign while fighting BRAC recommendations. As a result, some of the science and defense research agencies will stay in the county instead of moving to Bethesda as the Department of Defense proposed.

The task force will build on that theme.

"Some people who are supposed to be relocated are very, very educated scientists and specialists who have security clearances. That's the biggest shortage we have in the workforce," Holzheimer said. "Can we find another government agency or defense contractor or business to locate here and hire such high-value individuals?"

The BRAC task force is already hearing from small businesses and hospitality industry officials who are concerned that the vacancies and job losses may hurt their businesses. To attract new tenants, and more from the private sector, the task force is talking about developing a recruitment and marketing strategy to capitalize on Arlington's closeness to the District and the Pentagon, its competitive office lease rates and amenities such as the Metro, the commuter rail and its "Smart Growth" urban village concept of living near work.

"Arlington is a resilient community. We've weathered these shocks before," Holzheimer said. "If we do this strategically, we may come out in a better place than if it accidentally happens."

Arlington has absorbed the loss of Navy and Air Force agencies and their contractors and has seen the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office move to Alexandria and Gannett relocate from Rossyln to Tysons Corner, Holzheimer said.

Still, the federal presence in Arlington and the potential damage from the loss of so much of it could cause great economic harm. Nearly half of the 40.5 million square feet of office space in Arlington is occupied by the federal government. Federal outsourcing to the private sector has been the primary source of growth in the county's economy in recent years. The federal government owns 17 percent of all land in the county, and about 45,000 federal military and civilian employees work in the county.

Robert G. Templin Jr., president of Northern Virginia Community College, chaired a BRAC working group for Northern Virginia created by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D). On Dec. 1, Templin's group submitted a report to Warner with recommendations on managing the massive changes planned for the region, given that many military jobs will be leaving Arlington and many arriving in Fairfax County and other outer-suburb areas with military bases.

"Arlington represents the largest single potential loss of military-related jobs of anywhere in the United States under this round of BRAC," Templin said. "That impact sometimes escaped the attention of others because of the net gain of jobs overall that Northern Virginia was going to receive. To the casual observer, it looked, at worst, like a wash."

Templin's working group recommended that state leaders and the congressional delegation work to secure federal funding for transportation improvements to deal with clogged roads in the outer suburbs and for planning money and a designation of Arlington as a preferred location for federal functions.

"We saw the strategic role that Arlington plays for the region," Templin said. "The loss of employment, if we don't handle it correctly, could be a loss that we'd be decades in the process of trying to fix. There's no reason why that should be the legacy of BRAC. . . . We need to take what is a very strategic location and leverage it to our advantage to find a new use that could leave the region better off altogether. But that's not going to happen overnight, on its own."

Richmond, of the BRAC task force, hopes that early action will mean a positive outcome for Arlington.

"We're hoping our message from this will be that Arlington really is being proactive," Richmond said. "It's not doomsday, though there will be some trouble. But it's still going to be a really cool place to be."

Nearly 20,000 jobs will be lost as a result of Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommendations. Above, a July BRAC hearing in Arlington. TERRY

HOLZHEIMER