Plans for a land swap between Escambia County and the U.S. Navy are moving forward, after unanimous approval by the County Commission to continue the project.
Initially, the Navy was to give the landing field near Navy Federal Credit Union to Escambia County. In turn, the county would spend $1.9 million to buy a 600-acre tract in Santa Rosa County near Ard Field Road.
Another five million was earmarked for getting that property up to speed as a landing field. That extra cost placed the deal in jeopardy, until Monday’s special meeting.
“We are a military town, first and foremost; you certainly have this board’s support to continue to move forward,” said Commission Chair Doug Underhill. “If for no other reason, the fact that quite frankly we’re far enough into this baby that there’s only one way to get out, and that’s on the other side.”
Cong. Matt Gaetz and others recently toured the outlying fields and addressed the Commission on reducing the price tag.
“Their condition, the assets are in place; here is what we know today,” said Gaetz. “The letter that’s been transmitted to you, Mr. Chairman and to the Commission regarding the changes in the Navy’s requirements, is the first time we have seen any reduction in cost for the Escambia County taxpayer.”
Estimates set the cost reduction at around two million dollars. Gaetz – who sits on the House Armed Services Committee -- says they don’t anticipate the Navy’s requirements to change further.
“What the Navy seeks is some affirmative indication from the Commission, that [with] these cost reductions, there’s still a desire to proceed on this project,” Gaetz said.”
“And it has to be mutual advantage, right? One for the training opportunities that it presents the Navy, and that the community sees some interest,” said Jim Balocki, the Navy's deputy secretary for installations and facilities.
“[The Navy] is going more into the area now, as public-private ventures, and I’m sure you’re exploring the same venues as a county,” Balocki said. “But the federal government is seeing that as more of a venue of ways of providing capabilities without having to tap into the taxpayers’ resources.”
Gaetz and Balocki answered a battery of questions from the commissioners, including Jeff Bergosh – in whose District-1 the airfield is located.
“The question that gets asked a lot is, ‘Is this something the Navy wants?’” Bergosh asked Balocki.
“Let me say, unequivocally, yes,” Balocki told Bergosh. “This would help training at Whiting Field; it helps our aviators, it helps our national security. It helps provide strength for our nation. What more do you need?”
And what else is in it for the Navy? The new site is more than 20 miles closer to Whiting Field, saving time and fuel. It’s also free from the possibility of encroachment – a big deal with another round of Base Relocation and Closure -- BRAC expected in the next few years.