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New Navy Training To Boost Gulf Economy… Some Question, Most Cheer In Panhandle

New Navy Training To Boost Gulf Economy

Gulf bases, businesses expect waves of sailors

Anton Caputo

January 27, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Pensacola News Journal. All rights reserved.

The recent decision to shift some Navy combat training from the Puerto Rican island of Vieques to Northwest Florida's military bases could pay major economic dividends.

From resupplying ships to serving sailors on shore leave, regional officials and businesses look forward to the visiting battle groups that might steam into the northeast Gulf of Mexico as early as this summer.

The training exercises might have even greater economic reverberations by strengthening the area's bases and their $1.6 billiona-year economic impact against the next round of base realignments and closings expected to begin in 2005.

``That is the most important contribution, in that the military is still No. 1 in the area as far as employment and generating income,'' said Rick Harper, director of the University Of West Florida Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Chumuckla, said he expects the financial impact from local bases to continue to grow.

"One reason is because of the Vieques situation, and another is that other branches of the armed services will be using Northwest Florida installations,'' he said. ``The Marines are looking at Eglin for amphibious assault training.''

When the battle groups do come, local air bases, primarily Pensacola Naval Air Station and Eglin Air Force Base, will be used as staging areas for aircraft participating in the exercises. Three other sites in Florida and eight other bases on the East Coast also were selected to get a share of the training.

The average battle group includes an aircraft carrier, two cruisers, two or three guided-missile destroyers, one or two destroyers, a replenishment ship and possibly a missile frigate.

It's not uncommon to have one or more ships dock for resupply and shore leave after an exercise, said Atlantic Fleet spokesman Scott McIlnay. Destroyers and frigates carry crews of 300 or more.

When the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Enterprise came to port in June 2000 for a five-day visit, the ship and its 3,000 sailors pumped roughly $300,000 into the local economy.

``You get three ships in there with 500 to 1,000 coming ashore, and they spend their money everywhere,'' said Vann Goodloe, senior vice president of military affairs at the Pensacola Area Chamber of Commerce.

How much money?

The average sailor spends about $75 a day on leave, Goodloe said. That's about the same as the average tourist visiting the Pensacola area.

That's exactly what local businesses want.

Downtown Pensacola's Seville Quarter was packed with sailors when the Enterprise visited, and general manager Jack Williams would love more Navy ships in town.

``We're ready for them to come into port next week,'' he said. `'It creates a whole lot of excitement in the community itself when a big ship comes into town. So that's good, too.''

But the sailors are interested in more than the downtown clubs.

Scott Amberson, who owns Peg Leg Pete's restaurant and Sidelines Sports Bar on Pensacola Beach, said both businesses get a boost when a ship hits port.

``Whenever the weather is great and they are here, they head to the beach," he said.

Yellow Cab general manager Phil Peberby said the top destination of sailors on leave in Pensacola is Cordova Mall, although the movie theaters also are popular.

``Every time the ship hits the beach, you've been cooped up and have money to spend,'' said Peberby, who had his share of shore leaves while in the Navy in the 1960s.

The military's impact on the Yellow Cab company is so substantial that Peberby said it sees a cyclical rise and fall in business with the military's pay period. The weekend after a military payday, daily trips increase from about 1,600 to 2,500.

The Navy's decision to use Northwest Florida bases also carries potential problems: Environmental standards are more stringent in the United States than on Vieques , and training exercises at all local bases are limited, to some degree, by surrounding residential development. Many Puerto Ricans cited environmental and other risks in objecting to the continued use of Vieques .

But retired Air Force Col. Bob Leonik, who recently has taken a job as a program manager in the Fort Walton Beach office of Electronic Warfare Associates Government Training Systems, believes those possible problems will open up new avenues for area defense contractors.

He sees opportunities in the environmental assessment and monitoring of exercises, and in the development of simulators to help streamline training and to cut down training time on the bombing range, which is increasingly in demand.

``The military will determine what they need to do, but as they ask us for expertise the goal will be: `How do we protect the environment and help with training?' " he said.

What about war?

The Naval combat training transferred from Vieques to the Gulf of Mexico tentatively is scheduled for this summer, but that mission could be delayed as a possible war with Iraq looms.

Some Question, Most Cheer Navy-Marine Training In Panhandle


February 1, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

FORT WALTON BEACH, Fla. (AP) - Few objections were raised to moving Navy and Marine Corps training to the Florida Panhandle from Puerto Rico as military officials met Saturday with more than 100 citizens, mostly government and business leaders.

Most invited guests expressed support for exercises that would include live bomb drops at Eglin Air Force Base and tanks rumbling ashore at night in the nearby community of Wynn Haven Beach.

Holly-Navarre Fire District Commissioner Lauretta Letourneau admonished those who objected.

"Our troops need 100 percent backing," she said.

Wynn Haven Beach resident Margie McKay was one of those who spoke against the training, specifically the amphibious landings.

"It's noise and it's scary and I have a pacemaker already," McKay said in an interview after the meeting. "I don't need any more stress. It's not that we're not patriotic people. We are."

She and a few others had told military officials they were worried about noise from hovercraft and other equipment and how the landings would affect marine life and wildlife.

"The noise is called the sound of freedom," replied Maj. Gen. Tom Jones, who heads the Marine Corps Training and Education Command, drawing a loud round of applause.

Jones and other Marine, Navy and Air Force officials promised steps would be taken to minimize inconvenience to the public.

Adm. Robert Natter, commander of Atlantic Fleet, said protests against continued use of Vieques, an island off Puerto Rico, were the catalyst for moving the training to Eglin and other installations in the South.

However, he said some of it would have been moved anyway because the mainland bases and ranges in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico are better suited for new, long-range weapons.

Eglin is the nation's largest air base, covering 724 square miles of beaches, forests and swamps. The Navy already has used its weapons testing ranges over the past couple years for aircraft carrier battlegroup training, including live bomb drops no longer allowed at Vieques.

Natter said one or two carrier exercises would take place every year at Eglin and other mainland installations including the Pinecastle and Avon Park bombing ranges in northeast and central Florida. Navy facilities at Key West are being expanded to handle ships and aircraft for the exercises.

Facilities up the East Coast to Maryland also will be used. Training will be conducted mainly in the Atlantic during hurricane season and the Gulf of Mexico at other times, Natters said. The next carrier exercise at Eglin is set for June.

Pending the results of an environmental assessment, the Marines also plan to move amphibious training to Eglin.

Landings would be done on an Eglin-owned part of Santa Rosa Island. Hovercraft and amphibious vehicles then would make their way across Santa Rosa Sound to the mainland at Wynn Haven Beach.

Tanks and other vehicles would cross U.S. 98, the only east-west highway in the area, to get onto Eglin's mainland military reservation. That would mean stopping traffic for 30-minutes three times to get onto the reservation and three times to get off.

Natter said the highway would be closed only at night when traffic is minimal and with plenty of notice to residents.

"We don't want to do something stupid," Natter said.

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