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South Florida Sun-Sentinel (KRTBN)

Base Gets Promotion To Naval Air Station Key West

Navy Facility In Key West, Fla., To Become Naval Air Station

By Diana Marrero, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

July 10, 2003
Copyright © 2003 KRTBN Knight Ridder Tribune Business News. All rights reserved. 

Jul. 10--Florida's efforts to protect its military installations produced a victory on Wednesday, when U.S. Navy officials announced they would upgrade its Key West facility to a Naval Air Station, a move that will likely protect it from the next round of base closings.

"As the Department of Defense begins preparing for the next round of base closures, NAS Key West is suddenly becomes a much more vital installation," Gov. Jeb Bush said Wednesday, citing Florida's military and defense-related operations as critical to the state's economy.

The $30 billion military industry is the state's third largest economic sector, behind tourism and agriculture.

The decision to upgrade the Key West facility follows the Pentagon's order that the U.S. Special Operations Command South move from the Roosevelt Roads Naval Air Station in Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland, after the Navy pulled out of Vieques. It also follows the announcement that other Puerto-Rico based Navy and Marines Corps personnel have been moved to the Florida Panhandle.

About 150 soldiers will stay behind to administer the special operations headquarters until August 2004 when the command will move to a new home in Miami.

The moves, along with the Pentagon's decision to transfer its Southern Command from Panama to Miami-Dade County in 1997, signal South Florida's growing importance as a center for international military operations.

"Certainly, South Florida is important geo-politically as it's so close to our Southern neighbors," said Admiral Robert J. Natter, the commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet who presided over the ceremonies to rename the facility in Key West.

The Key West installation is slated to receive an extra 300 people -- mostly uniformed service members -- and almost $110 million in military construction and services contracts for barrack renovations, runway paving and construction of a new six-story air traffic control tower.

Downsized in 1995, the Key West facility has since become a critical component in the Navy's 2002 training resource strategy and range concept for the East Coast.

"We decided that Key West was more important than we had foreseen years back," said Natter, who has argued that the facilities throughout the state are "extremely important" to the Navy.

The upcoming round of decisions on base closings will be the third such process since 1990, leading to the closure, downsizing, or realignment of several Florida installations including the Homestead Air Force Base.

Coral Gables Mayor Don Slesnick, who chaired Team Miami, a committee aimed at luring SouthCom years ago, said the boost to the Key West facility signals the strengthening of the state's military presence. But Slesnick said the decision also carries a potential drawback for South Florida, as it could lead the military to conclude that a strong Navy base in Key West lessens the need for the scaled-down Air Force reserve base in Homestead.

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