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Military Unit May Save Homestead Air Reserve Base

Homestead Air Reserve Base will be the new home of a commando group, delighting those who have been lobbying to keep the base open


23 November 2003
Copyright ©2003
THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

An elite military unit is on its way to the Homestead Air Reserve Base, the U.S. military announced Wednesday, raising hopes in South Dade that the much diminished base won't be targeted in the next round of closures in 2005.

Special Operations Command South is part of the U.S. Southern Command, and the military chose Homestead because it is close to the command's headquarters in Doral, Sgt. Maj. Keith Butler, the unit's spokesman, said.

Homestead also had the infrastructure in place to open operations immediately, meaning the military won't have to spend money on new facilities, Butler said. Bases in Pensacola and Mississippi also were considered, he added.

The unit is leaving the rapidly shrinking Naval Station Roosevelt Roads in Puerto Rico, itself under threat of closure since the controversial bombing range on nearby Vieques shut down last spring.

The move will be the second in seven years for the unit, which conducts operations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Special Operations Command South left Panama in 1997, after the U.S. relinquished control of the Panama Canal.

The latest relocation, to be completed by the end of March, will bring 150 military and civilian families to South Florida. Though small in economic development terms, leaders in South Dade hope the news is what they need to make the Homestead Air Reserve Base competitive when Congress looks at shutting down bases in two years. Gov. Jeb Bush also welcomed it as a way to solidify Homestead's future.

''I'm so excited about this move to Homestead,'' said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, whose district covers the Homestead base. ``The arrival of much-welcomed military personnel and their families would demonstrate the administration's commitment to keeping Homestead open and also ensure the vitality of both our base and the communities surrounding it.''

The Department of Defense has said it intends to close 25 percent of the country's 425 bases to save an estimated $7 billion a year.

With more than 2,100 employees and an economic impact of about $120 million a year, the Homestead reserve base is one of the largest -- and most vital -- employers in South Dade. It has been on the endangered list since 1992, when Hurricane Andrew blew through Miami-Dade and decimated many of the base's buildings.

Recently, military families have been disheartened by the news that the Homestead Base Exchange store, which offers discounted items for military personnel, retirees and their families, could be closing soon.

They saw it as another sign of the base's likely demise.

Meanwhile, South Miami-Dade leaders have been looking for ways to keep the base alive.

Michael Richardson of the Vision Council -- Homestead's economic development agency -- recently authored an 'Encroachment Study' filled with recommendations for the city of Homestead and Miami-Dade County. Some suggestions included ways to help determine zoning restrictions and building heights nearby the base.

''We have been working hard to prepare our community and the base and we think the addition significantly improves its position,'' Richardson said.

For David Peyton, chair of the Homestead and Florida City Military Affairs committee, Wednesday's news was exactely what he had hoped for.

''We're sorry that they have to give up what they had over there, but this is very positive for us,'' Peyton said.

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