Division Street ends at a black metal fence at the edge of Keesler Air Force Base, and that is where local, state and federal officials announced Thursday that work is about to begin on a new $37 million main entrance.
“The engineering is already done and it’s going out for bid in a couple of months,” said Biloxi Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich. The project is expected to take two years and include a new visitors center and enhanced security. It also will create a Division Street boulevard from the I-110 exit to the gate just beyond Forrest Avenue, he said, which will create economic opportunities leading to the entrance.
U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., saluted the mayor for making a new Keesler gate his No. 1 priority, not just for his election campaign but for his administration.
Speaking with one voice on the importance of a new gate is what made a difference, Palazzo said, and got the Air Force to move the gate up on the priority list by several years.
“We’ve been talking about this a lot longer than I’ve been in Congress,” said Palazzo, who was elected in 2011.
“You don’t know how proud I am to finally see this happen,” said Lt. Gen. Clark Griffith, retired, former commander of Keesler. Talk of a new gate started right after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, he said.
“That’s when they changed the Air Force rules,” he said, requiring tighter security standards for military installations. “This will help us get back to compliance.”
The major issue at the current gate on White Avenue is the railroad tracks run just south of the entrance, blocking access when a train passes several times a day.
Myrtis Franke, representative for Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said the recent accident less than a mile away demonstrates the need for the new gate at Keesler, which has a high volume of traffic. Four people died in March when their tour bus became stuck on the tracks and was hit by a freight train.
She said Keesler is one of the most important assets for South Mississippi and the nation, and its economic impact is “profound.”
U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee in Washington, D.C., along with Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Palazzo, worked to get $11.7 million in federal money and the state Legislature added $10 million in BP money. Biloxi will oversee the first phase of work with $5 million from the state Base Enhancement grant through Mississippi Development Authority. The city is working to secure the approximately $10 million more in funding to complete the project.
“We stand today at the No. 1 technical training base for the United States Air Force in the world,” said Glenn McCullough, executive director of MDA. More than 27,000 courses are successfully completed at the base in a year, he said, and 11,000 contractors work to support the base, which he said has a $1.67 billion annual economic impact on the Coast and the state.
Thursday’s announcement came on the day before Col. Michele Edmondson, commander of the 81st Training Wing at Keesler, leaves for her new assignment at the Pentagon.
Palazzo said the new entrance also will enhance Biloxi’s position should the Department of Defense undertake another Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC review. Community support is one of the factors he believes are considered, and Biloxi and its representatives pulled together with Keesler to make the gate happen.