Military News

Coast leaders on high alert for base closure commision

 Keesler Air Force Base
SUN HERALD FILE Keesler Air Force Base

BILOXI -- An upcoming evaluation of all U.S. military bases has members of South Mississippi's military and business communities, as well as local and state leaders, gearing up to prove its installations are valuable and necessary.

President Barack Obama ordered a new round of recommendations in fiscal year 2017 from the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, whose responsibility is to assess the value and effectiveness of military installations and advise Congress and the president on how to best organize U.S. forces.

The commission has not yet targeted any bases. But a group of South Mississippi leaders is launching a preemptive strike of sorts, gathering information to present to the commission and prepping local leaders on how to argue in favor of the status quo in Mississippi.

"We absolutely have to have an active defense," said Lt. Gen. Mike Peterson, Retired. "We just need to make sure the whole story is told so the right decisions get made."

Peterson and three other retired commanders, all members of the Harrison County Military Team, presented information about the value of the Coast's bases at a Biloxi Bay Chamber of Commerce meeting Thursday morning at the Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum.

Each installation is invaluable on its own, the commanders said, and each offers numerous programs or facilities found either exclusively or almost exclusively on that base.

But more important, Peterson said, is the benefit of having so many varied facilities and training opportunities so close together.

The proximity allows expanded training opportunities for units already based in South Mississippi and those visiting.

"It's a fantastic joint training opportunity," Peterson said, "and you don't have to bring everything with you.

"Think of it as a complex where you can get all your training done."

The BRAC commission looks only at bases' military value. But the Harrison County Military Team also made a pitch for why the community should care about the presence of the bases.

Between five installations -- Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport, Trent Lott Training Complex in Gulfport, Stennis Space Center in Hancock County and Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg -- the military employs 19,760 people in southern Mississippi.

The bases have a combined payroll of $706 million and a combined economic impact of almost $1.6 billion.

There are 750 companies based in the three coastal counties that have had Department of Defense contracts, with 321 contracts worth more than $1 billion awarded in 2014 alone.

And those numbers don't account for the indirect economic benefits, officials said.

The almost 20,000 military employees -- and the more than 40,000 veterans who call the Coast home -- buy houses and cars and spend money at area businesses. The bases also provide the area with a well-trained workforce, officials said.

BRAC, which was authorized by a 1990 law, is a good thing overall for the military, Peterson said. It provides a transparent method of increasing efficiencies.

The Coast has been effective at keeping its military presence intact during previous BRAC rounds. In 2005, Keesler Medical Center was on the chopping block but lobbying by the Military Team helped reverse that decision. During another round, lobbying to base a cyberspace headquarters at Keesler failed, but it resulted in the training center.

Still, there is work the Coast can do to improve its standing.

A key element will be moving the gate of Keesler Air Force Base off of White Avenue. The current gate does not mean Air Force security requirements and the base has wanted it moved for the better part of a decade.

Communities surrounding the bases will also have an opportunity to provide input to the commission.

"We've got some work to do," Peterson said.

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