Force Fields: Our Region's Military Influence
Force Fields The economic influence of the military in Northwest Florida is undeniable — and in negotiations on everything from oil exploration to endangered species, it’s a component of our livelihood that should not be underestimated By SCOTT JACKSON
It rolls through Northwest Florida with an economic power that small nations would envy. It pervades nearly every fiber of our economic engine and steadfastly weathers rough economic times. Our communities live and breathe military, and its lifeblood is the billions of defense dollars that surge throughout the rwegion each year.
As military-oriented communities, we sometimes rejoice and sometimes anguish as the extended tours and dangers away from home test our resolve. Military personnel, dependents and retirees provide intellectual capital to our work force, spawn technological growth, and stock our beaches and waters with a year-round tourism base. We work together, play together, pray together, raise families and serve our communities in a daily fusion of exchange with a yearly economic impact of more than $15.5 billion.
"There is no other part of the state where military spending is so important," said Richard Harper, director of the University of West Florida’s Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development. "Thirty-five percent of Northwest Florida’s economy is related to the military."
Of the 18 counties constituting the data source of the Haas Center’s 2008 Florida Defense Industry Economic Impact Analysis, more than 95 percent of the impact is anchored in the five-county region that stretches from Escambia to Bay.
Why are they here? In part because of the vast training ranges that are available on land and the nearby waters of the Gulf of Mexico, which also provide needed testing sites for military hardware.
Eglin Air Force Base, for instance, is so large it covers 41 percent of Okaloosa County’s land mass — as well as 23 percent of Walton County and 10 percent of Santa Rosa. And in 2003 it was the testing site for the satellite-guided "Mother of All Bombs," with its 18,700 pounds of explosives.
Among the Naval Surface Warfare Center’s missions in Panama City is a focus on mine and amphibious warfare, as well as underwater intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance — with much of that research done in Gulf waters.
"We have the best geographic location for what the military needs," said Tom Neubauer, president of the Bay Defense Alliance. "It’s a national treasure, something we can’t take lightly."
In return for sharing its resources, the area benefits from a military largesse that helps insulate it from the vagaries of a sometimes fickle economy. (The Air Force, for instance, has a $6.7 billion a year economic impact on the three counties covered by the Eglin Complex.)
Direct defense-related spending in the five-county region approximates $5.8 billion for just procurement, pensions and transfer payments, and salaries, according to the Haas Center study. As this money is used again for purchases and services, it finds its way through other businesses in the region and generates more economic activity. And then there are the defense-related industries that have sprung up around the bases, adding billions more to the mix.
This economic force is nurtured and fiercely protected, often pitting communities and states against one another in a fight to attract and keep units and missions. Whole organizations have been built and legislation enacted at the local and state levels simply to ensure that this economic juggernaut and its mission continues to thrive. It is a massive enterprise of synergy and symbiosis that is appreciated equally by the communities and the military.
"We in Northwest Florida love the military," said Susan Story, CEO of Gulf Power, who was appointed by former Gov. Jeb Bush to a panel charged with helping Florida maintain its military bases when Congress was looking to cut defense spending. Northwest Florida’s bases remained untouched.
"They are a big part of who we are — so many have trained and served here, and many return to retire or raise their families once they leave military service," Story said. "These amazing people not only serve each one of us in preserving our freedoms and liberty every day, but they also are usually the first to volunteer in our communities — whether it is United Way, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Habitat for Humanity or many other worthy causes that help the disadvantaged."
Add to that the fact that the military directly and indirectly represents about 35 percent of the region’s economic activity, provides a highly trained and qualified work force for local businesses and brings to the area high-tech research and development.
"It just doesn’t get better for any community or region," Story said. "They are our heroes, and we have the privilege and honor to live with them every day."
The presence is viewed similarly on either side of the gates of the seven military installations located along the five-county coastal region: The Northwest Florida community supports the military’s mission and the military provides an economic infusion, a symbiotic relationship that has prospered for nearly a century.
During an address to an assembly of Hurlburt Field and Eglin Air Force Base military personnel and dependents last October, first lady Michelle Obama lauded the significance of the relationship.
"I am in awe of each and every one of you," she said. "But I am also in awe of the loved ones here — the people that have your back."
Cradle of naval aviation and home to the Blue Angels
"Since its beginning in 1914, NAS Pensacola and the city of Pensacola have shared a remarkable relationship," said Capt. William P. Reavey Jr., commander of Naval Air Station Pensacola.
The base traces its history as far back as 1825, when President John Quincy Adams selected the site for a naval yard that became a base for ships trying to suppress piracy and the slave trade in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. Today it is home to the Navy’s precision flying team, the Blue Angels, and one of the world’s largest aviation museums. As a primary training base, it has seen thousands of young pilots earn their wings.
"Pensacola has long been recognized as a military-friendly community and is often referred to as the ‘cradle of naval aviation,’ " said Craig Dalton, vice president for armed services with the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce. "The financial impact is approximately 20 percent of the total economic base."
However, he added, the additional contributions of a highly skilled and trained work force; a stable and growing industry sector that attracts national and international companies; a base of available military personnel who contribute thousands of hours in volunteer service throughout the community; and educated and skilled spouses who contribute to the community also add greatly to the economic base in less tangible ways.
And the local work force is benefiting from military construction projects.
For example, plans are in the works for a nearly $11 million project, funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, that will renovate an historic building on base and convert it to base headquarters. And the Air Force is in the process of moving its Undergraduate Navigator/Combat Systems Officer training from Randolph Air Force Base in Texas to NAS Pensacola, Reavey said. That involves a $46 million construction project for training facilities, to be completed in 2010.
To publicly give thanks for their presence and economic contributions, the local community holds Military Appreciation Month each May. Meanwhile, local military personnel support projects such as the Senior Day of Caring, Habitat for Humanity and Meals on Wheels, and volunteer their time by participating in Big Brother Big Sister, coaching sports and mentoring students. The strong bond is evidenced by the large number of retired military personnel who return to Pensacola as civilians and make it their home.
Golden wings for 1,800 naval aviators a year
Since its opening in 1943, just six days after the invasion of Sicily during World War II, Whiting Field near Milton has provided primary and intermediate flight training for the U.S. Navy. One in every six hours of flying time for the Navy across the globe is flown from there.
"Santa Rosa County and Whiting Field have developed a tremendous relationship that benefits both the Navy and the county," said Capt. Enrique Sadsad, commander of Naval Air Station Whiting Field. "The commissioners have worked diligently to help ensure that our mission is protected for the future, and the breadth of aviation facilities we have in Northwest Florida and southern Alabama are unmatched. I can’t imagine there is a stronger partnership in the country than what we enjoy here at Whiting Field."
The partnership that has evolved and flourishes is a direct result of the leadership and vision on the part of both entities, said Ed Gray, chairman of the Team Santa Rosa Economic Development Council.
"We jointly needed to build a ‘win-win’ model that would effectively protect the base’s military mission and continued presence while also assuring the jobs and economic vitality in Santa Rosa County," he said.
Gray noted a 2004 Joint Land Use Study as a key example of cooperation between the county and Whiting to ensure that growth outside the base would not encroach on the military’s training and testing missions, a major concern of all the bases in Northwest Florida.
Santa Rosa County, in partnership with the Navy, The Nature Conservancy, the Florida Division of Forestry and others, has acquired or otherwise protected more than 20,000 acres from encroachment around Whiting Field and its six nearby landing fields.
"As a result, our partnership … is now known throughout the Navy as the ‘Santa Rosa Model,’ " Gray said. "We treasure our relationship and are committed to continuing our efforts to protect the pilot training mission and military value of NAS Whiting Field and the economic benefits flowing to our county."
After six years of negotiation, the Navy and Santa Rosa County also reached agreement in August on a new commercial airpark at Whiting. The unique agreement provides limited commercial access to and use of Whiting’s runways and taxiways for tenants of the airpark tenants, which is zoned for heavy industry.
National weapons testing and special operations
Eglin Air Force Base’s history begins in 1931 when local businessman James Plew saw the potential of a military payroll to boost an economy ravaged by the Great Depression.
Plew leased 137 acres from the city of Valparaiso to build an airport. In 1934, he offered the U.S. government 1,460 acres for a bombing and gunnery range. In the ensuing years, Eglin grew to become a premier national test and evaluation resource, as well as the main base for major air combat forces. Now spanning more than 455,000 acres, Eglin is the largest Air Force base in the free world and continues to enjoy a strong relationship with the communities that have grown up around it.
"Eglin and its surrounding communities have forged an outstanding relationship over the past 75 years," said Maj. Gen. Charles R. Davis, commander of Eglin’s Air Armament Center. "Our continued mission success is highly dependent on open and honest communication within the local area. Eglin’s presence creates indirect jobs, providing more than $414 million in income for the area and strengthening the economic tie between the base and the communities. Most of the men and women who work on base live in these communities and those who live on base spend a great deal of their money outside the gates.
"The communities continue to support our airmen in many ways, including dedicating a room for them and their families at the airport, welcoming those returning home from deployment, or giving a simple ‘thank you’ for a job well done," Davis said. "Community support greatly enhances the quality of life for our airmen."
One of Eglin’s specialties is birth technology — taking an idea from its birth and developing it for use in the field.
Future plans for Eglin include the bed-down of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter for training new pilots, as well as the addition of the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group, decisions made by the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission. (In preparation for the F-35, the 33rd Fighter Wing’s F-15s were redeployed and the 33rd Fighter Wing reorganized under the Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command on Oct. 1. However, the loss of those personnel connected to the F-15 will be more than offset by the new troops coming to the base.)
According to the March 2008 Eglin Air Force Base Draft Environmental Impact Study, increases in military personnel are estimated to be 2,326 for the F-35 and 2,200 for the 7th Special Forces Group, which is moving to Florida from Fort Bragg, N.C. With spouses and children added, the total population increase is expected to be 10,952. In documents provided by the Defense Support Initiative, a program of the Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County, the military construction required to support both projects will be approximately $1.1 billion. With the construction spending and personnel increases, it is expected that by 2015 the gross regional product will increase by $451.3 million.
Hurlburt Field was originally an auxiliary airfield of Eglin Air Force Base. Now it is home to the Air Force Special Operations Command and the 1st Special Operations Wing.
For the base’s "Air Commandos," community support is vital because of the frequent and often-extended deployments they face.
"The people who support the critical missions at Hurlburt Field live, work, play, worship, shop and attend school in the communities surrounding our bases," said Col. Greg Lengyel, commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing. "While the base population has a positive economic impact on the communities surrounding the installation, it is only possible because of the tremendous support the communities give to our airmen and their families. Without the support of the local community, our airmen would not be able to accomplish our critical mission."
According to Lengyel, as Hurlburt increases existing missions while taking on new missions and duties, construction and expansion projects are under way and scheduled into the future. They include the Soundside Collocated Club and Visiting Officers Quarters, the Combat Weather Operations Facility, and several road and infrastructure projects.
Nearby Duke Field made history soon after it was established. Just a year after construction of the field was begun, it was used as a training base by the legendary Doolittle Raiders in 1942 for their bombing raid on Tokyo. It later supported the Bay of Pigs invasion and a mission to rescue prisoners at Son Tay, North Vietnam. Now Duke Field is used by Air Force reservists who spend time in both civilian and military roles and can truly appreciate the connection between the different roles.
"The 919th Special Operations Wing has long enjoyed a strong and mutually rewarding relationship with our local community neighbors whom we share with Eglin Air Force Base," said Col. Jon Weeks, commander of the 919th. "Duke Field’s total economic impact of more than $60 million obviously shows we are a highly valued neighbor here.
"While our reservist ‘Citizen Commandos’ live and work in communities spread throughout the Southeast, they are very active community supporters and volunteers," Weeks said. "Likewise, our local community neighbors — from individual citizens to businesses and chambers of commerce — are very actively involved supporters of our mission, our airmen and their families."
The Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County, through its Defense Support Initiative, has worked relentlessly to preserve and protect the missions at all three bases.
"The military in Okaloosa County and throughout Northwest Florida helps us sustain a high quality of life that reflects leading research and technological diversification," said Paul Hsu, chairman of the council.
"At least 50 percent and maybe up to 70 percent of our 1,100 businesses have a direct or indirect financial gain from the military in our area," according to Ted Corcoran, president and CEO of the Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce. "There is no doubt about it that Fort Walton Beach thrives on its association with the bases."
While Walton County doesn’t have the same military personnel presence, a large portion of the county is part of the Eglin reservation, supporting testing and evaluation. It also is home to the 20th Space Control Squadron, which operates a large, sophisticated radar to detect, track, identify and report space objects in earth’s orbit.
"Although Eglin is predominantly in Okaloosa County, many of the soldiers and workers of the defense contractors live in Walton County," said Dawn Moliterno, president and CEO of the Walton County Chamber of Commerce. "The Walton Chamber has a Military Affairs Council that helps to ensure the connectivity between military and business communities. We support them in many different ways."
U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller’s 1st Congressional District encompasses the military installations and surrounding communities in Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties. It also has more than 116,000 military retirees and veterans, more than any other congressional district in the nation.
"These installations employ tens of thousands of servicemen and women, and thousands of military families contribute to the local economy. This has a direct impact on the area’s employment numbers, pushing unemployment rates lower in Northwest Florida than the state and national averages," Miller said. "The arrival of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at Eglin, along with the 7th Special Forces Group’s move to the base, will bring over 10,000 people to our local community and provide upwards of $700 million in military construction funding."
F-22 Raptor training and naval research
Tyndall Air Force Base was not even fully constructed when on Dec. 7, 1941 — coincidentally, the date of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — the first of 2,000 troops arrived to begin gunnery training. It has primarily served as a training base, although it has experienced mission changes over the years, notably the creation of the 23rd Air Force’s Southeast Air Defense Sector, which provides air defense for the southeastern United States. Tyndall became the first home of the F-22 Raptor in 2002 and provides training to new pilots.
"Bay County and Tyndall Air Force Base have shared an awesome and mutually beneficial relationship for decades," said Brig. Gen. Darryl Roberson, commander of the 325th Fighter Wing. "As our mission and requirements have changed over the years, the local government and economy have ensured the success of our mission while balancing their own needs. I have no doubt that our outstanding partnership will continue to flourish."
Tyndall provides approximately 2,500 local jobs and has a $650 million annual economic impact on the local community. In 2009, the base used about $23 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which added many jobs to the local community during a time of rising unemployment.
"While some job losses are anticipated due to the eventual drawdown and retirement of our F-15s, the impact of Tyndall to the local community is expected to remain significant for the foreseeable future," Roberson said.
Naval Support Activity Panama City was founded as the U.S. Navy Mine Countermeasures Station in 1945. Its mission is to provide research, development, testing and evaluation for amphibious warfare, diving, mine warfare and maritime special operations.
"A strong local economy and community are essential to achieving our missions," said Navy Cmdr. Jessica Pfefferkorn, commander of the facility. "The 18 commands and organizations aboard NSA Panama City support a broad scope of missions to enable the war fighter of today and prepare for the threats of tomorrow.
"To accomplish this task, we require a highly skilled work force," Pfefferkorn said. "The local economy and educational opportunities in Bay County are key to producing, attracting and maintaining this talented civilian work force and making Panama City a duty station of choice for our active-duty members."
Bay County’s two military bases alone have a significant effect on the economic life of the community and are probably one of the reasons why Bay County’s unemployment rate is lower than the state average, according to Janet Watermeier, executive director of the Bay County Economic Development Alliance.
"The bases play a vital role in keeping the local economy more stable than the rest of the state," she said. "Another favorable economic outcome of military installations is the number of defense companies attracted to the area because of the proximity to a military facility. Defense companies, who typically hire high-skilled workers for high wages, also have the advantage of hiring from a pool of post-military personnel."
Both bases are in U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd’s 2nd Congressional District. He calls them "huge economic drivers" because of the $1.3 billion annual impact they have on the county.
"From the military positions to the many contractors and private companies that do business on bases, our community revolves around their activities and needs," Boyd said. "The work they do on behalf of our national defense not only financially benefits the community but also provides a less tangible value in the pride the community takes in each base’s missions. If you walk the halls of the Pentagon, Panama City quickly jumps to the top of the list as one of the best locations where military members serve."
Protecting our economic lifeline
The specter of any tampering with Northwest Florida’s economic mainstay is daunting. The Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, commonly referred to as BRAC, put state and local governments on full alert to take measures to protect the military missions and their economic lifeline to the community. Heeding that call, each of the five counties that play host to the military created specific organizations to preserve or increase the military’s presence.
Action at the state level has also taken root. In March 2009, state Sen. Don Gaetz of Niceville and state Rep. Dave Murzin of Pensacola introduced legislation to protect the state’s military presence. Signed into law by Gov. Charlie Crist in June, the measure created the Florida Council on Military Base and Mission Support. Its goal: to develop an understanding of the capabilities of all state military installations and support future growth opportunities.
"It helps reinforce the working relationship between the military and the Florida Legislature," said Murzin, who was appointed to the council in October. "We can work together to anticipate future needs and help retain missions vital to our country’s national security."
On signing the bill into law, Crist recalled Florida’s long history of welcoming members of the military and veterans.
"The council will help us maintain our reputation as the most military-friendly state in the nation by better coordinating community and state support for military bases and operations throughout Florida," he said.
Military Ties: MBT Divers
Self-described "Navy brat" Fritz Sharar (left), and his partner, James Phillips, a former U.S. Marine Corps flight instructor, have owned and operated MBT Dive and Surf Shop near NAS Pensacola since 1996. The military is a sizeable proportion of their business.
"I would say about 40 percent is military," said Sharar, who with Phillips is active in the Reef Fish Restoration Association as well as the USS Oriskany Reunion Association.
Even in its final demise, the Oriskany gave the diving business an injection of publicity and brought even more non-military tourist divers when the Navy’s decomissioned ship was scuttled and became an artificial reef off the coast of Pensacola.
"Now we get divers from all over the world. Some as far away as Japan and many from Canada," Sharar said.
In a 2007 Haas Center study of the economic impact of the Oriskany as a recreational dive expedition, it was estimated that in Escambia County, $1.2 million in total dive-related expenditures would generate a local economic impact of more than $2 million, 37 jobs and $740,000 in local income. — Scott Jackson
Jack Sanborn, a former Marine Corps flight instructor at Whiting, and his wife, Esther, tapped into their love of outdoor recreation to establish Adventures Unlimited in 1972 along the banks of the Coldwater River, just 3 miles northeast of Whiting Field. Now, with more than 250 canoes, 90 kayaks, 500 inner tubes and 21 cabins on the 100-acre property, they provide recreational challenges and environmental consciousness for the community.
"I would say probably 23 percent of our business is military," said Sanborn. "Our ROPES course is probably our biggest community outreach for a lot of different groups for teambuilding. The military takes advantage of some of that, as well as ROTC groups. We work particularly closely with the military on cleanups."
Esther Sanborn is a director on the Santa Rosa County Clean Community System, which strives to protect and enhance the environment through education, awareness and action. — Scott Jackson
Jo’s Tailor Shop: A Military Partnership Forged in Wartime
The beginning of Jo Britt’s relationship with the U.S. military could have easily been a romantic- or adventure-movie script. As an 18-year-old Filipina girl during World War II, she and her 6-year-old brother Teddy extended their hands in support, literally, by smuggling food and medicine to sick and exhausted American prisoners of war making the horrific Bataan Death March. Risking death by the harsh Japanese, she and her family struggled to assist.
"I was 18 and wild," said Britt, "and I wanted to help someone in need." Thus began a relationship serving the needs of the U.S. military that continues to this day.
Helping those American POWs got Britt, then Josephine Salanga, in so much trouble with the Japanese that she had to flee and hide until the war ended. Later, after her father wrote to several of the former POWs, she was reunited with and married one of them, Sigmond Laskowski. He had re-enlisted in the Army Air Corps (which became the U.S. Air Force in 1947) and been reassigned to the Philippines.
Britt and her husband came to the United States in 1948, and by 1951 she was a U.S. citizen. They were assigned to Eglin Air Force in 1953 and departed in 1955 for tours at Andrews Air Force Base and back to the Philippines before returning permanently to Eglin in 1957.
Britt worked at the tailor shop at Eglin for several years before setting out on her own in 1966 to carve out her own niche.
"After my boss told me he couldn’t give me the raise I asked for, I opened the business in five hours, that very same day, with $1,500," she said.
Today, Jo’s Tailor Shop sits a stone’s throw from the east gate of Eglin Air Force Base, having provided tailoring services since Feb. 1, 1966.
"I have been here 43 years in the same location," Britt said. She also manages several rental properties that she has acquired over the years.
Britt’s husband died in 1975. She remarried, and her second husband passed away in 1998.
With the deep ties to the military and a great location, her business continues to thrive.
Word of mouth has certainly benefited her business, as many of Britt’s customers end up residing or retiring in the area after leaving the service.
"Most of my business is word of mouth," she said.
Certainly, the word has moved out into the non-military community as well.
"In the beginning of my business, 100 percent of my customers were military," Britt said. "Now it is about 80 percent."
The sacrifices that Britt and her family made during World War II are still remembered by surviving Bataan POWs.
"A lot of Americans owed their lives to brave Filipinos like the Salanga family," wrote one of them, James Gautier, in his book, "I Came Back from Bataan."
Britt takes pride in the close relationship with Eglin over all these years, as well as being able to continue working.
"I’ll do this until I’m 6 feet under," said Britt, now 86. "If you quit, you die sooner." — Scott Jackson