Northwest Florida’s Navy
Pensacola and the military enjoy ties 100 years strong.
The “Cradle of Naval Aviation” is also a fine place to rest.
According to the U.S. Department of Actuary, Pensacola’s 325– ZIP codes are home to the highest concentration of military retirees in the nation — totaling 33,560 as of September 2015.
Retired Navy Rear Adm. Donald P. Quinn has traveled far and wide with the military. Although he reports that there are many bases with fine community relations, he believes Pensacola’s relationship with its military is among the best in the country.
After serving more than 30 years in the Navy, culminating with his command of the Naval Education and Training Command at Naval Air Station Pensacola, today Quinn works as a consultant to the Greater Pensacola Chamber of Commerce — alongside Vice President of Armed Services Debi Graham, who he largely credits for the strong military-civilian relationship in the area.
“Debi is known throughout the East Coast because of her participation in defense forums and the success she has generated here,” Quinn said. “Other civilian communities around the country come to our chamber to ask how we do it. We lead the way.”
A Unique Connection
Quinn says the number of retirees can be chalked up to the state’s pursuit of military contracts and the sheer number of bases in the area. It’s also where many members of the armed services first earn their “wings.” Because NAS Pensacola is a training base, people have fond memories of their time there.
“It’s warm. The climate is good. The quality of life is good,” Quinn said. “So many Air Force, Army, Navy, Coast Guard and Marine folks have come through here for training and remember it with a special place in their hearts.”
Pensacola treats the military well with regard to schools and jobs, including the hiring of spouses. It’s also a smart place to start your own business.
“Because of the cost of living, it’s easier to open your own business because conditions are good and you don’t have to make as much money to maintain a good quality of life,” Quinn said. “There is less risk involved than in other places in the country.”
A Century of Community Support
Long before retirement, young service members — enlisted and officers — complete extensive training at NAS Pensacola. From naval aviators to cybersecurity professionals, its training commands graduate more than 59,000 students annually — representing every branch of service and foreign allies.
In 2014, NAS Pensacola celebrated its 100th anniversary as the Navy’s first Naval Air Station. For more than 100 years, the city of Pensacola, Escambia County and surrounding areas have continuously supported both the base and its mission “to efficiently deliver the very best readiness from the shore.”
One of only four installations in the continental United States with an active airfield and a deepwater port, NAS Pensacola is home to 126 Department of Defense and non-DoD tenant commands, according to public affairs officer Patrick Nichols.
Composed of four geographically separate locations, the base’s major tenant commands include the Naval Education and Training Command, the Center for Naval Aviation Technical Training, the Naval Aviation Schools Command, the Center for Information Warfare Training, Marine Aviation Support Groups 21 and 23, the Naval Medicine Operation Training Center, the Naval Survival Training Institute, the Navy Orientation Recruiting Unit and the Air Force 479th Flying Training Group.
To assist the community in its support of the military, Escambia County and the Pensacola Chamber have received funds via grant programs from the Office of Gov. Rick Scott, administered by Enterprise Florida and funded by the state Legislature.
The Defense Infrastructure Grant provides support for local infrastructure projects that have a positive effect on NAS Pensacola’s military value, while the Defense Reinvestment Grant provides funds to the community to support military relations.
“The funds received by the county and the chamber have been integral in land acquisition projects to prevent encroachment, provided transportation and base access upgrades, and assisted in the Cyber Warfare Battle Lab acquisition and surface restoration,” Nichols said.
The community’s dedication is reciprocated.
NAS Pensacola fosters community service from within its Outreach Department — providing an average of 8,000 volunteer hours by sailors each year. Command staff also serve as integral and active members of the chamber’s Military Affairs Council, promoting face-to-face interaction with Pensacola leaders, business owners and residents.
“With more than 23,000 people attached or working at NASP, the installation enjoys an incredible relationship with the community,” Nichols said. “All of the civilian employees and many of the military members live in and support the local area.”
The annual economic impact of NAS Pensacola is more than $1.3 billion, around 40 percent of the local economy — even greater than tourism.
Looking to the Future
The chamber’s Graham points to a call to action by the Association of Defense Communities to foster increased collaborations between military bases and their host communities.
According to a new paper released by the association, “States and communities have a significant role to play in helping military installations adapt to a variety of challenges — including budget constraints, aging infrastructure, evolving missions and weapons systems and generational changes in social attitudes.”
That’s where Graham’s work comes in, and Quinn says there’s no one better suited to the task.
“She can connect you with the city, the county, the state, the businesses,” he said. “She’s a connector. I don’t know if you can put a value on that.”
Quinn and Graham work together within the Military Affairs Department of the chamber to enhance current commands and missions, ensuring stability and quality of life for Pensacola’s military members and their families.
This includes helping the base become more proactive in utilizing alternative fuel sources such as solar energy, fostering public-private partnerships and assisting with changes in base security.
Few military bases have a tourist attraction on-site, Quinn notes. NAS Pensacola has three: the National Naval Aviation Museum, Barrancas National Cemetery and Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum.
When base security tightened at the main gate, Graham was instrumental in securing grant funding to increase signage on Interstate 10 and feeder roads, directing visitors to the back gate in an effort to maintain the level of security while still giving the community access to on-base attractions.
The chamber is also raising awareness. Each year, Graham and her team coordinate a five-county Washington, D.C., fly-in to ensure that elected officials know the issues facing the defense community in Northwest Florida, from Escambia to Walton County.
“That’s the role that we at the chamber are taking,” Graham said. “We are looking at how the community can support the installation as a ‘base of the future,’ including hardening of infrastructure and making sure there are no encroachment or security issues.”
New at NAS Pensacola
The base is seeing an increase in training, largely due to funding, but first and foremost in an effort to enhance its quality and effectiveness, according to Rear Adm. Quinn.
Among those upgrades:
- Corry Station’s National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center is expected to double in size over the next several years, both in square footage and in people. This will bring in top talent and further solidify Pensacola’s growing reputation as “Capital of the Cyber Coast.”
- Training Wing Six has leapt forward about three generations in the use of technology to train Naval Flight Officers. Live, virtual and constructive (LVC) principles and technology are now extensively used, including virtual air-to-air engagements in the actual T-45 aircraft.
- One of the three wing squadrons, VT-4, is now 100 percent simulation, yet is producing some of the best-trained naval flight officers the P-3, E-2 and E-6 communities have ever seen. Many of the lessons learned in this training are being exported to other training squadrons and organizations throughout naval aviation, including the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center in Fallon, Nevada.
- On the Air Force side, the 479th Flying Training Group will ramp up from 260 pilots to 330 per year. Although electronic warfare had lain dormant for some time, the Pensacola unit has become a center for it.
- Coast Guard aviation is expected to increase from 55 to 70 pilots per year. A Coast Guard tender may potentially be assigned to NAS Pensacola, beginning in summer 2017, bringing as many as five additional 210-foot cutters to the base. Meetings and planning are ongoing.
- The VA and Navy Hospital Pensacola are working together to optimize use of the hospital and the clinics to support active-duty personnel, retired military, veterans and their dependents. Recent advances now make it possible for Navy doctors to view a patient’s VA medical records.