Panhandle fights for military jobs

Published July 28, 2006

PENSACOLA - When President Bush signed the military base closing plan last year, Eglin Air Force Base looked like a winner with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter set to bring in 2,400 jobs.

But local leaders and Gov. Jeb Bush's office say they were mislead into thinking the plan was the last word on major changes at the state's bases. They say they were surprised when a plan to move up to 3,400 jobs from Eglin to California's Edwards Air Force Base quietly surfaced this month.

The plan appears on hold, but anger about it remains strong in this heavily Republican, promilitary region.

The plan also pits Gov. Bush against Air Force brass who targeted the Panhandle base after the president ordered budget cuts.

"We're very concerned about it," the governor said. "We went through the BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure Commission) process, Eglin passed with flying colors. We've pressed our concerns, trust me."

The governor said he was working through official channels and had not asked his brother to intervene on the state's behalf for the 46th Test Wing, which tests bombs, missiles and other aircraft-based armaments and includes some of the region's most high-paying, high-tech jobs.

Some view the fight for the 46th as a test of the Panhandle's political pull.

"You are talking about taking billions of dollars out of this area, and this is not the most economically solid area of the state," said James Witt, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of West Florida.

Gen. Bruce Carlson, who oversees the Air Force's Material Command, held a closed-door meeting last week with community leaders, who said he told them the Air Force needs to trim $581-million to help fund the nation's $318-million-a-day war cost.

Carlson spokesman David Levingston said nothing has been approved and "it is going to be some time before anything is final."

"In my view, this was an attempt by some Pentagon generals to win off the table what they lost on the table. I think it undermines the integrity of the BRAC process," said Don Gaetz, Okaloosa County's school superintendent and the region's state senator-elect.