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    Guard, Reserve to call Pinellas home

    A joint training facility in Pinellas Park would likely be the new address of units stationed at three outdated facilities in the area.

    By ANNE LINDBERG
    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published November 30, 2001


    Army Reserve and National Guard units from across the bay area could come together in a new $45-million home in mid Pinellas County as early as next year.

    The arrival of the new Joint Armed Forces Reserve Training Center will mean Reserve and Guard units will abandon their current homes in three outdated facilities, including Tampa's Fort Homer Hesterly Armory.

    It's unclear whether those centers, which also include Lovejoy U.S. Army Reserve Center in Tampa and JF Campbell National Guard Armory in Clearwater, would close entirely or be used for other military activities. The employees there likely will be transferred to the new center.

    The new joint training complex will be located on about 58 acres of land in Pinellas Park on the northwest corner of 28th Street N and Grand Avenue in the Gateway Centre.

    The center will be one of the few in the country that provides joint training for Army Reservists and National Guard troops. U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, who worked to secure the money for the complex, said he thinks such joint training could be the wave of the future as the traditional Army shrinks.

    "As the overall strength of the Army comes down, the Guard and Reserve become much more important," he said. "They are extremely important to our overall security interests."

    The center will have a full-time staff of 100 to 130, said Maj. Ron Tittle, chief of public affairs for the Florida National Guard. On training days, up to 1,700 more soldiers will be at the center.

    That number of soldiers shopping, eating and using hotel rooms will bring an estimated $50-million a year into the local economy, Young said.

    Young said he worked for several years to bring the center to Pinellas County, getting $10-million appropriated last year and another $35-million a few weeks ago.

    The Gateway Centre is a business-residential-industrial complex at the juncture of Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg off Gandy Boulevard. It is home to such companies as Lockheed Martin and Federal Express and is the future home of Dew Cadillac and an upscale apartment complex.

    The apartment complex is being built by Centex Development Co., which owns the land where the training center will be built.

    Bob Sebesta, property manager for Centex, said his company and Florida National Guard officials have been negotiating for a long time over the property and "minor details" still need to be worked out.

    "It's a great location," said Sebesta, who is the son of state Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg.

    Young agreed, saying the Gateway Center was appealing because of its location near the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport and Interstate 275.

    Nearby is the Carillon office complex, which houses financial heavyweights Raymond James and Franklin Templeton, among others. Also nearby is an upscale Radisson Hotel that's scheduled to open this weekend.

    Keeping in mind the residents and office workers, the Army and National Guard plan no heavy duty training at the new center. That means no gunfire or tanks will disturb the neighborhood.

    "That's not an approved firing area for weapons," Tittle said.

    The training center will be used for drills and classroom work, Tittle said. It will also provide a place to keep more than 600 military vehicles and trailers.

    The National Guard units that will be stationed there are Headquarters Co., 53rd Infantry Brigade; 253rd Military Intelligence Co.; and Cos. A and B, 53rd Support Battalion.

    The Army Reserve units based at the center are the Headquarters Co., 32nd Transportation Group; two 154th Judge Advocate units; 174th Legal Support Organization; 641st Area Support Group; two 73rd Hospital units; 320th Military Police Co. (combat support); and 788th medical detachment.

    Since 1991's Operation Desert Storm, the Reserves have been mobilized seven times and the Guard also has been used in national emergencies, Young said. That is true today -- both reservists and Guard members have been called to duty in Afghanistan and across the country to protect against terrorist threats.

    "Sept. 11 emphasizes the importance of what we're doing here," Young said. "I think the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 just emphasized the effectiveness of readiness centers like this."

    It's still unclear when groundbreaking will occur, but Young said he would be at the site at 1 p.m. Saturday to formally announce the project and unveil updated drawings of the 216,424-square-foot center.

    Young said he hoped construction could be completed next year.

    Pinellas Park officials were elated by the news.

    "That's huge news," Pinellas Park council member Ed Taylor said. "It's certainly terrific news not only for our city of Pinellas Park but for central Pinellas County. It's a strategic location that will serve both sides of the bay."

    One reason for the consolidation is to replace the other outdated facilities, officials said.

    The best known of those is Tampa's Fort Homer Hesterly National Guard Armory, where Elvis once appeared. Famous athletes and political leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy, also appeared there. During segregation in the 1950s, it was also a spot to see African-American entertainers. Most recently, it probably has been best known as a choice spot for boxing and wrestling matches.

    Tampa Mayor Dick Greco said armory officials spoke with him several years ago about vacating the building on N Howard Avenue.

    "We told them that the city would love to have first dibs on the property," Greco said.

    Greco, who had not heard about the impending move of the armory's Guard personnel until a reporter called him Thursday night, said the building would be the ideal place for the city's Parks and Recreation Department, and added that the city has "coveted" the property for years.

    -- Times staff writers Tamara Lush and Jon Wilson contributed to this report.

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