St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Defense projects in line for boosts

Three Tampa Bay operations are due to receive a significant boost in funding in a 2002 defense bill.

By MELIA BOWIE, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 2001

Three Tampa Bay operations are due to receive a significant boost in funding in a 2002 defense bill.

The tragic events of Sept. 11 have given new urgency to several security initiatives aimed at shoring up Tampa Bay and, in turn, the country.

Little known before the terrorist attacks, the projects now stand to receive big financial boosts after U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young included them in a pending 2002 defense appropriations bill that could be decided next week.

The projects include funding for a nationally known terrorism school at St. Petersburg College, money for a biological defense program at the University of South Florida, and a fleet of high-priced Army helicopters at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

"We started these programs some time ago. Now we're trying to accelerate," said Young, R-Largo, who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Among the new initiatives is $65.5-million to buy four Black Hawk helicopters for a soon-to-be-built Army Reserve aviation unit. Also included is $9-million in continued funding for the Center for Biological Defense at USF and $3-million to the National Terrorism Preparedness Institute at SPC's Allstate Center.

The projects will join a new Armed Forces Reserve Training Center in mid Pinellas County, for which Young already has secured $45-million. The center could be home to area Reserve and National Guard units as early as next year.

The largest of 13 appropriations bills, the defense items were passed by the House on Nov. 28 and approved by the Senate on Dec. 4.

Now the legislation must go to a conference committee to reconcile differences between House and Senate versions of the bill.

Given Young's history and experience, "it's more than likely what's there will be approved," said Harry Glenn, Young's chief of staff.

However,"none of these items were in the Senate bill (so) these numbers may not stay the same as they were in the House bill ... they are all on the table for negotiation," Young said. Nevertheless, "it is my plan to have this conference completed and this bill on the floor sometime next Thursday."

That would mean some welcome financial support for the National Terrorism Preparedness Institute in St. Petersburg, which has seen demand for its services skyrocket since the attacks, said director Daniel McBride.

Nearly 4 years old, the nonprofit school occupies two suites and a television studio at SPC. It has about 50 adjunct instructors and specialists, who travel the nation teaching firefighters, police, military and medical staffers about dealing with the effects of weapons of mass destruction.

Seventeen New York police officers who studied at the institute died Sept. 11, McBride said.

While the school is working to increase its services, Army Reserve officials said they are trying to transform theirs. They say a new $17.8-million aviation base near the airport and eight Black Hawk helicopters will help them accomplish it.

Last year, Young secured money for the base. The legislation also provided money to equip the new Army Reserve Aviation Facility with four Black Hawks.

A groundbreaking ceremony is set for January, when the Black Hawks arrive. The facility will comprise a 29,500-square-foot maintenance building and an 8,300-square-foot training building, said Reserve spokesman Maj. Jon Dahms in Washington.

Because a similar aviation base is also being opened in California, only four helicopters were approved for Tampa Bay last year. The final four would be paid for by the pending 2002 bill, officials said.

The incoming Black Hawks are part of the Army's national effort to develop a "lighter force" with more flexibility.

Another line of the national defense is being enhanced by the $9-million in continued funding to USF's Center for Biological Defense, which has seen greater demands for its expertise since the anthrax attacks.

The biological defense program teaches agencies and regional health departments to detect biowarfare agents. It also is developing bioterrorism training materials, surveillance systems and detector technology to identify harmful agents before an outbreak.

The need for funding and for their security services will continue to grow, predicted Fred Ragsdale, a National Terrorism Preparedness Institute project coordinator.

"The threat of terrorism is not going to go away and we need to be prepared," he said. "We can't necessarily stop it but we can teach people to survive it."

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.