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Plans to cut bases raises concerns about NAF

August 24, 2001|By LAURA MITCHELL, Staff Writer

A proposal to shut more military bases could hurt the local economy if Naval Air Facility El Centro is forced to close.

Congress will look at a proposal by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld when members return to Washington after the Labor Day holiday.

NAF El Centro has always been mentioned in such closure talks, said Imperial County Supervisor Joe Maruca, who has the air station in his district.

The Navy base, its employees and its visitors spend $15 million a year in Imperial County.

The air station's closure could hurt the county, whose economic staple, farming, has struggled over the past three years. Imperial County also has the highest unemployment rate in the state.

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"We have 500 military, civil and civil contract workers. Of the civil workers, all except one are local people," said Capt. Larry Crane, base commander at NAF El Centro.

The air station employs about 300 military personnel and 200 civilians. Up to 10,000 visitors a year, mainly pilots and support crew, use the facility for training, Crane said.

The facility is best known as the winter home of the Navy's Blue Angels fight demonstration squadron but it also is valuable to the Navy as a 365-day-a-year training ground. It handles more than 156,000 flight operations a year and more than 450 take-offs and landings a day.

"It's a very valuable piece of property because of the weather," Crane said. "We're just a little bit below sea level. Pilots can train as they would aboard ship — that's extremely important."

A visiting squadron knows it is going to get training at NAF El Centro and that's key. When an operation is canceled because of weather, the squadron loses valuable time and money, said Rep. Duncan Hunter, who is the Imperial Valley's congressman and is on the House Armed Services Committee.

"NAF El Centro has been on the chopping block before," Hunter added.

There have been four rounds of base closures, in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995.

"NAF El Centro was on the study list in 1990. It was never on the formal list of the base closure committee," said Michael Harrison, Hunter's press secretary. "Once the study is completed, there is a commission hearing at the facility, but NAFEC never got to that point."

"I don't know that Congress would go along with another round of base closures," Hunter said.

Of the bases that have been ordered closed, 55 percent have not been disposed of yet, Hunter said. Those bases are still costing money and should be taken care of before there is another round of closures, he added.

Crane said if NAF El Centro were on the list to be examined, he would turn to the local community, where he's always received great support.

Hunter added, "If the air station is on the list of possible bases to be closed, we'll put a team together and work with the Pentagon. We'll make sure they have the facts straight. We'll roll up our sleeves and get to work."

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