Boost economy, keep Navy

Developing Oak Harbor’s economy goes hand-in-hand with keeping Whidbey Island Naval Air Station off the base closure list in 2005, Mayor Patty Cohen told a Chamber of Commerce audience Thursday.

Delivering her annual “state of the city” address to more than 150 people at the CPO Club overlooking the base, Cohen emphasized the need to provide more job opportunities for Navy spouses, and to take over some of the non-military infrastructure of the base, such as the sewer and water systems.

While Cohen expressed overall optimism that the base will escape the next round of closures in 2005, when the Pentagon hopes to shut down about 25 percent of remaining U.S. bases, she also aired some worries.

“I’m very concerned about our ability to create an environment to keep NAS,” she said. “They want employment opportunities, and there’s a lot of competition out there, folks.”

While she cited progress such as making the Goldie Road area more business-friendly, she criticized past efforts to boost the economy in such areas as building a cultural center and attracting a waterfront motel, which withered without funding.

“We’ve been trying to play it safe,” Cohen said. “We need lots of nerve, a commitment to invest, or it’s just not going to happen.”

The city is trying to help the base reduce costs by pursuing a 1999 Department of Defense edict to divert to civilian operators certain non-core base operations, such as water and sewer. Since then, the city has taken over NAS Whidbey’s Crescent Harbor sewer lagoon, and has submitted a plan to operate the Ault Field sewer system. In September, a proposal will be made to operate the base’s water system.

“It’s a huge endeavor, a huge project,” Cohen said. The city has spent $200,000 on consultants to help it happen. If the city’s efforts are rejected as too costly, however, the Navy may look elsewhere, so Cohen sees such operations as essential to the city’s future.

“Streamlining the economics of NAS Whidbey could be an advantage in ‘05,” Cohen said. “And it allows us to control our future, regardless of what happens in ‘05.”

She sees a future in which the city controls sewer and water systems with excess capacity, allowing more economic growth.

Cohen sees continued Pentagon spending on Whidbey, in such areas as housing and military infrastructure, as a good sign that it plans to keep the base.

“NAS is well positioned to survive the ‘05 round, but we’ll be up against the best of the best,” Cohen said, referring to earlier base closure rounds that eliminated many less competitive bases.

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