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Leaders swing into base-saving mode

When alarms signal general quarters on a Navy ship, every person runs to their battle stations and prepares for action.

When the Pentagon releases its list of bases to be realigned or closed in a few months, the city of Oak Harbor may go to battle stations. But instead of ear-splitting alarms, tones from cell phones, pagers and computers will alert the town.

Whidbey Island Naval Air Station escaped the last BRAC round in 1991 but no facility is safe in 2005 as the Pentagon looks to close or realign 25 percent of military bases in the United States.

Closure of NAS Whidbey, the island’s largest employer, would affect economies of Oak Harbor and Island County. Although many people believe this base is safe, no one is taking risks. City and county leaders will travel to Washington, D.C., the first week of February to promote the base and Whidbey Island.

“In 1991, people in D.C., thought Whidbey was an old World War II base,” County Commissioner Mac McDowell said Thursday.

“No one realized what the base had here.”

Because staffing at the Pentagon changes every two or three years, McDowell and others make regular visits to educate people on Whidbey Island and its base.

McDowell said a relatively unencumbered air space adds heavily to the base’s military value. Officials have cited military value as the priority of BRAC 2005.

Northwest skies, and skies over Whidbey Island in particular, have room for military crews to practice maneuvers and train.

McDowell will also talk about the weather. But he won’t be making idle chitchat.

Whidbey Island enjoys more flying days than any other naval air station in the country, McDowell said

LeMoore, Calif., often can be fogged in for weeks, he added. In the Jan. 19 Sacramento Bee newspaper, columnist Dan Walters wrote:

“Washington officials are concerned, for example, that their Whidbey Island Naval Air Station could be closed as its aging EA-6B electronic warfare airplanes are phased out in favor of a version of the F-18 fighter plane. Lemoore … is the West Coast headquarters for F-18 squadrons and could expand if Whidbey … is on this year’s hit list.”

According to a report on Defenselink.mil, Secretary of the Navy Gordon England recently said the Navy’s BRAC list was almost complete. However, England did not divulge the Navy list.

Dave Waggoner, NAS Whidbey’s commanding officer during the 1991 BRAC, said BRAC 2005 seemed “much more fact-based” than the 1991 round. Today, Waggoner manages Paine Field, Snohomish County’s airport.

Waggoner does not recall being asked to supply much data in 1990 and 1991.

“They (BRAC 2005) is more diligent about collecting information than the last round,” he said.

Waggoner said he’s been watching BRAC 2005 but said people in Oak Harbor were paying more attention than he was.

People including county commissioners and base supporters as well as Oak Harbor elected officials pay close attention.

Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen said she’s “cautiously optimistic” about this round of BRAC.

But she’s not taking any chances. Cohen will join McDowell on the D.C. jaunt where they will meet Oak Harbor’s BRAC consultant James Seely, a retired rear admiral who was stationed at NAS Whidbey.

McDowell and Cohen don’t know exactly how much their trip will cost. The bill, however, will be covered by the state as part of a $53,160 grant the state gave the city to defend NAS Whidbey during BRAC 2005. The NAS Whidbey Task Force, which formed in 1991, manages the grant money.

The grant has funded the cost of preparing and printing a booklet the two will disseminate around D.C. Cohen said the booklet extolls strong ties Oak Harbor and Island County have with NAS Whidbey.

In previous years, several city council members made the trip as well. Cohen will be the solo city representative due to security considerations.

Getting multiple passes to the Pentagon can be difficult, she said.

In March, several city council members attending the National League of Cities Conference in D.C. will meet with elected officials.

In February and March, Oak Harbor will focus on relating NAS Whidbey’s assets to politicians and military decision makers on the East Coast.

“We protect, enhance and preserve the Department of Defense’s military investment into NAS Whidbey,” Cohen said.

At the city and county levels, local ordinances, policies and codes buffer the base from encroachment of development. Disclosure rules require sellers to notify land and home buyers about noise levels in neighborhoods.

Cohen won’t stress only the issue of military value.

“The sign outside City Hall reads ‘America’s Premiere Naval Community’,” Cohen said.

“We want people to know that’s what we are.”

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