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Gov plugs Whidbey base

Washington stands ready to respond with speed and accuracy when the Pentagon releases its Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) list.

That’s the message Gov. Christine Gregoire told elected officials and community leaders from across the state who gathered in Oak Harbor Tuesday to discuss BRAC and its potential effects.

Until the list is released, which is expected to occur Friday, no one will know what bases the Department of Defense will target for closure or realignment.

However, Gov. Gregoire has told Pentagon officials the state is ready to accept more military responsibilities.

“We’re well positioned to grow,” Gregoire said.

She told leaders gathered at the Whidbey Campus of Skagit Valley College in Oak Harbor that the state has allocated money to address infrastructure issues near bases.

“We’re ready to help Oak Harbor with buffers for encroachment, for example,” she said, “and we’re committed to expanding education and social services around the state.”

The governor called the recently-completed legislative session “historic” with 13 bills addressing tuition waivers and property tax exemptions for service members, as well as other veterans’ issues and focusing on “predatory” payday lenders.

Gregoire said Washington is ready to save each and every base in the state should the need arise.

“We’re proud of Washington’s military bases and want to accept more,” Gregoire said.

During the meeting, leaders discussed the U.S. military as an “economic engine” in the state.

In Oak Harbor and Island County, that engine drives the economy.

Tension and nerves will be running hard and fast the next few days as Whidbey Islanders nervously await release of the BRAC list.

Local leaders won’t confess any doubts or concerns about the fate of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. They maintain cautious optimism that the base’s assets of open air space and high quality of life will secure the base’s future.

“We’re honored to be the hometown of what we feel is one of the premiere military communities in the nation,” Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen said Tuesday. “We never want to take what we have for granted.”

Washington state leaders as well as Washington, D.C., leaders are keeping their eyes on BRAC.

“We’re holding our breath, but we aren’t hearing anything to make us nervous,” Abbey Levenshus, Rep. Rick Larsen’s director of communications, said during a telephone interview Friday.

Levenshus said BRAC rumors have been flashing around D.C.

James Seely, a retired admiral who is Oak Harbor’s consultant on BRAC and other military matters, has said he hears the same rumors but information on this BRAC round is the most tightly held he’s every seen.

Seely also said he’s not worried about NAS Whidbey Island’s fate.

He claims spacious air space and widely varied terrain near the base make Whidbey Island a valued training area for patrol and reconnaissance crews and EA-6B Prowler radar-jamming jets. In a recent interview, Seely said he was confident the Prowler’s follow-on aircraft, the F/A 18G, would be sited here, making the base even more secure.

However, it’s hard to believe no one is worried about the future of the base. Losing its more than $360 million in annual payroll would rock Island County’s economy.

Since November 2002 when national officials announced the 2005 round of BRAC, Mayor Cohen, city council members and county commissioners have been touting the area’s strong support of the military to politicians and decision makers in Washington, D.C.

They’ve made sure people know that local laws and ordinances prohibiting development from encroaching on base property, reduce or eliminate many problems bases in other parts of the country experience.

One of Whidbey Island’s more unique methods of protecting the base is a noise disclosure rule. Real estate sellers must tell buyers about jet noise and have the buyers sign paperwork acknowledging this notice.

In other areas of the country, base officials spend much time and effort responding to complaints of noise.

Whidbey Island’s access to training airspace continues to be a major point people cite when discussing the base’s strengths. Quality of life for families comes in a close second.

And many local people hope Whidbey will grow, not shrink, from BRAC.

The most recent action taken to promote NAS Whidbey came April 29, when Gov. Gregoire, Rep. Larsen and the entire Washington congressional delegation outlined the military value of all the state’s bases to the BRAC commission. The letter urged the commission to “adhere to the BRAC criteria and put military value first when they consider the initial base closure list.”

“Washington’s military bases are huge economic engines for our state,” Gov. Gregoire said in a press release. “But, more importantly, they are strategically placed to enhance our national security and protect our nation’s interests throughout the Pacific Rim. We can’t afford to lose these bases economically or strategically.”

A cover letter with the report affirmed: “Washington state soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are our national treasure. They are serving bravely in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have recently played a central role with tsunami relief in Southern Asia. We are proud of those who serve, and we are proud of the unique network of capable installations that our state provides in their support.”

The exact day and time the BRAC list is to be released hasn’t been set. By law the list must be released no later than May 16.

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