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Our Base is Safe

The sound of freedom will continue to roar over Whidbey Island for the foreseeable future.

Whidbey Island Naval Air Station escaped the Base Realignment and Closure list which was released Friday morning.

Rather than lose a base, the island will gain jobs as a result of BRAC, said Senator Maria Cantwell in a news release. NAS Whidbey will receive an additional 139 jobs due to changes made elsewhere, Cantwell said.

Inside Oak Harbor City Hall, elected officials and civic leaders celebrated the base being omitted from the closure bracket.

“Hugs are in order,” Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen said.

“It’s a complete relief,” Island County Commissioner Mac McDowell said, displaying a toothy grin.

Over coffee and doughnuts, people expressed delight that D.C. politicians had recognized all the work the community had accomplished during the past 13 years protecting and preserving the training environment on Whidbey Island.

“Logically, no one expected Whidbey to be on the list,” Beth Munns said. “But what happens in D.C. isn’t always logical,” the former president of Oak Harbor Council of the Navy League added.

Munns said Whidbey’s air space for training and the base having room to expand were important strategic aspects.

Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce President Greg Boynton conceded air space and expansion are important to Whidbey. However, Boynton who’s also manager of Wal-Mart, looks hardest at people.

Boynton estimated that 55 percent of Wal-Mart employees are affiliated with the Navy as family members, retirees, active duty or reservists. Had NAS Whidey closed, Boynton said he would have “lost a lot of good associates.”

And the store would have lost a lot of business had NAS Whidbey closed. The base has an annual payroll of more than $360 million. And much of that money circulates around the island.

The base population supports approximately 20,000 people from active duty members, civilian employees, families and retirees, Boynton said.

“That net loss would have had a huge impact locally. We’re very happy the base is remaining open.”

Everyone from restarauteurs to Realtors to base suppliers to gift store owners echoed Boynton’s thoughts Friday.

An ecstatic Josh Rowley of Papa Murphy’s Pizza plans to expand his business to a free-standing outlet complete with drive-through window in the next two years.

He estimates military families provide 95 percent of his take-and-bake pizza business and he looks forward to continue serving Whidbey Island’s military.

Rich Bennett, manager of Chugach Development Corporation, supervises 140 employees in maintaining NAS Whidbey Island’s buildings, roads and runways. The contractor’s $7 million annual payroll doesn’t include all the products the company buys.

“We buy product as close to Whidbey Island as possible,” Bennett said. He purchases everything from construction equipment and concrete to toilet paper, lumber and light bulbs.

“We’re a significant impact locally,” he said.

Bennett, a former commanding officer of VAQ-133, said he was happy the Navy and the nation had recognized the strategic importance of NAS Whidbey to the nation’s security.

Those sentiments were echoed in comments released Friday by Capt. Syd Abernethy, commanding officer of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

We’d like to thank the community for its incredible support,” Abernethy said. “The city of Oak Harbor, Island County and all the surrounding communities have worked tirelessly as advocates of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and we appreciate their efforts.”

Veteran Oak Harbor Realtor George Churchill was also pleased the base was not listed for closure.

“It’s Friday the 13th but still this community got good news today,” he said.

Churchill, who rents and sells real estate, said the military affects Oak Harbor’s entire economy.

However, this businessman also looks closely at the social impacts the Navy makes.

“Navy people are so entrenched here, we’re excited they will stay,” Churchill said. He pointed out that Navy families sustain Little League teams, along with Boy Scout and Girl Scout groups. Volunteers spend time at schools as well as support civic functions including the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life.

“It would be a great loss socially if that great community spirit decreased,” he said.

When NAS Whidbey made the BRAC list in 1991, Churchill saw the local real estate market come to a complete halt for three months. He credits the original members of the Save Whidbey Task Force for taking the initiative to uncover problem areas and outline solutions.

Resulting legislation that controls encroachment on the base and demands disclosure of noise zones has created a highly positive area for the military.

“The business community should publicly thank Save Whidbey Task Force members for making Oak Harbor a leader in protecting our military assets,” Churchill said.

In addition to business people, elected officials are breathing easy over NAS Whidbey’s future.

“Of course, I’m relieved,” Barb Bailey said Friday. Just before 8 a.m., the state representative left Oak Harbor City Hall for Everett where she would meet with U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, Gov. Christine Gregoire and other officials.

“It’s important to note most bases in the state will fare well,” she said.

Bailey, also a Navy League member, said she has several trips to D.C. planned and will spend time visiting with military commanders promoting bases and making sure major military installations stay intact.

“We’ve always said we are ready to accept more,” Bailey said.

Oak Harbor will remain the home of one of the country’s premier naval communities, as the sign outside city hall proclaims.

Officials, however, won’t sit back and relax. To them, not making the BRAC list simply means it’s time for more work promoting ties between NAS Whidbey Island and the community.

“Our efforts must continue,” Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen said.

She explained that Oak Harbor and Island County as a community led the nation in adopting land-use policies protecting the base from encroachment.

“People watch Whidbey Island and we like being at the forefront of attention,” Cohen said. “We want that attention to continue.”

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