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Squadron relocates to Whidbey

Make room for another thousand or so Navy personnel and family members on Whidbey Island.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen announced Wednesday that the rumored relocation of Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron Two (VQ-2) from Rota, Spain, to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station will be effective Sept. 30.

“This long-awaited news is great, we’re thrilled,” said Oak Harbor Mayor Patty Cohen.

Oak Harbor residents have been chatting about the possible move for nine to 10 months, as Cohen reckons it. The school board has mulled over the impact on enrollment and real estate agents have been dreaming of more sales.

But it wasn’t official until Wednesday.

“It’s nice when it’s official,” Cohen said. “Our extended family has just been added to.”

Larsen said VQ-2 will bring 408 enlisted personnel and 90 officers to Whidbey Island with a total annual payroll of $33.8 million. That figure is based on an officer’s average salary of $115,582 and average enlisted person’s salary of $57,279.

Tagging along with the Navy personnel will be some 466 spouses and children, and the city hopes to be ready for them.

Cohen said there will be “challenges” revolving around such day-to-day family concerns as affordable housing, daycare, schools and jobs for spouses.

She thinks the housing situation can be solved with help from neighboring towns, such as Coupeville, Anacortes and Mount Vernon. “A 30 minute commute for those from the East Coast, that’s not a bad thing,” Cohen said.

According to Gregor Strohm, real estate columnist for the Whidbey News-Times, as of last month, there were only 234 current active listings for houses and condos on all of Whidbey Island. The average home sale price has increased by 31 percent over the last three years to $229,822.

Cohen said the city and Navy are working together to ease the transition of the newcomers to NAS Whidbey. “The Navy’s paying lots of attention to the public and private sector,” she said.

Rick Schulte, superintendent of Oak Harbor schools, said the new squadron’s impact on school enrollment will be manageable. He estimates there could be as many as 200 kids, but they’ll probably arrive over time and not all will attend Oak Harbor schools. “Families come and go after the squadron comes,” he said.

Oak Harbor’s elementary school enrollment has been declining slightly in recent years so the presence of VQ-2 offspring could stabilize things.

“I’m not expecting any difficulty. We’ve got a few empty elementary classrooms,” Schulte said. “We could hire some teachers.”

Handling another squadron of reconnaissance planes at NAS Whidbey won’t tax the base’s capabilities, said Capt. Syd Abernethy, base commander. VQ-2, like its sister squadron VQ-1 already based at Whidbey, consists of Aries II and P3 Orion aircraft.

“It’ll be a natural transition,” Abernethy said Thursday. “We’ll set up a detachment site almost immediately.” The crews and their families will arrive over a period of months.

The move seems to secure the base’s future for the long term, coming only a few weeks after Whidbey escaped being included in the latest Base Realignment and Closure process.

Still, questions remain. Mayor Cohen noted that successor aircraft to the base’s two mainstays, the electronic warfare Prowlers and the reconnaissance P-3 Orions, are in the pipeline.

“There are still a lot of unknowns about the long-term permanent mission at the air station,” Cohen said. “We want to sit down and talk about the successors to the Prowlers and P-3’s.”

Abernethy declined to address those specific issues, but in general terms painted a positive picture of the base’s future. “We have viable missions and a great partnership with the community. There’s a bright future for Whidbey,” he said.

Rep. Larsen said VQ-2’s move from Spain to Whidbey is aimed at reducing overseas base operations and support. “The military wanted to do this and make other moves consistent with its global defense posture,” he said. “It’s great news for the local economy and cements NAS Whidbey as a central hub for naval aviation.”

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