09/27/11 — All eyes on BRAC

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All eyes on BRAC

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 27, 2011 1:46 PM

WALNUT CREEK -- Gov. Bev Perdue asked those who showed up to greet her Monday morning to resist the temptation to pat each other on the back -- to, instead, use the several hours she would be in Wayne County to spark an "honest discussion" about issues that would likely come to the surface should Seymour Johnson Air Force Base face another BRAC.

"We have to understand clearly that just because we haven't had an announcement from the federal government that there's another BRAC coming in the near future, we all know, those of us who have lived in one of our military base communities over the past 20 years, that there is always a BRAC coming, and that somebody, somewhere, is watching what we do, how we treat the men and women of the military and how the state responds as it competes with other states for these military locations," she said.

But for the better portion of a three-hour "strategy and innovation session" designed to help the governor and her team "assemble an action plan for reinforcing and strengthening the military's and defense community's impact on the economic development, growth and quality of life of the region," local officials chose to reinforce, again and again, that the communities outside the installation gates were the "most military-friendly in the world" -- that Seymour Johnson was the home of "the greatest fighter wing on planet Earth."

In fact, only a few among the hundred-plus who turned out took significant time to unwrap those issues they argued were critical to protecting the place that made an economic impact of more than $500 million last year.

4th Fighter Wing Opera-tions Group Commander Col. Brian Kirkwood was one of them.

And while he spent a few minutes of his presentation telling the governor "why the Strike Eagle matters," he also spoke at length about encroachment, bird strikes and the need to protect the Dare County Bombing Range.

All three of those issues, the colonel said, could impact the Air Force's ability to train.

"And if we can't train, we're not prepared," he said.

So he told the governor how the city's constructed wetlands and storm water retention ponds are harboring birds that are, at times, damaging the 4th's fleet of F-15Es.

"Our biggest safety concern centers around birds," he said. "There are a lot of birds in the area."

And he talked about the need to keep the Dare range -- and the base's flying routes -- intact.

Military Affairs Committee member Jimmie Edmundson agreed.

He characterized the flight routes used by Seymour Johnson as "critical" and suggested the state look into legislation that would protect eastern North Carolina bases from encroachment -- from proposed "wind farms" and housing developments that could force aviators to alter where and how they fly.

He talked about the need for increased funding to focus on "bird harassment efforts" at the city-operated constructed wetlands and beyond -- and even recommended that city be granted "some flexibility with its storm water retention ponds."

"On Aug. 2, 2010, we had a bird strike an F-15," Edmundson said. "As of today, that F-15 has not been returned to service and the cost of repairs, to date, is (more than) $10 million.

"Not only (are bird strikes) a safety concern for our aircrews, but (they are) very expensive for our taxpayers and can take an aircraft out of service for an extended period of time."

But Edmundson and Kirkwood were not the only ones who raised concerns.

4th Mission Support Group Commander Col. Anne Winkler told the governor that roughly one-third of the base's military spouses were having trouble gaining employment because of limitations that come with being married to a service member.

And Goldsboro City Manager Scott Stevens and his Wayne counterpart, Lee Smith, talked about the need to replace some of the aging infrastructure on base.

Only one question, however, was raised about the quality of the local school system -- an issue the governor, herself, said would come up should BRAC come back.

"Until we can admit honestly in our hearts that the quality of the work force is tied hand in glove with the quality of our education system, we're fooling ourselves," she said. "Any company that we recruit, any general that comes to evaluate our bases ... at one point or another has a very direct conversation with me ... and they say, 'Tell me about the quality of the public schools.'"

Monday's conference marked the final installment of a four-part summit created by the governor to strengthen her relationship with the communities that house North Carolina's military bases -- and to ensure the state's installations are protected.

Concerns raised at each of the four will be pooled together before a statewide wrap-up to be held next month.