Martinez

Another go-round on the OLF

CorrespondentMay 20, 2009 

Were it not for Osama bin Laden, I would be the man northeastern North Carolina most despises.

That's because of my support for the U.S. Navy's efforts to build an outlying landing field primarily for F-18 squadrons based at the Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia. The Navy is looking at five sites, two of which are in the northeast part of the state.

Last week I chastised OLF opponents, particularly those in Camden, Currituck, Hertford and Gates counties, for being selfish, given the facility's importance in providing carrier operation training for Navy pilots. To put a point on it, I contrasted OLF criticism to the support given by the greatest generation of North Carolinians to the construction of Camp Lejeune in 1941 to train Marines to fight in World War II.

As expected, I got a barrage of e-mails accusing me of being an ill-informed Navy stooge and ignorant of the region's history, culture and agricultural significance. Sprinkled among the venom were thoughts from some well-reasoned OLF opponents.

Candice Gutierrez, for example, faulted my Lejeune-to-OLF example as "an erroneous comparison." She pointed out that Camp Lejeune created thousands of jobs and attracted numerous new businesses. New homes and infrastructure were constructed to support the new economic activity. Nearly 70 years later, the people of Jacksonville and Onslow County continue to enjoy the economic benefits from the expansion and diversification of the local tax base.

Similar economic benefits are absent from the OLF, Gutierrez wrote. "All the money, job creation, business profits and thousands of jobs are going to remain in Virginia Beach, Hampton and Norfolk Areas."

Maybe not.

Among those who offered feedback was Rep. Bill Owens, primary sponsor of a law specifically designed to make it harder for the Navy to build an OLF in North Carolina. Owens wanted to give me, as Paul Harvey used to say, "the rest of the story."

He stressed the fundamental unfairness of North Carolina's getting stuck with the environmental bad of an OLF while Virginia reaps the economic good of NAS Oceana.

To sweeten the deal, Owens told me, he's part of a group of legislators and some of the state's congressional delegation that's pushing to negate the need for an OLF by reassigning two Navy F-18 squadrons from NAS Oceana to the Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point near Havelock. If four squadrons could be peeled away from Virginia, he'd even support building an OLF in North Carolina.

From a community relations standpoint, this proposal makes a lot of sense.

Havelock and Craven County love the Navy and United States Marines. Havelock Mayor Jimmy Sanders heads a group actively lobbying for two new F-18 Super Hornet squadrons as well as the new F-35B to be based at Cherry Point. In short, the mayor is out to get as many Navy aircraft as possible stationed at Cherry Point.

A number of logistical, operational and political obstacles would have to be overcome to transfer NAS Oceana F-18 squadrons to Cherry Point. But Owens said he's determined to see it through. He echoes Gutierrez's point that in exchange for exporting a portion of its F-18 noise to North Carolina, Virginia should also be willing to export some of its military jobs. That certainly would represent a significant boost for a chronically economically depressed portion of our state. Mayor Sanders estimates the impact of two F-18 squadrons is at least $50 million per year.

Because an OLF site in western Craven County was previously rejected, I doubt the admirals and Marine generals will be enthusiastic toward Owens' Cherry Point solution. But if the Navy again fails to win public and political endorsement for its next preferred OLF site, it may be time for the service to cut its losses and fly where it's wanted. Given that the Navy has been trying for nearly a decade to locate the OLF, community support has become as important to its operation as airspace.

Sadly, North Carolina has fundamentally changed since 1941. Back then, support for our troops was inherent, even if it meant personal sacrifice. Today, support beyond wearing a ribbon or lapel pin seems to be based on a cost/benefit analysis.

Contributing columnist Rick Martinez (rickjmartinez2@verizon.net) is director of news and programming at WPTF-AM.

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