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Point Mugu Base Passed Over for 4 Air Squadrons

Navy: Recommendation calls for Hawkeyes to be relocated from closing Miramar station to Lemoore. County officials hope decision is not final.

November 01, 1996|LORENZA MUNOZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County officials, struggling to keep Point Mugu Navy base viable in an age of military downsizing, were handed a defeat Thursday with a recommendation that a set of air squadrons be moved to a base in the Central Valley, rather than to Point Mugu.

Although not a final decision, the military's recommendation to relocate four E-2 Hawkeye squadrons from the Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego to Lemoore Naval Air Station is a key step in deciding where the squadrons will end up.

Bringing in the squadrons, displaced by the imminent closure of Miramar, was an important aspect of the county's plan to bolster Point Mugu so the base will be spared in the next round of base closures and consolidations.

Point Mugu spokeswoman Phillis Thrower said she was optimistic this recommendation would not be final. Capt. Stephen Beal, commanding officer of the Naval Air Weapons Station, declined to comment.

"This is only a recommendation," Thrower said. "The final decision will be made by the spring of 1997. We are just going to hang in there and be very positive. We're not going to give up."

But county representatives were wasting no time in preparing a plan of action to convince Washington officials--who will make the final decision--to bring the E-2s to Point Mugu. In addition to Lemoore and Point Mugu, Navy officials considered shifting the planes to bases in El Centro and North Island in San Diego.

County officials estimate the squadrons would bring in more than 1,100 people to the base and pump new jobs into the economy.

Over the past six years, more than 3,500 direct, defense-related jobs have been lost in Ventura County due to downsizing and consolidation of bases. Point Mugu and nearby Port Hueneme Navy base contribute nearly $1 billion annually to Ventura County's economy, officials say.

"We are going to mobilize to figure out the best place for us to be," said Supervisor Frank Schillo, a member of the Ventura County Regional Defense Partnership-21st Century, a group lobbying to keep the Point Mugu Naval Air Warfare Station from closure.

"We thought we had a pretty good opportunity because of the coast. . . . My only fear is that a decision like this could be the precursor to a closure of the base."

In 1995, the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, known as BRAC, briefly placed Point Mugu on a list of base closures. In the end, the base was spared, but Department of Defense budget estimates and plans for future consolidations will create massive downsizing, county officials say.

Officials at Lemoore, 40 miles south of Fresno, welcomed the news of the recommendation but said they were cautiously optimistic. The base houses the Pacific fleet's F/A-18 Hornet squadrons and can expand considerably, said Dennis McGrath, public affairs officer at the base.

"There is a saying: Always a bridesmaid never a bride," said McGrath. "There have been five times in the past where we were supposed to grow considerably and we did not. We are used to being picked for growth and not growing."

John Evans, a member of the Ventura County task force, said he did not understand why the Navy would select the desert over the coast for its operation.

"By definition, the Navy is a seagoing operation," said Evans. The E-2 Hawkeye, which flies off aircraft carriers, sports a radar dome to control air traffic and detect enemy planes.

The task force will meet Tuesday morning to discuss its next step, Evans said, noting that the commission's influence is limited.

"The community can't do much more than add up the total cost to the taxpayer" and bring it to the Navy's attention, Evans said. "We are not in a position to tell the Navy where they will operate their airplanes."

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