By Sammi Sontag
In a special county commission meeting Monday, the board voted 5-0 to move forward with the multimillion-dollar OLF-X land exchange between Escambia County and the U.S. Navy.
Congressman Matt Gaetz and Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Installations and Facilities Jim Balocki asked the commissioners for final documentation of the exchange that has been in the works for decades.
“The ask of the county is to contemplate the cost of the project given the reduction and new requirements and for the board to memorialize any changes made to put us on a better path to continue forward,” Balocki said. “I also think it’s hopeful that we started to move in the right direction to reduce cost for the taxpayers by $1 million to $2 million.”
The Navy was authorized to make the swap thanks to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016. But Gaetz, Balocki and county commissioners finally confirmed the final details Monday afternoon despite the $5.5 million dollar gap the county has to complete the project.
“When we speak of the remaining gap, some of that is the consequence of inflation,” Gaetz said. “We’re building in a lot of differently places in Escambia so the cost of labor has gone up. And the gap isn’t the county’s fault or the Navy’s fault.”
He added, “So with our legal teams working on making final changes, my hope is we can move forward.”
The OLF-8 will be used to promote growth in the private sector, while OLF-X will be used as a helicopter pilot training for the Navy.
“I’ve supported the project since it started,” Commissioner Lumon May said. “I am big advocate for manufacturing jobs, and although this is not in my district, these jobs will help all of Escambia County.”
OLF-8 is in Commissioner Jeff Bergosh’s district. Bergosh campaigned on completing the land swap and won the three-candidate GOP primary by 11=percentage points. He asked the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy, “Is this something the Navy wants?”
“Let me say, unequivocally, yes,” Balocki replied. “This would help training at Whiting Field; it helps our aviators, it helps our national security. It helps provide strength for our nation. What more do you need?”
Commission chair Doug Underhill, who has criticized the project and its supporters since taking office in 2014, expressed concern that while the project is mutually beneficial for both Escambia County and the U.S Navy, Escambia County is the only partner investing dollars in the deal.
“This is a unique arrangement, it’s a one-off if you will,” Balocki said. “But it’s a mutual advantage. Yes, it’s a one-sided equation in terms of the cost, but I’m anticipating that the county expects a lot out of this development, and it will result in revenue that will enhance employment and economic development.”