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Northwest Florida awarded defense grant to help bolster military bases

More than $1.1 million in state defense funding is headed to Northwest Florida to help bolster military bases, stimulate defense research and provide support for wounded service members.

Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday that the Florida Defense Support Task Force awarded grants to four local projects. The task force was created in 2011 to protect the state’s military installations and the defense industry.

“The Florida Panhandle is vital to America’s national security — and we’re committed to supporting the families and communities who serve,” Scott said in a press release.

The task force awarded an additional $1.5 million to six projects elsewhere in the state.

Santa Rosa County received $160,000 to help build a security fence around Naval Air Station Whiting Field.

Improving the security fence was one of the recommendations included in a strategic plan produced for the task force last fall by The Spectrum Group.

The group was commissioned to find ways the state could try to protect its military bases and defense interests against downsizing and closures in a tightened economy. The federal government’s next Base Realignment and Closure process could begin as early as next year.

“This will help protect and enhance Naval Air Station Whiting Field and hopefully make us more competitive in the next base closure round,” said Santa Rosa County Commissioner Don Salter on Monday.

Whiting Field is the county’s largest economic generator. It produces about 3,300 military and civilian jobs and injects about $900 million into the local economy each year.

After The Spectrum Group’s report was released in October, the county asked the task force for money for the project. It was the only funding request the county made to the task force this year, Salter said.

The county is going to match the state’s grant, bringing total funding for the project to $320,000. That is enough to construct a portion of the fence, although Salter does not know the exact footage.

“It will not cover the cost of the entire perimeter fence, but it will make a good start and we will keep asking for additional money in the future until the entire project is complete,” he said.

Several years ago, the county and the Navy partnered to acquire approximately 270,000 acres outside the back entrance to Whiting Field to prevent incompatible development there, such as housing. The county is now working with the base to turn that land into an aviation park that will hopefully include private-sector aviation maintenance companies that could work on base aircraft, Salter said.

The fence will provide a buffer as well as enhance security between the base the aviation park.

The county asked for $200,000 this year, but the request was only partially fulfilled, Salter said.

“I don’t think any community got everything they asked for, but we were very pleased with the $160,000.”

The Andrews Institute in Gulf Breeze was also awarded $225,000 to provide support for wounded special operations warriors.

They plan to use the funds to continue providing intensive restoration therapy to wounded special ops service members to try to get them back to active duty, said Chad Gilliland, chief operating officer for Andrews Institute for Orthopedics and Sports Medicine.

“This grant will help Northwest Florida continue to grow as a leader in providing heath services to our military communities,” he said Monday.

Two additional projects in Northwest Florida also received funding.

The Bay Defense Alliance in Panama City was awarded $500,000 to assist in the acquisition of land to buffer Naval Support Activity Panama City from encroachment.

The Greater Pensacola Chamber will receive $250,000 to establish a center of excellence for information dominance to stimulate science and technology research.

No funds were awarded to projects in Okaloosa County.

An additional $1.5 million went to projects in Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa Bay and The Highlands area.

Scott said in the press release that Florida is home to nearly 100,000 men and women who serve in active and reserve duty.

There are at least 20 major military installations across the state.

“The military has a strong presence in Florida, which means jobs and opportunities for Florida families,” Scott said in the press release. “These $2.6 million in grants will enhance relationships between Florida communities and the military, to ensure we’re doing the best job possible in working with our nation’s armed forces.”

Contact Daily News Staff Writer Lauren Sage Reinlie at 850-315-4443 /  lreinlie@nwfdailynews.com.

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