State's funding of infrastructure vital to retaining SouthCom
By Paola Iuspa
Advocates trying to persuade Congress to keep the US Southern Command in Miami need to maintain state funds to show Florida's commitment to the military hub.
Community support of the operation is one element the federal government will take into account when deciding the future location of the regional command base. The US Ministry has recommended that SouthCom stay in Miami after 2007, when the lease for its current site expires, but Congress has the last say on the issue, said SouthCom spokesman Raśl Duany.
One of the Department of Defense's nine unified commands around the world, SouthCom is the control room for almost all US military and national security operations in Latin America and the Caribbean. Personnel from the US Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard are assigned to the command.
In two years, Congress will also decide if the overall military presence in Florida should be cut - as it does every 10 years under the Base Realignment Commission, aimed at shutting down surplus military bases throughout the US.
The military has a $1 billion economic impact in South Florida and is its third-largest industry after tourism and agriculture, said Dianne Wright, a consultant to the Miami-Dade Defense Alliance, a division of the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade County's economic-development agency.
Gov. Jeb Bush also has created a task force to see how Florida can maintain its military presence.
But state funding allocated last year to create community programs and help improve roads and other infrastructure to facilitate SouthCom operations are in jeopardy this year. The state is facing a huge deficit, and legislators are cutting grant programs to balance the budget.
Last year, the state appropriated $1 million for community defense programs and $4 million for defense infrastructure projects in Florida. Of that, Miami-Dade County's projects received $135,000 and $250,000 for infrastructure, Ms. Wright said.
The funds helped her group, in partnership with the military affairs councils at Chamber South, Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and the Homestead/Florida Chamber, initiate and plan programs to enhance the quality of life for SouthCom's personnel and their relatives. Some initiatives involve helping students of SouthCom families transfer to Miami-Dade schools and helping families adjust to South Florida's high cost of living, seek waivers and reductions in housing deposits and discounts for car insurance, said Diana Gonzalez, another consultant to the Defense Alliance.
"We are in the midst of putting together a discount directory for businesses that wish to offer discounts to active duty and reserve personnel and families," Ms. Wright said. "We want the community to give them anything they need to facilitate their lives. We want them to stay."
The alliance plans to host its' Doing Business With The Military EXPO, in which businesses will meet with local military procurement officers and members of other major government agencies, she said.
With 1,500 civilians and military employees, SouthCom spends about $186 million a year, with much of it coming back to the community in salaries and contracted services, Mr. Duany said. The group also books about 15,000 room nights annually in Miami hotels, he said.
SouthCom moved to the 19-acre complex in the Doral area, 3511 NW 91st Ave., in 1997, relocating from a Panama base in Central America, where it had been for 34 years.
Mr. Duany said the Department of Defense favors the existing site because its location is perfect to launch security operations to Central and South America. Also, he said, Miami International Airport offers direct flights to many of the countries on its watch. The Department of Defense tried to buy the existing SouthCom facility for about $27 million, but Congress rejected the recommendation, Mr. Duany said.
In 2000, the US minister of defense wrote to US Sen. Bob Graham, then-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, proposing the purchase of the building.
The issue is pending in Congress.
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