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Pensacola bids for Space Command HQ

Jim Thompson
jthompson@nwfdailynews.com
Northwest Florida Daily News

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The city of Pensacola is making a bid to host the headquarters of U.S. Space Command, and other Florida cities could follow as the Air Force seeks self-nominations from qualified cities.

U.S. Space Command is a unified combatant command under which the Space Force, the Air Force and other branches of the military operate in space.

“We do meet the minimum screening criteria,” Kaycee Lagarde, Pensacola’s public information officer, confirmed in a Friday email.

Also according to Lagarde, Pensacola Mayor Grover C. Robinson IV has sent a letter to Space Florida, the state’s aerospace economic development authority, expressing the city’s interest in hosting U.S. Space Command headquarters. After that, the letter will go to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for his review and potential endorsement before it is forwarded to the Air Force.

In the letter, addressed to John Henderson — assistant Air Force secretary for installations, environment and energy — Robinson wrote, “I am proud of the long history of strong community partnership with our military services in the Northwest Florida region and look forward to sharing our strengths in mission readiness, technology, infrastructure, support to families and low costs.”

The criteria for the U.S. Space Command headquarters location were outlined in a May 14 letter to the nation’s governors from Henderson. In the letter, he tells the governors that the Air Force, on behalf of the secretary of defense, “is taking a collaborative approach (to choosing a site for Space Command headquarters) by allowing eligible communities to self-nominate to serve as the host for this critical mission.”

Interested communities must be within the top 150 Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the country, be located within 25 miles of a military base and have a minimum score of 50 on the Livability Index published by the American Association of Retired Persons Public Policy Institute.

According to an informal Daily News analysis of those criteria, in northern Florida, in addition to Pensacola, the state’s capital city of Tallahassee, as well as cities within their respective MSAs, meet those minimum requirements. Other Florida communities that appear to meet the criteria are Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Orlando, Jacksonville, Naples and Ocala, although that may not be an exhaustive list.

The Air Force is asking interested communities to nominate themselves via a form letter that reads, in part, “After careful review of the screening and evaluation criteria, we believe our community meets all minimum eligibility requirements and would earn a competitive score when assessed against the evaluation criteria. Therefore, we would like to work with your team through the evaluation phase in the coming months.”

In addition to the form letter, the Air Force is asking governors to provide an indication of state backing for any self-nominations.

The deadline to submit nominations and endorsements to the Air Force is June 30.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ press office did not say Friday whether the governor had received any self-nominations.

But in a Friday email, DeSantis press secretary Cody McCloud said Space Florida “is working with local governments on the requirements that United States Space Command has established for eligible communities to self-nominate to serve as the host for this critical mission.”

According to the email, Space Florida “has given local governments until June 23, 2020, to submit their nominations and Governor DeSantis will review and decide on the endorsement of the eligible community(s) by the June 30, 2020 deadline.”

Last week, Space Florida hosted a virtual information session on U.S. Space Command basing eligibility. Held in partnership with Enterprise Florida, the Florida Defense Support Task Force, the Florida Defense Alliance and Keiser University, the event featured a review and discussion of siting criteria for Space Command headquarters. Beyond that, the information session was designed to help interested Florida communities to evaluate their eligibility and communicate their strengths to the U.S. Space Force.

The information session attracted the attention of 150 people from across the state, including the Panhandle, according to Dale Ketcham, Space Florida’s vice president for government and external relations. However, it’s not clear exactly how many of them actually participated in the session.

A quick review of the expected attendance list did show the name of retired U.S. Navy Capt. Christopher Middleton, who serves as chairman of the West Florida Defense Alliance and also as the military affairs liaison for University of West Florida President Martha Dunagin Saunders.

Middleton is named in Robinson’s letter as the city’s point of contact for issues relating to the Air Force siting decision for U.S. Space Command headquarters.

The attendance list also showed that representatives of the cities of Ormond Beach, Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa Bay, Largo and Sanford were expected to be a part of the meeting.

In addition to Middleton, Northwest Florida was expected to be represented by a number of people, including representatives from the Emerald Coast Regional Council; the Northwest Florida Working Group; Florida’s Great Northwest; Gulf Power; Pensacola-based FloridaWest Economic Development Alliance; the University of West Florida; Hurlburt Field, headquarters of Air Force Special Operations Command; and the Bay County Defense Alliance.

Ketcham noted Friday that while U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, who represents Pensacola and a surrounding area of Northwest Florida in Congress, was not a part of the virtual session, he has been an advocate for bringing U.S. Space Command headquarters to Florida.

“I think there’s a lot of interest,” Ketcham said. “It certainly wouldn’t surprise us if we got a handful of self-nominations. We’re just going to have to wait and see what comes forward.”

The Air Force had indicated months ago that it had narrowed the list of possible Space Command headquarters locations to Alabama’s Redstone Arsenal, California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base and Colorado’s Peterson Air Force Base, Buckley Air Force Base, Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station and Schriever Air Force Base.

But at a March meeting of the House Armed Services Committee, Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett announced the search would be reopened to give state and local governments a renewed opportunity to pitch for the command headquarters.

It’s not completely clear why the search was reopened, but Barrett’s announcement came after members of Congress from around the country, including Florida, began making pitches for the headquarters.

U.S. Space Command was established in August 2019 as the military’s 11th unified combatant command. It is temporarily headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base.

When Space Command headquarters is fully established, wherever that may be, it will house 1,400 military and civilian personnel.

“I don’t think anybody doubts that Colorado remains a strong front-runner,” said Ketcham, who added that the political clout of neighboring Alabama also is a concern.

Nonetheless, “We’re grateful for the opportunity to get back in the game,” Ketcham said

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