A former Naval air station could help growth on the city's west side.
by Jane Tanner
When the Navy began considering closing the Cecil Field Naval Air Station in 1993, former Jacksonville Mayor Ed Austin hired Herb McCarthy, a retired deputy assistant secretary of defense, to help the drive to keep the base open. That effort failed, but Austin's successor, John Delaney, thought enough of McCarthy to entrust him with a new task -- turning the giant facility on the city's west side into a business hub.
Last fall, the Jacksonville Port Authority took over 35% of the 27-square-mile base, renamed Cecil Commerce Center. This summer, the city will take title to another 13 square miles, or 8,300 acres. The rest is for public parks.
McCarthy, a native of Boston who climbed the federal civil service ladder under seven U.S. presidents, is trying to focus the former base on a mix of aviation and distribution business, especially just-in-time inventory operations. McCarthy and city officials envision big distribution centers taking advantage of nearby interstates, the railroad and seaport. This excites McCarthy, who describes himself as a logistics man. At one point in his career, he was responsible for $140 million in federal purchases; during the Gulf War he laid the groundwork for getting equipment and materials to the Middle East. "Aviation is the big star, but it's only going to go so far," he says of the former base.
The business center has a number of assets stemming from its previous life. Already, Northrop Grumman and Boeing have aircraft repair operations here. Aviation software and support firm Logistics Services International, the first private firm to sign a lease, expects its 115-person workforce at Cecil to grow to 200 this year. The Navy's aircraft repair depot moved 360 jobs here, and Florida Community College at Jacksonville is creating a center to train workers in aircraft repair.
Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman's Field Support Services subsidiary, a payroll and benefits administrator, moved its headquarters from Long Island to Cecil and has spent about $1 million to transform a base bowling alley into tony offices. California-based real estate developer The Internext Group was inspecting former officer housing for conversion into an over-55 residential community.
The transition to civilian use won't be seamless. About 70% of the offices and other buildings must be demolished. Some are riddled with asbestos; most don't meet code. Others just aren't suited for civilian life, such as the former nuclear weapons compound.
The city estimates it will cost $15 million just to clear sites; needed roadwork and infrastructure improvements will be extra. The state recently agreed to chip in $9 million to clear old buildings and fix some roads.
The Jacksonville Port Authority expects to oversee $29 million in capital improvements during the next five years to upgrade its portion. JPA's property is centered on the base's four runways, where Northrop Grumman and Boeing operate. One day, the runways will be used for air freight, but not commercial airlines.
For Jacksonville, the business park should spark growth on the west side, which has lagged other parts of the rapidly growing city. McCarthy maintains that a successful civilian facility will have greater economic impact on the local community than the base did. He says the "biggest hurdle is time."
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