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Jacksonville's Mayport Naval Station gets a safety net

Over the past 25 years, Jacksonville’s Mayport Naval Station has shrunk from two aircraft carriers, 28 combat ships and nearly 30,000 sailors to 19 ships and 5,000 sailors. The Mayport-based USS John F. Kennedy, the last conventional-powered aircraft carrier built in the U.S., was decommissioned in 2007.
Another 11 frigates home-ported in Mayport, with more than 200 sailors each, are scheduled to leave by 2015, with newer ships to replace them not arriving before 2016.

For the small businesses around the base, from ship-repair companies to suppliers, the future has looked increasingly dark. “We could see where we were going to fall off a cliff,” says J. Michael McGrath, executive director of the Jacksonville Area Ship Repair Association and a former Navy captain.

In 2009, spirits were buoyed when the Navy announced that it would house a nuclear aircraft carrier at Mayport. But five-year naval budgets released this February contained no funding for the planning and infrastructure work required to ready Mayport for the nuclear carrier. Tightened defense spending — along with political and civic uproar over the plans in Norfolk, Va., home to the entire Atlantic fleet of five nuclear carriers — have put the project on indefinite hold.

This summer, the Navy unfurled a safety net, announcing it will move up relocation of a fleet known as an Amphibious Ready Group from Norfolk to Mayport. The USS New York will move in 2013, and the USS Iwo Jima and USS Fort McHenry in 2014, with some 2,000 sailors and their families expected in Mayport. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus says the move “underscores just how important Jacksonville and Naval Station Mayport are to national defense and how committed we are to strategic dispersal on the east coast.”

For Mayport, the new fleet won’t carry the same heft as a nuclear aircraft carrier, which would bring 5,000 sailors and their families to town, plus new types of contractor positions, for an estimated $200 million a year in economic impact. Florida’s congressional delegation remains optimistic that the nuclear carrier will still come to Mayport. But it is no longer a given, especially amid efforts to cleave $500 billion from the defense budget over the next decade.

Nonetheless, McGrath says, there’s enormous relief among local businesses that they are no longer “staring into a black hole. We can see the light.”