Beaufort, Cherry Point spar over jet distribution

As the Navy tries to determine how it will distribute its next-generation fighter jets between two East Coast Marine air stations, those communities' leaders seem to have different ideas about their towns' "fair share."

The Navy's draft environmental impact statement includes a "preferred alternative" that would place three active-duty and two training squadrons at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort and eight active-duty squadrons at MCAS Cherry Point in North Carolina.

"We're not greedy," said Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling, who supports the Navy's preferred alternative. "We think there are enough jets for everyone. We don't want to put them out of business and we would hope they wouldn't want to put us out of business."

But some North Carolina officials -- including Gov. Bev Perdue and Sen. Kay Hagan -- have lobbied to get all 11 active-duty squadrons.

Jimmy Sanders, mayor Havelock, N.C., said officials there are concerned about the Corps' timeline to begin construction and deliver the new fighter jets to each base.

"Under alternative 1, Beaufort would get all of its planes before we get any of our planes and Beaufort gets all of its infrastructure before we get any of our infrastructure," Sanders said. "If there are budget cuts and they don't end up buying all the jets they expect, it comes off the Cherry Point end, and that's a little troubling."

The first F-35s are scheduled to arrive in Beaufort in 2014 or 2015, according to the report.Cherry Point isn't scheduled to begin receiving its F-35s until 2020, Sanders said.

If Cherry Point were to get a bigger chunk of the squadrons, it would strike a blow to MCAS Beaufort's future, according to Brad Samuel, a member of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce's Military Enhancement Committee.

"It'd be bad," Samuel said. "We don't want it, we don't anticipate it, and if somehow we wind up with that alternative, we'll do what we can to fight it. It's a lot of political hype right now."

If MCAS Beaufort received only the two training squadrons, 1,200 fewer Marines would be stationed at the base, a 26 percent workforce reduction that would result in the loss of $48.6 million in annual payroll income.

Carlotta Ungaro, chamber of commerce president and CEO, isn't taking any chances -- the chamber is paying $70,000 to the Rhoades Group, a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, to help guarantee the $90 million fighter jets land at the air station.

"Any time you're dealing with political decisions, it's never a done deal," Ungaro said. "What they are doing is something we need to pay attention to. It's a credible and viable threat (to MCAS Beaufort.) They seem to be of the mindset that you have to ask for 11 (squadrons) to get eight."

The Navy is expected to make its final decision on where to place the new squadrons in December.