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Waiting phase begins for Air Station's fate

The waiting game has begun for those interested in the future of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.

On Monday, the Navy stopped accepting public comment on its draft environmental impact statement, which was released in May and detailed recommendations for dividing 13 new Joint Strike Fighter squadrons between MCAS Beaufort and MCAS Cherry Point, N.C.

The report recommended three active-duty and two pilot-training squadrons at MCAS Beaufort, and eight active-duty squadrons at MCAS Cherry Point.

The report's final draft will be published in the Federal Register in November, and a final decision on the squadrons is expected in early December, according to Corps officials.

As the Navy reviews public comments received online, by mail and during a series of public meetings last month, Beaufort-area officials are plotting their next move to land new fighter jets in Beaufort.

"It's pretty much just hurry-up-and-wait time," said Carlotta Ungaro, president and CEO of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce. "With Cherry Point being so aggressive, we plan on heading up to (Washington) D.C. a couple of times and making our presence known up there."

North Carolina officials have been lobbying the Pentagon for another alternative that would send all 11 active-duty squadrons to MCAS Cherry Point and the two pilot training squadrons to MCAS Beaufort.

Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said he plans to educate the public as he awaits the final report, stressing the need for an auxiliary landing field near the air station to reduce the impact of jet noise on nearby residents.

"We need to make people understand why this is so important ... to keeping this base in the best position possible should there be another round of (Base Realignment and Closure Commission) closings or if the F-35 program is cut short," Keyserling said.

Local business and political leaders aren't the only ones waiting on the final report.

"We're really at a standstill until the final draft is released and a decision is made," said Gunnery Sgt. Chad McMeen, air station spokesman. "Once that happens, we're military people so we'll take our orders and run with it."

Once the decision is announced, air station officials will immediately begin putting out construction bids to upgrade the base's infrastructure to accommodate the $90 million fighter jets, which will replace all the F-18s flown by air station pilots. The base will have to undergo between $215 million and $350 million in renovations, the report said.

Should Beaufort get the jets, they will begin arriving in 2014 or 2015, according to the report.

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