- In this military community, we often say, "The noise you hear is the sound of freedom," in reference to jets zooming overhead. But that is also the sound of money. Annually, the local military installations contributed more than $1 billion to the region's economy, and there is potential for more.
Our three local military installations collectively employ more than 30,000 civilians, office and enlisted personnel, including Parris Island recruits. The Navy and Marine Corps know that our Beaufort community supports its military installations, and Beaufort is at the forefront nationally on protection from encroachment at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. The Beaufort Regional Chamber led the way in keeping the area's installations intact during the Base Realignment and Closure processes of 1989, 1991, 1993, 1995 and 2005.
The Department of Defense has identified the F-35 fighter jet as the next plane for the military. The air station is slated to receive three operational squadrons and two training squadrons in 2014. Because the new F-35 is the only plane planned for the Marine Corps' future, the potential of losing the five squadrons to another Marine Corps facility could have meant the end of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. The impact of this decision to bring the F-35 here is job creation and millions of dollars.
Recently, Hensel-Phelps Construction of Orlando, Fla., was named the prime contractor for air station construction on facilities for the F-35. The $70.3 million contract will build a new training facility for the Joint Strike Fighter and new hangars at the air station. Last week, the chamber welcomed Hensel-Phelps to our office for a meet and greet for interested subcontractors. There is tremendous opportunity for members of the local business community to learn of the subcontracting opportunities that will be available at the air station in the coming months. This project is the beginning of $350 million investment in our community in the next few years.
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The chamber has presented and is planning more learning sessions on how to do business with the federal government. While the actual jets might be years away from arriving in Beaufort, the construction is expected to begin immediately.
The Beaufort Regional Chamber's role is to help prepare our local businesses for the new opportunities in construction and other areas with our local military.
Blakely T. Williams is interim president of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce.