Marines take stand for Beaufort's future

It is a healthy sign that even as Beaufort celebrates its tricentennial, a current event also will be etched in history.

With the flick of a few ceremonial shovels of Lowcountry dirt, Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort was catapulted into a new era of effectiveness.

The ceremony earlier this month marked the beginning of the air station's makeover to accommodate the new Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35B that is to replace the F-18 Hornets.

The air station is to become home to three new active-duty F-35B squadrons and two pilot-training squadrons -- 88 jets total -- in 2014.

About 75 people gathered to celebrate the start of construction on a $70.3 million training center and hangar. It is the first of $351.8 million in new construction expected over the next five years at the 50-year-old air station.

The construction is significant. It replaces aging Vietnam-era hangars and facilities that the air station commanding officer says have been maintained well beyond their life expectancy. And the construction is expected to create more than 4,000 temporary jobs over the next five years.

But there's more to the story.

The construction also represents a shift in the air station's mission. It will go from being an operational base to a base with both operational squadrons and training squadrons. It will move to stealth aircraft, which will require greater security. And it will move to jets with vertical-takeoff abilities.

The groundbreaking ceremony means something more. It means that the air station has a future. If the F-35 squadrons had not been assigned here, a major local institution might have been scaled back or closed.

Beaufort leaders worked hard for that assignment, just as they have pushed the local case for its military presence in federal Base Realignment and Closure processes of 1989, 1991, 1993, 1995 and 2005.

"I'm really proud of Beaufort," said Maj. Gen. Jon Davis, commander of the U.S. Marine Corps 2nd Air Wing. "You've been supportive of the military, and you know the importance of this, not only for the Lowcountry, but for our nation. You've earned this."

The Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce reports that the local military installations -- the air station, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and the Naval Hospital -- contribute more than $1 billion to the region's economy. The installations employ more than 30,000 people, from civilians to the recruits on Parris Island.

With those positive economic and cultural influences come sacrifices. The increased noise anticipated with the F-35B is always mentioned. And the community is compelled to forego development near the air station for safety reasons and to limit the impact of the "sound of freedom."

But the benefits locally and nationally far outweigh the sacrifices.

How many small communities -- particularly in this economic climate -- have seen $350 million in capital investment come to town?

It's up to local businesses, individuals and the chamber of commerce to maximize the amount that stays here. The chamber has arranged meetings between potential sub-contractors and the Florida firm chosen for the first job. These opportunities should not be missed.

This Saturday morning, Beaufort will hold its Tricentennial Parade through the historic, oak-lined streets of downtown. The military has played one of the most important roles in that history, and the recent ceremony indicates that its role in Beaufort's future will be strong as well.