Big names look at land Navy leaving

BY HOLBROOK MOHR

The Associated Press

JACKSON – The Navy is scheduled to close its Pascagoula base in November, but that isn’t a major concern for local officials who know the military is leaving them with a prime piece of real estate on a deep water port.

The Base Realignment and Closure Commission voted unanimously in August 2005 to shut down Naval Station Pascagoula, stripping the area of more than 1,000 military and civilian jobs. But the base generated only about 4 percent of total economic capacity in Jackson County, which borders Alabama.

The Mississippi National Guard and the state’s largest private employer, Northrop Grumman Ship Systems, are among those interested in Singing River Island. Northrop’s Ingalls Shipyard is near the island.

“My hope is that we deploy the property to its fullest extent for new investment and job creation. Specifically, Northrop Ship Systems represents a real ability to fully utilize those assets,” said Jackson County Economic Development Director George Freeland. “Northrop could potentially be a very big or key component of the island’s reuse potential.”

Northrop, which builds some of the most advanced ships available to the Navy and the Coast Guard, already has a major presence in Pascagoula and could expand its operations, Freeland said.

Brian Cullen, a Northrop spokesman, said the company is in discussions about leasing some of the island.

“There’s no firm agreement at this point,” he told The Associated Press. “We’re just very interested in this.”

Cullen called any potential agreement a “win-win situation,” adding that Northrop could move quickly onto the island and soften the economic blow of the Navy’s departure.

Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29, 2005 – just days after the Navy announced its decision to close the Pascagoula homeport. The storm damaged or destroyed about 600,000 square feet of covered area at Northrop’s Pascagoula shipyard, so moving into existing buildings on the 437-acre Singing River Island could help the company return to pre-Katrina levels of production, Cullen said.

About 17,000 of Northrop’s roughly 20,000 employees have returned to work at its shipyards in Pascagoula, Gulfport and New Orleans, Cullen said.

“We’re looking very closely at opportunities for us to recover as quickly as possible,” Cullen said. “Basically to accelerate our regeneration our recovery so that we can get back to the kind of operational footing we were on before Katrina.”

Cullen said a pier that was used by Navy vessels on the island also is especially attractive to Northrop because “it would provide sanctuary for ships we have in the water.”

The ships at the company’s current property were exposed to high seas and wind-driven water and took a beating from Katrina, Cullen said.

However, Northrop officials know they’re not the only ones eyeing the property.

Lt. Col. Tim Powell, a Mississippi National Guard spokesman, said the Guard would like to relocate its Pascagoula armory, which suffered extensive damage from Katrina.

“The National Guard submitted a letter expressing interest in getting that property and we’re just waiting to hear at this juncture,” Powell said.

Dan Knecht, chairman of the Singing River Diversification Committee, said the Coast Guard already has a facility on the island and he hopes that presence will be expanded.

“We’ve had some interest. None of it I would classify as imminent or immediate,” Knecht said. “We’re in the process of commissioning a long-term study that will essentially tell us what are the best prospects.”

The island is only accessible by one bridge or by water, a fact Knecht said would be attractive to those who want a secure location. However, he said there are disadvantages, too.

“It doesn’t have rail facilities, as an example,” he said. “That’s a drawback as far as using it as a port facility.”

The Navy’s target closing date is Nov. 15, said Kimberly Dejong, a base spokeswoman.