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Tomblin announces plan to secure future of 130th Airlift Wing

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Coonskin Park will get a new entrance and bridge as part of an improvement package meant to secure the future of the West Virginia Air National Guard's 130th Airlift Wing in Charleston, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced Monday.

Tomblin joined West Virginia National Guard Adj. Gen. James Hoyer, as well as state and local leaders, at the base on Coonskin Drive late Monday afternoon to announce the improvement plan. 

The plan is designed to correct the last remaining concerns brought up by the 2005 federal Base Realignment and Closure report, which almost resulted in the shuttering of Charleston Air National Guard operations.

Late U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd played a pivotal role in keeping the 130th Airlift Wing base open in 2005. The next round of federal base closure studies is expected to begin in 2015, which gives state and local officials time to move forward with the improvements.

Tomblin said the improvement measures are being funded through collaboration with federal, state, local and private groups, all of which were intent on keeping West Virginia's National Guard operations strong.

"It didn't come about because of one person or individual, but it came about because of teamwork," Tomblin said. "I think it's a great day for the 130th here in Charleston."

The plan calls for closing the current entrance to Coonskin Park, and building a new bridge in the Mink Shoals area to carry traffic across the Elk River to a new entrance to the park.

Closing the current Coonskin Drive entrance will allow the Guard to close off and operate a secure entrance to the base - a key issue in the BRAC report.

The Kanawha County Commission and Yeager Airport's board have each pledged about $1.5 million to the project, which would be put out to bid later this year.

Commission President Kent Carper said that with 1,100 jobs tied to the air base alone, the state couldn't afford to lose the facility.

"It's an $89 million economic engine for this whole state," Carper said. "It would be an unrecoverable blow."

Just as they did in 2005, Carper said leaders must be focused on doing what they can to keep the base open.

"I don't see what else could be more important," Carper said.

Tomblin estimated the bridge project would cost $9 million to $11 million. He said the remaining funding would come from unappropriated funds within the Division of Highways and National Guard budgets.

The second part of the plan involves building a new 60-foot-wide, 4,200-foot-long dirt airstrip on the former Coal Branch mine in Logan County that will be used by Guard members for flight practice.

The Logan County project was made possible through a private-public land-use agreement between the National Guard, Natural Resource Partners and the Aracoma Coal Co.

The Guard had already been using the mine site for the last two years to conduct weekly air drop training exercises. The new airstrip will fulfill a BRAC requirement that the 130th Airlift Wing have a short-field takeoff and landing facility within 50 nautical miles.

While the improvements will fix all of the infrastructure issues raised by the BRAC report, Hoyer said federal budget problems pose a risk for the Guard.

"There's still going to be cuts," he said.

He said if the Department of Defense looks at trimming its C130 program, the Air Guard needs to take steps to show it's the best of the best.

"This fixes all of our physical infrastructure issues," Hoyer said, "but now it's up to us as a Guard to continue to work and position ourselves to continue to be in the right place to be cost-effective, timely and relevant."

He said the willingness on the part of state, local and private officials to contribute should send a message to leaders in Washington about the value the state places on the Guard.

"Obviously I'm a little biased, but I don't think there's any other state that gives the level of support to its National Guard - across the spectrum - that this state gives to the National Guard in West Virginia," he said.

"When you see the partnerships that have developed, and the things that are happening today, it clearly is a testament and a message to those folks in Washington that we are serious about being a key part of this nation's defense," Hoyer said.

Retired Adj. Gen. Allen Tackett, who has continued to lobby in support of the Guard, echoed that sentiment.

"I think (leaders in Washington) know that West Virginia is willing to put forth their resources to make sure that this base stays here and these airplanes stay and keep supporting the citizens of the state of West Virginia," Tackett said.

He said the matter was not just about keeping jobs and resources in the state, but also ensuring that the state has the proper resources to respond to a crisis.

"In today's world, you constantly see disasters all over the country - fires out west, floods down south, snowstorms, tornadoes, derechos, hurricanes - and governors need every asset they can get to be able to take care of the citizens of their state," Tackett said.

"So it's extremely important that we keep this base here and keep the West Virginia National Guard strong so that they can take care of the citizens of the state of West Virginia."

Contact writer Jared Hunt at business@dailymail.com or 304-348-4836.


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