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Tackett says bridge to Coonskin could save guard base

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Retired Adj. Gen. Allen Tackett says building a $9 million bridge from Interstate 79 to Coonskin Park is crucial to saving the Air National Guard base at Yeager Airport.

Tackett hopes the W.Va. National Guard armory board will issue a bond to build the structure, and that local governmental organizations will help fund the project.

Tackett hopes the Kanawha County Commission, the City of Charleston and the airport authority will pledge $100,000 a year apiece to help pay the debt incurred by constructing the bridge.

The Guard would also have to provide funds to help pay off the debt, he said.

"It's only common sense that everyone should chip in," Tackett said.

The U.S. Department of Defense has asked Congress to again instruct the Base Realignment and Closure Commission to again initiate a report to look at another round of closures in order to eliminate some defense infrastructure and save funds, Tackett said. 

Tackett, a member of the Kanawha County Parks and Recreation board, discussed the bridge during a meeting Wednesday.

He is also a member of the Central West Virginia Airport Authority board. Yeager Airport is home of the 130th Airlift Wing. 

The original plan to build the bridge stems from the near-closure of the Air National Guard base at Yeager in 2005. The late Sen. Robert Byrd was credited with saving the base, as was Tackett.

Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper remembers the fight to save the 130th Airlift Wing's base at Yeager Airport very well. He stood side by side with Tackett and Byrd when moves were made to save the base.

He is prepared to enter the fray once again, he said.

"It's critical for us to save that base," Carper said.

Commissioner Dave Hardy also believes saving the Air National Guard base is a high priority, and that it is well worth the $100,000 annual contribution.

"If Gen. Tackett tells me that's what it's going to take to save that base, then I have 100 percent confidence in his judgment," Hardy said. 

Carper said the county would be able to afford the $100,000 a year to help pay off the debt for construction of the bridge. The money would come from additional revenue generated from the increased coal severance allocations to counties, Carper said.

Carper was instrumental in getting the bill increasing the coal severance tax allocated to counties passed during the 2011 Legislative session.

Charleston Mayor Danny Jones is not so sure the city will be able to afford to pay $100,000 a year to help fund construction of the bridge.

"Yeager Airport isn't in Charleston and the $100,000 a year will be a tough sell," he said. "But we'll listen to what General Tackett has to say." 

However, Jones acknowledged that the base is an important part of the entire state's economy. Jones also believes the state needs to get involved with the situation.

"We need to the governor to help us with this," Jones said.

The governor has a rainy day fund available and that could be used to cover the cost, he said.

"The bridge is going to cost $9 million, but the security of West Virginia is well worth it," Jones said.

Yeager Airport Director Rick Atkinson also believes the Air National Guard base is an important part of the state's economy.

"The Air National Guard is a major employer for not only Charleston and Kanawha County, but for central and southern West Virginia too," he said.

Atkinson said he is not sure how the airport authority would come up with the $100,000 annually to fund the project.

"This is something we're going to have to discuss at our next meeting," he said.

The airport authority will meet on Wednesday at noon.       

One of the problems found when the Base Realignment and Closure Commission report was issued about eight years ago was that members of the public drove by the base entrance on their way to Coonskin Park.

The problem was deemed a security risk and state and federal representatives, including Byrd, proposed building a bridge from the interstate near Mink Shoals across the Elk River, to Coonskin Park.

The park entrance near the airbase and National Guard Armory would then be closed to the general public.

However, federal officials reversed their decision to close the base, and the bridge project fell to the wayside.

If the 130th Airlift Wing's Charleston base is put on the list to be examined for closure, it will be difficult to save the facility, with or without the bridge, he said.

"It will be very difficult to save that base without Senator Byrd," Tackett said.

Even with the work of Byrd, Tackett and local officials, the base was nearly closed, he said. 

"That was probably one of the toughest fights I've ever had," Tackett said of the moves to save the Charleston base. "If it hadn't been for Byrd, we would have lost that base."

The Air National Guard base is an economic engine for the entire county, pumping about $89 million into the local economy, Tackett said.

About 350 full time employees work there, as do around 700 part time guard members, he said.

"As a state, it's imperative that we build that bridge and save that base," Tackett said.

Tackett went on to say that it would be a "shame" to see $89 million in local economic impact disappear because of the lack of a $9 million bridge.

Yeager Airport also benefits from having the 130th Airlift Wing located at the facility, Tackett said. For example, the Air National Guard provides firefighting capabilities to the airport, he said.

The airport authority would likely spend about $9 million in two years to cover the cost of the services provided by the Air National Guard.     Contact writer Paul Fallon at paul.fallon@dailymail.com or 304-348-4817. Follow him at www.twitter.com/PaulBFallon. ;


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