LEMOORE -- Navy brass and civilian officials gathered here Tuesday to answer the public's questions about a recommendation to bring a new generation of fighter jet to Lemoore Naval Air Station. But those who attended came largely to cheer the recommendation, not quibble with it.
"The Navy has been a vital part of the community since the 1960s," said Lee Anne Rossiter, a retired school administrator who lives in Lemoore.
Rossiter was among more than 80 people who showed up for the open house-style meeting to learn more about the recommendation to station the Navy's new F-35C Joint Strike Fighter jets at Lemoore rather than El Centro Air Facility in Imperial County, starting in 2016.
The stakes are high for both Lemoore, population 25,000, and the region because the air base straddling Kings and Fresno counties adds an estimated $1 billion a year to the economy, according to a base study, a figure that would grow if Lemoore is chosen. The decision could bring the base an estimated 751 new military and civilian jobs, including contractors, and add 1,569 more dependents to the region over the next decade and a half.
The meeting at Lemoore Civic Auditorium followed last month's release of a draft environmental impact statement recommending Lemoore as the preferred site to base the Navy's new F-35C jets on the West Coast.
Lemoore resident Connie Wlaschin, whose business does military tailoring and alterations, said Lemoore would be safer than El Centro.
"It'd be easier to defend against terrorism because we're farther away from a major freeway," she said.
The final decision on which base to use -- Lemoore or El Centro -- rests with the secretary of the Navy, who can choose after the final environmental impact statement is made official later this year. Written comments about the environmental impacts will be accepted until April 22.
This is not the first time Lemoore has contemplated whether the local base might get the new generation of fighter jets. Two years ago, a similar public meeting took place in advance of writing the draft environmental document.
The Joint Strike Fighters would gradually replace the FA-18C Super Hornet jets, which the Navy says are getting old and clocking excess flying hours. Seventy F-35C's will be placed on the West Coast among seven squadrons, and 30 more for training. The new fighters would fully replace the Super Hornets by 2028.
Lemoore is the "preferred alternative" in the draft environmental impact statement because it has fewer environmental impacts, best meets Navy goals and would cost significantly less than going to El Centro.
"It's cheaper to do it here than anywhere else," said Lemoore Mayor Billy Siegel.
It would cost an estimated $226 million to ready Lemoore for the new jets compared to $793 million at El Centro, where the Navy would need to buy land, extend the runway, demolish old buildings and construct new ones -- a savings of more than $550 million.
By contrast, Lemoore would keep its current footprint and add facilities such as more hangar space and a flight simulator to accommodate the new jets.
The Joint Strike Fighter program, begun in 2001, makes tailored versions for the Navy, Marines, Air Force and foreign allies.
The Navy F-35C -- the C stands for carrier -- has a larger wing for aircraft carrier takeoffs.
The Navy now has F-35C's in testing at a base in Maryland, but the first combat squadrons will be based on West Coast.
Although no final decision has been made, "it's exciting" for the 12,000 people who work or live on base that Lemoore is the recommended site, said base Capt. Eric Venema.
Lemoore NAS is the Navy's "West Coast master jet base," he said.
A public meeting like the one in Lemoore takes place Thursday in El Centro.
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