Navy ups and downs

Published 9:16 am Saturday, January 29, 2011

As one possible Navy aviation project in Western Tidewater was grounded this week, another soared ahead.

Opponents of an outlying landing field for Virginia Beach-based fighter jets were cheered by news that the Navy is putting its OLF pursuit on hold until at least 2014. The Navy had been considering five sites in rural Western Tidewater and northeastern North Carolina for the training airstrip.

Similar training for turboprop pilots at Franklin Municipal Airport moved a step closer to fruition with the Navy’s release of a draft “Performance Work Statement” detailing terms of the proposed partnership between the city and Navy. City officials were quick to clarify that the document is not a “contract,” even though two days earlier, the City Council huddled in secret about an undisclosed “public contract” that is widely known to be the same Navy document. If the city’s intention is to continue to discuss the document behind closed doors, the council will have to deem it a contract in order to stay in compliance with the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

In a promising sign of transparency, the city released the document to the public on Wednesday.

The community can now begin critical due diligence on whether the Navy partnership is good for Franklin and southern Isle of Wight County, where the airport is located. At first glance, the Navy’s estimated payment of $700,000 to $1 million annually for use of the airport is appealing. What the document doesn’t calculate, however, is the cost to Franklin for providing required services, including fire protection and runway maintenance.

The City Council would be wise to hire an expert in military aviation to calculate those costs and determine the net impact on the city treasury. The council should also commission an independent study of the economic impact of the project on the city and region.

Most important is for the city to maintain complete transparency throughout the process. Closed-door meetings that are unannounced to the citizenry, such as what occurred Monday night just two hours after concerned citizens gave council members an earful about the project, foster distrust and cynicism, which the council can ill afford during this process.