According to John DiGiacomo at the University of West Florida, there are currently $39 billion in active military contracts in this part of the state.

SANDESTIN — Eglin Air Force Base could be a source of significant military contracts with its "NexGen Eglin" strategy to rebuild, renovate and redevelop aging infrastructure, attendees at a two-day Air Force "contracting summit" learned Monday.

NexGen Eglin is designed to bring the nation's largest Department of Defense installation up to 21st-century standards. The base was established more than 80 years ago, and currently, 452 of its 1,181 facilities are more than 50 years old, according to Air Force Capt. (ret.) Nathan Nelson.

"The infrastructure is inadequate for the mission of the 21st century," said Nelson, director of military affairs in the office of U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who represents Northwest Florida in Congress. Those inadequacies are beginning to limit the research, development, testing and evaluation missions at Eglin, according to a 2017 Eglin report on NexGen.

Nelson was one of the Monday speakers at the 2018 Air Force Contracting Summit at the Sandestin Hilton. The summit, organized by the Defense Leadership Forum, a group of congressional leaders, Pentagon officials, military base commanders and business representatives, aimed to networking opportunities for companies seeking new or additional defense contracts.

With Air Force and Naval installations dotting the Panhandle, an estimated 400 businesses, roughly half of which already have defense contracts, attended the summit.

According to John DiGiacomo, government contracting specialist with the Small Business Development Center at the University of West Florida, there are currently $39 billion in active military contracts in this part of the state. Additionally, DiGiacomo told summit attendees, major military contractors like Lockheed reserve billions of dollars for small-business subcontractors to assist them in their contract work.

"The government is looking for anyone who can fulfill their mission goals," DiGiacomo said. "But you have to have a plan."

According to Nelson, a lack of federal military construction dollars has prompted Eglin to renovate, rather than rebuild, its aging buildings. The result has been a collection of what he called "Frankenstructures" that are becoming inadequate to serve the base's array of missions.

Nelson also spoke Monday on the $30 million in pending federal funding for the Gulf Test Range. The range, covering nearly 120,000 square miles in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, is used by a wide range of military units, including Eglin's 33rd Fighter Wing and 96th Test Wing, and the Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field.

The range accommodates high-altitude supersonic air combat training, air-to-air missile testing, drone targeting, hypersonic weapons testing and space launches. The $30 million would be used to update the range’s telemetry equipment — which provides data on military exercises. The equipment has not had a major update since at least the early 1970s and as a result does not interface with some of the equipment being tested.

Like some other military spending, the money proposed for the test range has been hung up in a series of "continuing resolutions" approved by Congress to keep the government running in lieu of adopting a budget. The uncertainty created by continuing resolutions was on the minds of many of the people at the Sandestin summit.

"It's very difficult to be strategic," said Sam Thevanayagam, president and CEO of Parts Life, Inc., which works to boost the life cycle of military hardware, and also provides equipment like bomb loaders to military clients. Thevanayagam already has contracts with the Air Force, as well as with the Navy and other government contractors including Lockheed.

"It's important to have a good understanding of where things stand" in terms of military funding, he added.

The Air Force summit is the first event of its kind that Thevanayagam has attended, and he is considering moving his business to the area.

"Florida seems to have a very business-friendly climate, and the weather is also a draw," he said.