WASHINGTON, D.C. — A virtual defense forum hosted by U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., on Thursday focused in large part on a proposed "Futures Park" just outside of Eglin Air Force Base designed to bring together military, industrial and academic enterprises as an economic development strategy.


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Additionally, the forum, which also featured presentations from area military commanders and economic development professionals, addressed the need to protect the Eglin Gulf Test and Training Range.


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The range, a 120,000-square-mile area of the eastern Gulf of Mexico overseen by Eglin Air Force Base, supports an array of munitions testing and military training activities for the U.S. military services.


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Also mentioned during the four-hour Thursday forum, conducted via YouTube, were prospects for U.S. Space Command headquarters to be located, if not in Northwest Florida, at least somewhere in the state.


With regard to Space Command headquarters, Gaetz told his audience that he has talked with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis about potential locations.


The Air Force recently invited the 150 largest communities in the country to submit letters of interest in hosting Space Command headquarters. Those letters are being routed through the governor’s offices in each qualifying state, with the governors then deciding which letters will be forwarded to the Air Force.


According to Gaetz, Northwest Florida, where Pensacola has submitted a letter of interest in hosting Space Command, doesn’t appear to be high on DeSantis’ radar.


"It’s his desire to really make a strong application for the Space Coast," Gaetz said. That area of Florida’s eastern coast includes includes Cape Canaveral, which already hosts the Kennedy Space Center.


But, Gaetz said, even if Northwest Florida isn’t chosen as Space Command headquarters, this area, where Eglin AFB currently hosts the 20th Space Control Squadron, would be a prime spot for locating other space-oriented military units as well as space-oriented contractors and businesses.


In further comments, Gaetz said he has spoken with President Donald Trump about locating Space Command headquarters in Florida. He said he expects Trump, should he be re-elected, to make a decision on Space Command headquarters sometime after the November election.


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Trump recently became a resident of the state, and, Gaetz said Thursday, "we all know the president loves Florida."


In other comments Thursday, Gaetz noted that two area military installations — Hurlburt Field, headquarters of Air Force Special Operations Command, and Naval Air Station Pensacola’s Corry Station — are moving to the forefront in cybertechnology missions.


That circumstance, Gaetz suggested, could be part of an ongoing economic development strategy for the area, in terms of bringing well-paying jobs to the area.


"We’re just needing more of the geeks and the nerds and the engineers in Northwest Florida," Gaetz said, suggesting that if they have a good experience in the area during their military service, they would be inclined to stay, or return, after their service ends.


The "Futures Park" also is a strategy for bringing talented people to Northwest Florida and keeping them here. Broadly, that initiative would make a Weapons Technology Integration Capability (WTIC) center proposed for Eglin AFB — the facility is awaiting a funding decision on its projected $400 million cost — the centerpiece of a campus just outside Eglin’s West Gate that would include space for local business and industries and classroom space for various universities.


"It’s truly a generational step that we’re doing," Gaetz said of the Futures Park proposal.


Gaetz pledged to pursue federal funding for the WTIC, but urged his audience Thursday to work on the local and state level to develop a cohesive and workable plan for the Futures Park as a means of bolstering prospects for WTIC funding.


Retired Air Force Capt. Nathan Nelson, a wounded warrior who serves as Gaetz’s military liaison in the congressman’s Northwest Florida district, has been an integral part of the effort to bring the Futures Park to Okaloosa County.


"We want to bring government, academia and industry together in a consolidated space for the purpose of synergy," Nelson explained Thursday. "That’s how we plan to organically produce that ... high-value talent — what we’re in a deficit now in Northwest Florida."


With regard to the future of the Gulf Test Range, Gaetz noted that it is currently the site of significant taxpayer investment as a multiple-year, multiple-phase effort to improve telemetry equipment is ongoing. Those improvements are being made to ensure that the performance of the next generation of munitions, including hypersonic missiles that can travel at five times the speed of sound, can be effectively and accurately measured.


The range, however, is being threatened by the potential incursion of oil and gas exploration in the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico. Currently, a moratorium on that exploration is set to expire in 2022. Gaetz and his House of Representatives colleagues have passed legislation that would make the moratorium permanent, but the Senate hasn’t taken any action even to extend the moratorium.


And, despite recent denials from the Trump administration, Gaetz hinted strongly Thursday that he believed the eastern Gulf of Mexico could soon be opened up to oil and gas exploration.


"The Senate has been inactive, and the administration seems to be working counter to our position," Gaetz said.


As he has done previously, Gaetz urged his Thursday audience to contact members of the U.S. Senate to get a permanent moratorium on oil and gas exploration in the eastern Gulf of Mexico in front of the Senate.


"Get this on a must-pass piece of legislation, whether it’s a budget dealt or an energy deal," Gaetz said.


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