Gaetz has vision for technology park outside gates of Eglin AFB
SANDESTIN — A proposed $400 million Eglin Air Force Base research facility could become the catalyst for a “Futures Park,” combining military, contractor and education facilities just outside the gates of the base.
“Futures Park,” a vision of Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., whose district includes Eglin Air Force Base and a number of other military installations, was outlined briefly Thursday by retired Air Force Capt. Nathan Nelson, Gaetz’s director of military affairs.
“We want to shine a great big spotlight on Northwest Florida,” said Nelson, who was among the speakers on the opening day of the Defense Leadership Forum’s 2020 Air Force Contracting Summit. Now in its seventh, and largest year at the Sandestin Hilton resort, the conference brings together hundreds of contractors, large and small, with military contracting officers.
The proposed Eglin research facility, dubbed the Weapons Technology Integration Capability, is in line for the 2022 federal procurement process. As that process moves forward, with the sobering recognition that $400 million is a large request for military construction funding, Gaetz and his office have been talking up the “Futures Park” as a way to leverage that investment.
Creating a facility like Futures Park could, Nelson said, attract investment beyond the federal government’s military construction dollars. In return, he explained, Northwest Florida would get a facility that expands higher education in the state, providing students with on-site internships and allowing them to start working on their security clearances for a smooth transition from school to the working world.
Locating the WTIC and the proposed Futures Park outside of Eglin’s gates would also make the impact of the defense contracting industry on the area more visible to residents, Nelson said. Additionally, having the Air Force facility outside of base gates could be more conducive to interactions between the military and military contractors, according to Nelson.
Nothing is set in stone with regard to Futures Park, but Gaetz’s office has talked with Eglin AFB officials about the proposal, and there is some discussion of the collaborative approach, Nelson said. Also according to Nelson, higher education officials have expressed enthusiasm about Futures Park.
“It’s going to be transformative for Northwest Florida,” Nelson said, speaking as if the proposal already were a reality.
However, even beyond the fiscal concerns surrounding the WTIC and, by extension, the Futures Park proposal, is another looming issue.
Currently, a moratorium on oil and gas exploration across a wide swath of the Gulf of Mexico — including the Eglin Gulf Test and Training Range, a 120,000-square-mile expanse of the gulf that supports a wide range of military testing and training missions — is set to expire in 2022.
The Gulf Test Range, Nelson explained to the Thursday crowd at the contracting summit, would be a critical component of the Futures Park proposal, and oil and gas exploration in that area is entirely incompatible with military weapons testing.
Late last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would establish a permanent moratorium on gas and oil exploration in the area of the gulf including the test range. That bill has, however, gotten hung up in the U.S. Senate, leaving the 2022 expiration of the oil and gas exploration moratorium intact.
“That training range is a national treasure, and it has to be protected,” Nelson told the summit audience, as he urged them to contact their senators to urge passage of the permanent moratorium.
“We have precious little time,” Nelson said. “Write your elected officials and tell them to support an extension on that military mission line.”