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Former W.Va. Guard chief presses for new Coonskin bridge

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The former head of the West Virginia National Guard still hopes to build a $9 million bridge across the Elk River for the public to enter Coonskin Park.

At a meeting of Yeager Airport board members Friday, Allen Tackett repeated that the project could be critical to keeping the Air National Guard base in Kanawha County.

Last fall, Tackett told members of the Kanawha County Parks and Recreation Commission that the project might be dead, because money for it had been removed from the federal defense budget. He urged his fellow airport board members Friday to do whatever they can to help build the Elk River bridge.

Today, the Air National Guard base generates $89 million a year in revenue for the Charleston area, Tackett said.

"It requires only $9 million to build the bridge," he said.

The planned bridge leading to a new Coonskin Park entrance would be close to the I-79 Mink Shoals exit. Creating that new entrance would increase security for the Air National Guard base, located right next to the park.

Today, visitors to Coonskin Park drive about a mile along a road between Greenbrier Street and the park's entrance, passing several buildings and entrances of the Air National Guard base, which is home to the 130th Airlift Wing and its many C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft.

In 2005, the U.S. Defense Department's Base Closure and Realignment Commission threatened to shut down the 130th Airlift Wing -- effectively closing Kanawha County's Air National Guard base -- unless several changes were made, including increasing controls over public access to the area.

After an outcry led by local Guard officials and politicians, notably the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., federal officials decided to reverse the BRAC decision and keep the base open.

"We have mitigated everything raised in that BRAC report, except for that bridge," Tackett said Friday. "If BRAC sees we have initiated building that $9 million bridge, things should be fine."

With Byrd dead and West Virginia's other long-serving U.S. senator, Jay Rockefeller, announcing he'll leave the Senate in 2014, Tackett worries that the window to protect the Guard base is closing.

"If we get on the BRAC [closure] list this time, the base will go away," Tackett said. "We've got junior people up there who won't be able to do anything to help this air base. We have to come up with the money to build that bridge."

Yeager Airport Director Rick Atkinson said the bridge would be on the agenda at the airport board's next meeting.

The Air National Guard base provides many advantages for the civilian side of Yeager Airport, including supplying fire engines and some of the security, Atkinson said.

"It would cost us $9 million to run a fire department for two years and put in our own fire station. It would be very expensive," he said. "After two or three years, we will save more than it will cost to build a new bridge."

Money for the bridge could come from many sources, Atkinson and Tackett said, including state, county and city agencies, as well as loans or bonds.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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