Many Kanawha County folks pay little attention to the National Guard's 130th Airlift Wing at Yeager Airport -- but it's a major factor in the local economy.
Retired Adjutant Gen. Allen Tackett says the unit pumps $89 million into Kanawha County each year and provides 1,000 jobs -- about 350 full-time and 700 part-time. It helps keep the capital region humming.
Tackett (who was this newspaper's West Virginian of the Year in 2010) fears that the Pentagon may eliminate the 130th next year, unless a new bridge entrance is built into Coonskin Park. By all means, build the bridge and save the Airlift Wing.
Here's the background:
In 2005, the U.S. Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended a shutdown of the 130th, partly because its security is marginal and difficult to sustain. Public access to Coonskin goes right past the National Guard headquarters and its road to the airport military site.
State and Kanawha leaders mobilized a massive effort to prevent the closure. Then-Sen. Robert C. Byrd helped craft a solution that saved the unit. One part of the plan was to create a new Coonskin entrance with a bridge across Elk River at Mink Shoals, which would allow closure of the current road into the park, thus shielding the Guard units.
Over the years, all parts of the 2005 agreement were fulfilled -- except construction of the bridge entrance.
Next year, BRAC is to choose another list of military bases to be closed. Unless the Coonskin bridge is built, Gen. Tackett fears that the U.S. commission will put the 130th on the chopping block again. He suggests that the National Guard issue bonds to pay for the bridge -- and that Charleston, Kanawha County and Yeager Airport each pledge $100,000 a year to help repay the bonds. The Guard would pay the rest.
That seems a small price to pay to rescue a significant factor in the local economy. For example, the firefighting brigade of the 130th serves all of Yeager Airport. Without it, the airport would have to spend a lot more than $100,000 annually to operate its own fire department.
Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper says: "It's critical for us to save that base." Commissioner Dave Hardy says he has "100 percent confidence" in Gen. Tackett's judgment.
Charleston Mayor Danny Jones is less sure, but says he'll ask city council to decide. Jones suggested that Gov. Tomblin, with his large state rainy day fund, could help finance the new park entrance.
Here's another reason to support the bridge: The county parks board voted to ask the state Division of Highways to include a dock beneath the proposed bridge, to give regional canoe and kayak fans easy access to lovely Elk River. Gaining the bridge would add a recreational bonus for Kanawha County.
One way or another, area leaders should fund the new Coonskin entrance to boost Guard security in an attempt to save the 130th.