Leader Blues

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

TOP STORY >>Congress must act on funds to center

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

It will literally take an act of Congress, but Jacksonville’s $5 million share of a new, $15 million Community/Little Rock Air Force Base Education Center will be added to the Air Force’s $10 million share and the construction and expenditures will be overseen by representatives of the secretary of the Air Force and Mayor Tommy Swaim.

That’s according to Jacksonville lawyer Mike Wilson, who said, “We’ve drafted an act of Congress that would be included in the funding bill.” Wilson, a former state representative, has been one of the leading civilian proponents of the innovative air base/community education project. Because the unique partnership between the air base and the city has no obvious precedent, “There needs to be some mechanics for who holds and disperses the money,” Wilson explained.
“We’ve had some proposed language and suggestions,” Swaim said, “But we have not found an example where a community has done this specific thing.” “There’s no fear that it can’t be done,” Swaim added. “We’re just making it a smooth transition.”

Wilson said he hopes the construction of the approximately 80,000 square-foot center—to be located on the base, but outside the fenced security perimeter—will begin this spring. While money for the project is in both House and Senate versions of the Defense Authorization Bill, the actual appropriation bill is likely to be passed in December. In 2003, Jacksonville voters overwhelmingly voted for a two-year, one-penny sales tax to raise the city’s share of what was then thought to be a $10 million facility.

The education center already exists on the base, but access to it has become much more difficult for civilians in the wake of heightened security after Sept. 11, 2001. The new education center, to be located near the intersection of Vandenberg Boulevard and John Harden Drive, will be more accessible to civilians and airmen not living on the base.

It became all-but-certain last week that the air base’s $9.8 million share of the project had been fast-tracked for inclusion in the 2007 defense authorization bill, but for technical reasons, the size of the building in that authorization specified a 50,000 square-foot structure, in line with the Air Force’s financial support for the project.

That’s according to Nancy Shefflette, director of the ASU-Beebe Little Rock Air Force Base Education Center. She said that once the community’s $5 million share is received, the size of the center would again approach 82,000 square feet.
But the rising cost of materials could result in scaling back the size of the project.

The mayor said he was pleased with the progress that has been made in moving the college forward. “The credit should go to the congressional delegation,” Swaim said, “starting with (Second Dist. Cong.) Vic Snyder and our senators who worked hard on getting that funding set aside for us. It’s a perfect example of how Little Rock Air Force Base and the community of Jacksonville have found ways to do things jointly over the years.” “As far as I know, this is the only such commitment by any community to an Air Force base in the United States,” said Larry Wilson, president of First Arkansas Bank and Trust.
“I’m very proud of actions people of this community took in passing a tax increase to fund that college.”

The city tax also included money for a swimming pool complex and for a police and fire training facility. Six institutions that already hold classes at the existing center have signed on to offer classes at the new center including Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University of Daytona Beach, Fla.; Park University of Parkville, Mo.; Southern Illinois University of Carbondale, Ill.; Webster University of St. Louis, Mo.; University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University-Beebe.

Study program will continue to include computer science, allied health, aeronautical management, criminal justice, social psychology, industrial technology, business, human relations and public administration.
Priority for class space is active duty military, retired military, Department of Defense employees and then civilians.
More than 1,045 military and 275 civilian personnel are enrolled in educational programs at LRAFB.