Pensacola News Journal | July 28, 2023
No county in the state of Florida, according to state Sen. Doug Broxson, has done a better job than Santa Rosa County of insulating a military base − in this case Naval Air Station Whiting Field − from the dangers of civilian encroachment or government interference with its mission.
On a day in which the close ties forged through a public-private partnership that united the naval base, the county and the state of Florida were on full display at a groundbreaking ceremony for Leonardo Helicopters, Broxson said the community was “sending a message to the Pentagon.”
“We’re saying we’re committed to this base and to the military,” he said.
In association with Space Florida, Leonardo Helicopters has committed to investing over $65 million in the construction of a 113,000-square-foot facility. The new facility will provide major component repair and overhaul, transmission testing and repair along with new tooling, a full-sized paint booth, and a spacious warehouse for spare parts.
The maintenance headquarters will maintain Leonardo helicopters from across the Gulf Coast and Central America, including TH-73 “Alpha Thrasher” military helicopters from Whiting that were built by Leonardo through a multi-million dollar contract with the Navy.
There are 57 Alpha Thrashers presently being used for pilot training at Whiting Field, said Clyde Woltman, the CEO of Leonardo Helicopters US.
“This is gratifying for us,” Woltman told the Pensacola News Journal. “It was not a requirement of our contract with the Navy to build here. It is our own effort to optimize this opportunity. It’s what we do. You sell a helicopter, and you maintain it. You don’t forget your customers.”
Construction of the Leonardo plant will take place on the grounds of the Whiting Field Aviation Park, an industrial park envisioned 20 years ago by then-County Commissioner Don Salter as an opportunity to lure aviation and transportation-related commerce to the area and serve as a buffer against encroachment for Whiting Field, which lies adjacent to the park.
“This is lift off,” quipped Santa Rosa County Commission Chairman Colten Wright, who served as the master of ceremonies for the ground breaking event.
“With this modern and highly efficient facility, Leonardo Helicopters will be able to bring its industry-leading product support services even closer to our customers,” Woltman was quoted as saying in a press release. “We would not be here today if not for the constant partnership and support of the state of Florida, Space Florida, Santa Rosa County, Triumph Gulf Coast, and the United States Navy.”
Whiting Aviation Park features a “first of its kind” limited access use agreement between Santa Rosa County and the US Navy, allowing tenants of the park to have access to Naval Air Station Whiting Field’s 6,000-foot runway and air traffic control,” the Leonardo press release said.
Under a county partnership agreement with Space Florida, the county will lease 15 acres of Leonardo Helicopter land inside the aviation park to Space Florida, which in turn will lease the land to Leonardo Helicopters. The two entities will work together to fundraise, finance and build a Leonardo Helicopters customer care center.
Frank Dibello, the president and chief executive officer of Space Florida, was also present at the groundbreaking ceremony Friday. He predicted the state will be spending more than $10 billion in the next decade on aerospace-related development, “and much of that will happen right here in this region.”
There has been $1.5 million in state funding committed that will be put toward construction of a taxiway and apron and will actually link the aviation park and Whiting Field. Santa Rosa County paid for the design work for the taxiway and apron.
Triumph Gulf Coast, an entity established to dole out more than $1 billion awarded to the state of Florida following the Deepwater Horizons oil spill, has invested $8 million to install infrastructure in the Whiting Field Aviation Park.
“My job is easy. I just give out money,” Collier Merrill, vice chairman of the Triumph Gulf Coast Board of Directors, told those gathered. “And our board wants to give out money for things like this.”
Shannon Ogletree, Santa Rosa County’s economic development director, said the county will likely go back to Triumph for funding when the Aviation Park reaches phase two of its development.