St. Mary's County commissioners joined state and federal officials at the Pentagon last week in a show of support for the Patuxent River Naval Air Station and an opportunity to lobby for new military projects that could bring more jobs to the county.
The visit came on the heels of recent reports that military leaders may be developing a new wave of domestic base consolidations, but officials who participated in the Pentagon briefings said their purpose was not to discuss those reports.
"The reason was to really promote Pax River and everything the Navy has done there. We believe the Navy has made excellent decisions and we wanted to be clear in our support," said Maurice I. "Butch" Long, president of the Southern Maryland Navy Alliance, a community advocacy group that helped arrange the Pentagon visit.
Long, the county commissioners and members of the St. Mary's state legislative delegation, met with congressional representatives at a Capitol Hill reception Tuesday evening following Pentagon sessions earlier that day.
"This was an opportunity for the officials at the Pentagon to hear firsthand about the kind of support there is in the community for the Patuxent River Naval Air station. The people in St. Mary's are very positive and care a lot about the future of the base. It was a great educational experience for all parties involved," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who worked with the Navy Alliance to arrange the Pentagon meeting.
But the visit also underscored St. Mary's transition from the address of an isolated military outpost to home to the leading center of air weapons research and testing, officials said.
"We're no longer just sleepy old Southern Maryland," said J. Frank Raley Jr., former president of the Navy Alliance, a group comprising local business leaders, defense contractors, retired Navy personnel and civilian employees, and county and state political leaders.
"We now have a part on the national stage of defense policy of the U.S. It's important for this community to understand its part in providing the infrastructure needed," said Raley, who did not participate in the Pentagon briefings but met with the congressional delegation later in the day.
In the past, Raley said the base was "simply there and we lived in constant fear that it was going to be closed at any time."
But the federal government's Base Realignment and Consolidation program five years ago brought hundreds of millions of dollars of new research on military weapons and thousands of new jobs to the base. This, Raley said, brought St. Mary's into a different league.
"The Navy has made a strategic decision. Now the issues are national in scope, defense strategy, Air Force tactics," said Raley, who joined the commissioners and political leaders at the reception on Tuesday evening.
The new community strategy, part of last week's Pentagon briefings, is to lobby officials to assign testing of the "joint strike fighter" -- a new fighter jet being considered for development for use by the Air Force, the Marines and the Navy -- at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Raley said.
"It's a joint program and we think there's a logical reason those efforts ought to be done on Pax River," said Long, president of MIL Corp., a defense contractor and information technology consulting firm based in Bowie but with offices in St. Mary's County.
"Joint striker is key to us in the future. That's something the Alliance is working on," Long said. Long and the county commissioners met with Lee Buchanan, assistant secretary for research and acquisition for the Navy, a key figure in decisions involving location of military projects.
"We wanted to make those people [at the Pentagon] know that the county government is backing them to the fullest, that we're aware of what they were doing, and we're doing everything outside of the Navy gate to put the proper infrastructure to support them," said County Commissioner Daniel H. Raley (D-Great Mills).
Commissioner Raley and other community leaders credit the Navy Alliance's lobbying with bringing jobs from Warminster, Pa., and New Jersey into St. Mary's County during military consolidations in the first half of the 1990s.