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Local leaders say it’s time to reopen NAS Pensacola to tourists

U.S. Navy

To reopen or not to reopen — that is the question 2 1/2 years after the terrorist attack that shut down Naval Air Station Pensacola and its tourist attractions.

The base has allowed very-limited access since a Saudi Royal Air Force lieutenant opened fire in a building in December 2019, killing three U.S. sailors and wounding 11 others. Family members of those buried in Barrancas National Cemetery can get access for six-month periods by registering at the NAS visitors’ center.

Many, including Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson, believe it’s time to reopen. He read a proclamation to that effect during his weekly news conference on Monday.

“And whereas, the Naval Aviation Museum is considered the leading tourist attraction between Orlando and New Orleans; a top-10 attraction in the state of Florida and its visitors come from every state with more than 70% visiting from outside of Florida,” read the proclamation in part. “And whereas, the National Naval Aviation Museum provides significant economic and educational benefits, for the country, state and nation [sic].”

The proclamation also mentions the Aviation Museum’s “acute visitorship over the past few decades” that the mayor says has resulted in the loss of more than $11 million in labor income, and about 350 jobs due to the enhanced security after the shooting.

“And whereas, the residents and constituents of the city of Pensacola, Escambia County and across the state of Florida have launched a campaign to urge the U.S. Navy and Department of Defense to reestablish public access to NAS Pensacola,” continued the proclamation.

“Now therefore I, Grover Robinson, mayor of the city of Pensacola, do hereby salute the efforts of the community and formally request the U.S. Navy and Department of Defense to reinstall the public access waiver to NAS Pensacola so all citizens can once again have access to [the] National Aviation Museum.”

That said, Robinson added that he understands and does not treat lightly the events that led to the closing of the installation, and the need for security.

“We do believe the state of Florida has come forward with a great idea, to open access to those areas that the people can get to; but at the same time, continuing the security that we need for our Navy assets and other military assets to do their mission,” Robinson said.

“We think there is a compromise way to do it, and we certainly need the Department of the Navy and Department of Defense to work with the state of Florida. It is incumbent on all of us, it’s certainly a treasure that we have out there that belongs to the people. And the people need to be able to get to it.”

Meanwhile, a website and petition campaign – “Open Our Museum” — is underway by a group of local residents and civic leaders. They’re calling on the Navy and the Pentagon to reestablish public access to the base and its tourist attractions.

“I think [NAS security] needs to be revisited on a regular basis; based upon the threat analysis at the time,” said former Pensacola Mayor John Fogg, who as a Marine Corps aviator and Blue Angel, was stationed at NAS Pensacola in the early 1970s.

“Of course, that was a very unusual circumstance where the student that committed the crime was actually there under the auspices of a foreign government and going through training which is very different from people coming in through the front gate just as visitors, or potential terrorists,” Fogg said.

Having been based aboard NAS, and later serving as mayor of Pensacola, Fogg has a unique take on the relationship between the base and city.

“I don’t believe there’s another naval air station, and for that matter, any military base that has the kind of relationship with the community that NAS Pensacola has with the Pensacola community,” Fogg said. “It is truly extraordinary based upon first-hand experience in my case, and everybody that I’ve talked to that was on active duty in the years that I was there, felt exactly the same way. It’s a wonderful community.”

If the restrictions are loosened, Fogg says it would benefit the public, the Navy, and the Naval Aviation Museum — the base’s prime attraction.

“Almost all of the funding for the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation comes from the store sales, and visitors,” Fogg said. “So certainly, increasing visitation in the museum, which is free to the public, would be very helpful to the Museum Foundation funding efforts to do all kinds of preservation and other kinds of activities, that support the expansion of the museum and all kinds of other things.”

The Department of Transportation plan is taking ownership of a road through the base, and reconfiguring the base's security perimeter around it. But Fogg says that could be some years off, and it would require approval by the Department of the Navy.

“If it becomes a road that is maintained and actually built by the state, then their plans to get it into budget would take about six years to move from concept all the way up to execution,” Fogg said. “If it is a state initiative and they’re going to have some play in the financing of it, then it could easily take that long. The military, on the other hand, could respond much more quickly, should the situation call for that.”

All sides seem to agree that while short-term solutions could be put into action relatively quickly, the long-term plan likely will take years to develop and implement.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.