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New nonprofit focused on strengthening military's presence in Escambia, Santa Rosa

The Greater Pensacola Chamber of Commerce has spun out its military advocacy efforts into a new, independent 501(c)(6) nonprofit organization called the Northwest Florida Defense Coalition.

Debbie Graham, who has been at the forefront of the Chamber's military advocacy efforts for over two decades, is heading up the new organization.

"A couple of years ago some of the leadership in the community recognized that we really needed a standalone organization specifically on the advocacy side — protecting, growing, and supporting our current missions and future missions (at Naval Air Station Pensacola and Whiting Field)," said Graham.

The move mirrors similar efforts a decade ago that resulted in the Chamber's tourism and economic development arms being carved out and handed off to Visit Pensacola and the FloridaWest Economic Development Alliance, respectively.

In the wake of that reorganization, Graham said the Chamber's Armed Services Department had faced reductions in staff and financial constraints that made it difficult for them to fulfill their mission.

"We went from a department of three to a department of one," she said, "and because of the changes in funding, all of the financial responsibility for those activities ended up falling on the Chamber membership."

This standalone organization is poised to accomplish what was challenging under the Chamber's umbrella, allowing for more diverse sources of funding, facilitating easier collaboration across county lines, and enabling more robust advocacy in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.

Both Escambia and Santa Rosa counties have contributed funding to the new organization in recent months. So have a number of corporate donors, and Graham said the Coalition was reaching out to individual supporters, as well.

The Coalition has its roots in the aftermath of Hurricane Sally, which pushed aging infrastructure at the area's military bases to the breaking point in 2020 and highlighted the need for stronger local advocacy to secure funding from an increasingly budget-conscious Pentagon.

"Funding at the federal level ... is tight," Graham said, "and we are training installations, which means we are somewhat low on the priority list. Our installation was not made whole after Hurricane Sally. And it became apparent that as a community, we needed to be a little bit more vocal about the needs here and do a better job of educating both our elected officials and even the Department of Defense organizations of what goes on here, how critical it is, and what impact it has not only to our region but actually the DOD enterprise overall because so much training does happen here."

Addressing infrastructure issues, particularly at NAS Pensacola, is among the Coalition's immediate priorities. Graham noted that one of the hangars used by the Blue Angels was found to have been unsafe in the wake of Hurricane Sally.

"One of our main focuses is funding to repair that hanger," she said, "to bring it back up online and then some long-range plans, after that, of a consolidated hanger for the training wing, for the Blue Angels ... for some of their other needs, as well."

In Santa Rosa County, Graham said the most urgent need was expanded child care.

"They are in critical need of a Child Development Center," she said, "so that's one of the priorities for Whiting Field ... A lot of it is just educating our elected officials on what the needs are, and then following the process through appropriations ... to make sure that our voice is heard."

T.S. Strickland is an award-winning journalist whose writing has appeared in the Washington Post, USA Today, Entrepreneur and many other publications. Strickland was born and raised in Pensacola's Ferry Pass neighborhood and cut his teeth working as a newspaper reporter in the Ozark Mountains before returning home to work as a government reporter for the Pensacola News Journal. While there, his reporting earned a Gold Medal for Public Service from the Florida Society of News Editors, one of the highest professional awards in the state. In his spare time, he enjoys building software products, attending Pensacola Opera performances with his effervescent partner, Brooke, and advocating for greenway development with the nonprofit he co-founded, The Bluffline.