Repairs holding up state takeover of closed naval station

Published 10:53 pm Saturday, April 21, 2007

The federal government is wrapping up repairs at the former site of Naval Station Pascagoula and officials say the prime piece of industrial property could be turned over to the state in a matter of weeks.

The Base Realignment and Closure Commission voted in August 2005 to shut down the naval station after having a 14-year presence on Singing River Island. The Navy expected to vacate the property by November of last year but Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29, 2005, leaving the government with damaged buildings and a major mess to clean up.

“We entered a period of negotiations with them on what repairs would be made and that delayed the original turnover,” said Gerald McWhorter, assistant Secretary of State for Public Lands. “The repairs are being made now. We made an inspection tour a couple of weeks ago and they are on or ahead of schedule and appear to be proceeding satisfactorily.”

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Once the property is in state hands, it will be leased to the Port Authority of Pascagoula, which plans to sublease portions of the island to businesses. Officials won’t say how much money the land might be leased for, citing pending negotiations.

Northrop Grumman Ship Systems, which already has a major presence in Pascagoula with its Ingalls Shipyard, has expressed an interest in expanding onto the nearby manmade island.

Singing River is 437 acres, but much of it is wetlands and cannot be developed. The Navy base took up about 100 acres of the property and another 100 acres would be available for industrial use.

The Coast Guard already has a permanent presence on the island and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a base there temporarily until hurricane repairs are completed at its facility on the coast.

Northrop officials have said that a pier that was used by Navy vessels on the island is especially attractive to the shipbuilding company because it is shielded from the high seas and storm surge that battered Northrop vessels during Hurricane Katrina.

Debbi McCallam, a Northrop spokeswoman, said Thursday she could not discuss specifics, but she did confirm that the company, which is the state’s largest private employer, is in negotiations with the state.

Northrop would use the facilities on the island “primarily for office space and shop functions,” she said.

Any plans to lease the land hinge on the property being handed over to the state, and officials won’t say exactly when that might be.

“There’s some target dates for completion but I don’t really want to commit to those at this point,” said Den Knecht, chairman of the Jackson County Local Redevelopment Planning Authority.

McWhorter said the facility would be transferred “probably in a matter of weeks.”

A deal between the state and the port authority must also be reached before officials can complete negotiations with interested businesses.

“Our intent is, after the facility is turned over, and after we determine how much of it Northrop Grumman wants, then we’ll be in a position to market the buildings that are not occupied or the vacant property that’s out there,” Knecht said. “We’re talking with Northrop Grumman, but nothing has been decided yet. Beyond that, there aren’t any current prospects.”

Economic development officials say the deep-water port on Singing River is a major selling point. The fact that the island is accessible only by one bridge or by water also could be attractive to companies that need a secure location. However, the island has no rail facilities, which could be a drawback for companies looking to use it as a port facility.

Those are just a few of the things likely to be considered when officials begin courting potential tenants for the property. One thing they’re looking for is industry that will create skilled jobs.

The closing of Naval Station Pascagoula stripped the area of more than 1,000 military and civilian jobs. The base generated about 4 percent of the total economic capacity in coastal Jackson County, which borders Alabama.