Miami is on Pace to retain hemisphere's military command
By Michael Lewis
The incoming principal military advisor to the president says action is near to cement the headquarters of the US Southern Command into Miami's long-term future.
After month's end, Marine Gen. Peter Pace told a private lunch at the Biltmore Hotel, the US can examine an offer by Gov. Jeb Bush to have the state build a new home for the command here, "providing the nation the headquarters it needs."
That's great news. Civic, business and government leaders have been urging this for years, spurred by SouthCom's annual $318 million impact on South Florida's economy.
Even more vital, it's key to Miami's global role to retain one of the nation's five geographic military commands - one saying grace over a massive area 7,000 miles long and 3,000 miles wide that encompasses 32 nations.
Because SouthCom also handles such non-military issues as drug intervention in many nations, officials from governments throughout the hemisphere link to SouthCom and often visit. The impact ripples to dozens of consulates here and Miami's massive international community.
SouthCom, a joint command comprised of Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force elements, has been headquartered 4 miles west of Miami International Airport in a 154,848-square-foot building on 28.5 acres in Doral's WestPointe Business Park, 3511 NW 91st St., since it moved here from Panama in 1997.
Unfortunately, that building is far too small and the lease expires in February 2008, creating concern that the command would leave Miami then.
Last year, Gov. Bush developed a creative solution, offering a state investment of about $12 million to build a 300,000- to 400,000-square-foot office building on 40 state-owned acres beside the command's current headquarters. The state would then lease the site to SouthCom for up to 50 years at about $5 per square foot below market rates.
That way, the Pentagon wouldn't have to tie up capital in buying and building but would be guaranteed a friendly and cooperative landlord over the long haul.
"I think the governor's proposal is a great one," said Gen. Pace, clearly indicating that it's likely to become reality. "Miami is a great place for the SouthCom headquarters. This is the best place from which we can operate for (SouthCom commander Gen.) John Craddock's responsibilities."
It's so logical for both sides that you have to ask why the nation didn't jump long ago to take advantage of this win-win deal.
The holdup is that bases are evaluated every 10 years by the Base Realignment Commission, which recommends closings for efficiency.
While it's inconceivable that SouthCom would be closed, the commission might have recommended that it be merged with a command elsewhere. That didn't happen.
Gen. Pace, who will be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says President George W. Bush is to send Congress final realignment recommendations this month. Once that occurs without SouthCom being listed, he said, a deal with the state will go forward.
Gen. Pace pointedly noted that he wasn't speaking for the military at Friday's lunch, hosted by the Beacon Council, the county's economic development group. That's because he's unemployed. He left the post of vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Aug. 12 and won't become chairman until Sept. 30. In the interim, he's gathering recommendations from the chiefs of staff of all the military for an action plan he expects to put on the table Oct. 1.
But he was clearly speaking from experience about the importance of SouthCom's presence. He headed the command for a year starting in September 2000, living in a Coral Gables home the city provided - although County Commission Chairman Joe A. Martinez reminded the general that he earlier lived in what's now the commissioner's district.
"I was in charge of security" there, the former county police official told him.
"How good it feels to be back at home," Gen. Pace told the lunch guests. "This is so multicultural that it is the perfect place to demonstrate the strength of America."
Such statements show that there wouldn't be a smidgeon of a doubt about accepting the state's offer if the decision were the general's. In fact, it's up to the secretary of defense and Congress.
But it would be foolhardy in the extreme for either of them to dismiss Gen. Pace's firsthand knowledge and firm conviction that SouthCom's headquarters belongs right where it is - only in larger quarters that Florida will provide as a wise investment in our nation, our state and our region.
We're on pace - and Pace - to call SouthCom our home base for many decades to come.