Saturday, April 08, 2006 | San Diego’s a Navy town – and right now, the Navy’s involved in all kinds of stuff, from the airport selection process to Doug Manchester’s new waterfront development. One man is in charge of everything the Navy does here. That’s Adm. Len Hering, the Navy mayor of San Diego.

Between jetting off to represent his command all over the world (he has three different frequent flyer accounts, he says), Hering sat down with to brief us about the war’s effect on the home front, the hometown’s on-and-off conflicts with the Navy and what he calls San Diego’s “airport authority problem.”

San Diego has been known as a Navy town, especially in the postwar years. Is it still?

Absolutely. It’s a place that relates and understands the importance of the military. I think San Diego and the military are intrinsically linked, not just because we’re here but because we’ve been here for so long. There is so much of San Diego that is Navy and Marine Corps in the constituencies that are here. We have one of the largest military retirement populations in the country, and it’s not just because of the sunshine, it’s because it’s a place the military calls home.

When you’re out and about in this Navy town, what’s you favorite part to visit?

The ballpark for sure. I love baseball. When I retire, there has to be baseball around. I enjoy the water. I love the golf courses. My son and I spend a lot of time at the zoo. As a matter of fact, they lose money on us because we go often. We have a season pass and we go often.

Balboa Park is obviously great, we love the museums. My wife and I try to go to the opera and the playhouse. San Diego is a great place.

The San Diego Country Regional Airport Authority is studying the joint-use of military bases or how to move military off of some bases altogether. The Navy’s top brass in Washington has already said those are not viable options, even if voters say they want to use one of the bases for a civilian airport in November. Is the airport authority wasting its time?

I’ve said it over and over and over again: I sympathize with San Diego’s airport authority problem. But the truth is that the military has done an exhaustive study of joint use and have found it to be not an option. I truthfully do believe the state legislation that directs the SDCRAA to do its study says, “If it becomes available.” The military has clearly determined, through five rounds of BRAC (or Base Realignment and Closure), that it is not available. So is it a waste? You make the call, but it’s not safe.

It has a severe impact on the security of this nation. Our airports, our ranges in air space provide for graduate-level training necessary for us to execute national defense. The introduction of commercial aircraft in that same air space seriously jeopardizes our ability to do that.

It’s about national security, it’s not about solving San Diego’s airport authority problem. We have to maintain the ability to conduct that training unencumbered by commercial aircraft and to make absolutely certain that we don’t put at risk – and I think this is the piece most folks are completely missing – the commercial airliners and those individuals who would encroach on that airspace.

Doug Manchester was selected to redevelop the Navy Broadway Complex this week. Why did his proposal win? Was there something he brought to the table that other bidders did not?

Each of them in their own right brought very successful opportunities. The technical (expertise) and the financials of Doug Manchester, including the compliance of the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan, brought us to that selection. I think Mr. Manchester and Federal San Diego LLC provide a clear vision of what the gateway to San Diego should look like. There’s vested interest in making sure that the whole concept is developed in a very mature and very direct fashion.

We were given entitlements in order to do certain things in accordance with that North Embarcadero Visionary Plan, and Manchester and his gang far exceeded those expectations. Instead of 1.9 acres we get 6.1 acres of open space for which the city of San Diego can shape in any fashion they like.

Why can’t a land swap for the Navy Broadway Complex or one of the military bases (Miramar, Camp Pendleton, North Island or Marine Corps Recruit Depot) being studied for an airport work?

Let me put this in perspective. We currently have this 14.7-acre piece of property (Navy Broadway Complex) because the city of San Diego asked us for a land swap in the ’30s. The Navy agreed to that land swap: We got 14.7 acres here and we gave up 163 acres to create Lindbergh Field. We’ve done our land-swapping.

And how about the notion that the Marines or the Navy could take land in the desert for one of the bases that has been mentioned as a possible airport site?

Here’s how to put that into perspective: Why don’t you live in the desert? Just pick up your family and move to the desert.

What people are forgetting here is that these people are volunteers for the national security of this country. We all have families. We like to call San Diego home. We won’t like to call the desert of the Imperial Valley home.

These young men and women are serving this country and have moved from one place to another their entire life. To pick up and now relocate them to the middle of the desert and tell those volunteers for national security that they’re not as important as everyone else who loves here in San Diego is criminal. It’s unpatriotic, and I hope you print that. It’s unpatriotic to think that somehow their families and everything else is just disposable.

These young men and women are making enough sacrifices. Do you really think it’s the right thing to do to subject them to living in the middle of the desert because it’s convenient? I think it’s awful.

What type of support system does the Navy here have in place for the families of sailors overseas?

We’re the hub of the Pacific Fleet. We’re the Norfolk of the West Coast. So we have huge support mechanisms. We provide the necessary requirements for the support of families – pre-deployment, deployment and post-deployment.

We have extremely large fleet and family support centers, we run huge Morale, Welfare and Recreation programs, and provide religious support, medical support and everday well-being. We connect the community to the sailor and the families. We make absolutely certain that opportunities are provided in every avenue, things like Operation Homefront, things that you hear on KSON “Support the Military.” We work very hard with the schools, local chambers (of commerce) and the local politicos so they understand our issues.

The third anniversary of the war in Iraq passed a few weeks ago. As we enter the fourth year of the war, what are your observations about the local military community’s morale?

We’re an all-volunteer force and retention has never been higher. This nation is on the right course and the people that are in uniform today are committed. They understand the need to establish a secure democracy in the Middle East. The peace and tranquility of our kids relies on the establishment of democracy around the world.

Guys are going for their third and fourth tours. Our retention has never been higher. We’re at 59 percent for first-time retention, and at 88 percent career retention. Nobody out there today serving in uniform, whether they be for it or not, didn’t volunteer.

A lot has been made at the policy issue about separating residential lands from industrial lands, particularly along the waterfront. How important is it to keep the shipyards in Barrio Logan and the vicinity there to the Navy’s future in San Diego?

It’s vital. Our existence is at sea. The immediate support of the shipyards in close proximity to the ships is vital for us to maintain a ready fleet. A vibrant and responsive shipbuilding and ship repair capability is necessary for the support of our fleet, and therefore San Diego, again, provides us a golden opportunity to exist and to provide – don’t forget – for the thousands of those people who live and work in the San Diego shipbuilding industry. They’re pretty high-paying jobs and they’re secure jobs.

– Interview by EVAN McLAUGHLIN

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