The $729,000 grant will go toward installing an upgraded airspace control system and a mass notification system at the Starke-based military facility by the end of 2014.
Bill Garrison, executive director of the Clay County Economic Development Council, said both operating systems will improve safety on the 72,000-acre base in different, yet necessary ways.
He said a Federal Aviation Administration radar providing real-time airspace data will replace its current manual system, which requires an employee standing at the base and monitoring the sky.
“What you have over at Camp Blanding, because of the trajectory of the artillery shells, is a restricted airspace,” he said. “With our current manual system, small planes flying through there could conceivably be shot down.”
The mass notification installation is similar to a loudspeaker system, which can notify everyone on the base simultaneously in the event of a catastrophe, Garrison said.
“When you have this safety aspect of a potential of a shooter on the base and you don’t have the ability to contact everybody at one time, something needs to be done about that,” he said. “It’s hard to argue with the safety issue.”
Garrison called the grant a “big win” for Camp Blanding. The base received about 36 percent of the total $2 million in grants awarded by the task force. Of the seven state recipients selected for grants, Camp Blanding was the only one awarded funding for two projects.
Camp Blanding is the National Guard’s premiere location in Florida, training forces since World War II.
Garrison said this is the first funding the base has received from the Florida Defense Support Task Force’s grant program. Formed in 2011, the task force works for military missions and installations throughout the state.
Rocky McPherson, an employee at economic development agency Enterprise Florida, works to support the task force, and said he believes Camp Blanding won the grant because the base’s viable needs could be met with few resources.
Florida National Guard spokesman Ron Tittle said the grant improvements will be mutually beneficial for both Camp Blanding and its surrounding community. When various private companies, state agencies and civilian groups use the base for trainings, he said it generates a positive economic impact on Clay County.
“It’s a great partnership we have with our community and I think this grant is a great opportunity for us to continue building on that partnership,” he said.
Similarly, he said, the grant will improve the safety and livelihoods of Camp Blanding’s nearly 1,000 full-time employees.
“Our uniformed members as well as our civilian members out at Camp Blanding come from our communities,” Tittle said. “They’re our neighbors.”
Garrison sees the grant as an opportunity to attract more business to the area. He said testing and researching unmanned aerial vehicles — or drones — is a growing industry which requires the high degree of airspace management the new installations will bring Camp Blanding.
He hopes companies will relocate to Clay County instead of traveling as far as Orlando to use the improved airspace.
“It’s a growing industry, a new industry, there’s a lot of opportunity there, but also a lot of controversy with privacy issues,” Garrison said. “But as it continues to expand, Camp Blanding is in a unique position to take advantage of it with this restricted airspace.”