- Associated Press - Monday, June 22, 2015

BILOXI, Miss. (AP) - The price tag for moving the main gate to Keesler Air Force Base is $30 million but security issues have prompted Biloxi Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich to make it happen.

Keesler’s former commander, Lt. Gen. Clark Griffith, said plans in 2009 to relocate the main entrance to Division Street after Hurricane Katrina were dropped due to Department of Defense budget cuts.

The cost would include the construction of a new visitor’s center and a commercial vehicle inspection point that is up to current security standards.

F. Cliff Kirkland, who volunteers as the head of the mayor’s transition team, told The Sun Herald (http://bit.ly/1CnSboX ) the gate’s shortfalls became highlighted after Sept. 11, 2001, when the Pentagon increased security standards for U.S. military installations worldwide.

“It’s on notice. It has been for many years,” Kirkland said. “That’s obviously the main reason driving this. That’s the most significant issue.”

Griffith, who retired in 1998, said Keesler was able to temporarily meet the increased requirements after 9/11 by restricting entry to officials only.

That eventually was replaced with other temporary workarounds, one of which involves commercial vehicle access.

The increased standards require any non-military commercial vehicles to pass through additional screening, such as X-ray machines and bomb-sniffing dogs, before complete entry is granted.

Without room to accommodate such screening at Keesler’s main entrance, the base implemented a makeshift inspection site under a tent behind its medical center, Griffith said.

To get there, trucks must first pass through a residential area, then through a secure back gate off Kensington Drive.

“Even with the workarounds that we’ve done, people can get way too far into our base without us really knowing what’s in their truck, their car or what the hell they want,” Griffith said.

Division Street offers an ideal location for a main gate because it would provide a large buffer zone between entry and base housing, Griffith said.

Keesler spokesman Tech Sgt. Greg Biondo said a new gate would typically be funded by the federal government and the infrastructure outside the base’s fence to support the gate would use city or state funds.

One possible source could be a U.S. Department of Transportation grant.

City and state tax dollars may also come into play because both Division Street and the I-110 exit ramp would likely require some expansion or improvement, officials said.

Kirkland said it is not a city-driven project but simply the city responding to a security need of its largest economic asset.

Keesler is the largest employer in Biloxi, and city leaders do not want to see the base shut down because its gates aren’t up to par.

“It’s vital to the economy not only of Biloxi but to the entire Mississippi Coast and to the state,” Kirkland said.

Griffith agreed, saying it’s too risky to not complete the project.

“We have all seen how the current military leadership continues to request we close 30 percent of our existing bases,” the general said. “If that happens, as it has in the past, we don’t want our base to be considered for closing because we have security problems.”

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Information from: The Sun Herald, http://www.sunherald.com

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