LEMOORE — Fighter jets rule the skies over Lemoore Naval Air Station, but the installation's economic clout reverberates even more widely in the southern San Joaquin Valley.
Payroll, base spending, retiree and veterans checks total more than $1 billion in annual economic impact to the region, according to the Navy's most recent study in 2008.
The figure should only grow as an estimated 3,000 military personnel, civilians, contractors and dependents continue arriving over the next 12 years, mostly in the next two years.
Most are coming to support another F/A-18 Super Hornet squadron arriving midyear from Oceana, Virginia, and the 10 new F-35C Joint Strike Fighter jets set to arrive from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida beginning in January.
Not only does the air station's annual payroll of $427 million flow into the local economy, there is a ripple effect from construction jobs and other big-ticket spending, said John Lehn, CEO of the Kings County Economic Development Corp.
"The base is the largest single economic driver in the region," Lehn said.
The future is bright, he said.
Unlike some military installations that were shuttered under the Base Realignment and Closure Commission process, "they are actually growing," he said.
Home builders pay close attention to personnel estimates.
"Job creation is always a big factor," said Chris Williams, Central Valley division president for Woodside Homes. "Any time you get job creation, it makes it a promising location for new homes."
Last year, Woodside Homes finished its 37-home Eagle Hollow subdivision in Lemoore, where homes sold for $255,000 to $335,000.
"Sixty percent of our buyers were military," Williams said.
(Active duty military can live in base housing, but there is no requirement to live on base except for junior enlisted personnel. About 7,000 active-duty military personnel, including reservists, are stationed at Lemoore.)
Daley Homes has a 74-unit custom-home project in Lemoore with home prices from $247,000 to $402,000.
"We get a strong number of buyers from Lemoore Naval Air Station," said Scott Daley, corporate secretary of Daley Enterprises, which owns Daley Homes. "We're very excited they selected the F-35 to be based in Lemoore because it helps solidify Lemoore Naval Air Station as a major employer."
The city is ready for base-related growth, said Judy Holwell, Lemoore's interim planning director.
"I've had quite a few developers come forward," Holwell said. "It's all been housing. Housing developers have been trying to accommodate the growth coming due to the Joint Strike Fighter and the other two squadrons."
It's expected that a second Super Hornet squadron from Oceana will locate in Lemoore, but no date has been set, base spokesman Marc Calero said.
The F-35C arrival — there will be 150 of the military's newest fighter jets at the air station by 2025 — is prompting a building boom on base that is just getting started, including a new building under construction for squadron administration and maintenance, and a flight-simulator building also under construction.
About 13 major projects are planned related to the F-35C, including weapons school training facilities, hangar upgrades, a new hangar and parking, according to the Naval Air Station Lemoore 2030 master plan.
Renovations to existing buildings also are planned.
The most recent economic impact assessment was done eight years ago, so the Navy will hire an outside firm to do a new study.
The new Super Hornet squadron relocating from Virginia will bring 200 to 250 people, and by the end of 2018 the F-35C squadron and related activity will draw about 750 active-duty military personnel, contractors and civilians.
Lemoore businesses welcome the growth because some of the new arrivals will live, retire or do business in the community nearest the air station, said Jenny MacMurdo, CEO of the Lemoore Chamber of Commerce.
"There's a sense of excitement they're going to bring in two squadrons from Oceana," she said. "Almost all of our businesses do military discount."
In Hanford, about 18 miles from the air station, Keller Motors car dealer John Keller said many of his customers are employed by the military.
"Definitely it's an important part of our businesses, for sure," he said. "An increase in the base out there should have a positive impact if we do our part right."