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Mixed feelings about MacDill

I felt sorry for that millionaire developer Al Austin the other day. Austin is also a GOP mega-contributor and Tampa's point man to the Republicans in Washington who want to shut down MacDill Air Force Base. So he was trying very hard to put an upbeat spin on the announcement Friday that MacDill might not be partly closed, but shut down, period.

Austin actually said the announcement was, in a way, good news.

I'm still trying to figure out what he meant.

Austin also said that shutting down the base would mean a loss of at least $800-million to the Tampa Bay economy. I didn't understand that, either, since the biggest bill in my wallet is usually a twenty. Do you think even a man as rich as Al Austin has ever fingered $800-million?

This got me wondering about MacDill and its true value. First of all, I told myself, this is no place about which to wax nostalgic.

There's a war machine always tuning itself up on that base, and enough hazardous wastes to maybe someday put MacDill on the Superfund list and qualify the base as Tampa Bay's very own Love Canal. And the base has a couple of golf courses built at taxpayer expense where most taxpayers are not permitted to play.

But I once heard it said that pilots train at MacDill because Tampa has so much good weather. Because we do, on most days of the week you can see a remarkable sight at the base's Dale Mabry gate. As the F-16s swoop up and out, passers-by park their cars on the grass outside the gate and gawk at the planes or take pictures of them.

This became an even more common sight during the gulf war, when patriotic feelings ran high. The sight of those planes in the sky would stir your blood, even if you weren't foursquare for the war.

Those planes and that air base are as much a part of Tampa as Busch Gardens, the painted tiles of the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, and the glittery nighttime photographs of the skyline that never fail to make downtown Tampa look better than it is.

In short, the base is part of what makes Tampa Tampa, and the bay area the bay area.

I'm not dwelling much on how Norman Schwarzkopf is a hometown hero because of MacDill. The general has already gotten plenty of ink.

I'm also not spending much time on what the base means to the thousands of old soldiers, retired now, who return to the base to shop at the exchange and fill prescriptions at the pharmacy. There are thousands of retirees, certainly, but they aren't everybody in Tampa Bay.

And what the base means to everybody is the issue here. That's why this debate over the base closing causes me much conflict.

My gut goes one way. My head goes another.

You've already heard the guts talking. Now the head:

I know what the base is supposed to be worth, all the mega-million-dollar estimates that Al Austin can roll off his tongue like so many Social Security numbers.

But speaking of underfinanced federal programs, the people who want to keep MacDill open never manage to mention the intended purpose of the base closings _ to save money that might be spent on other underfinanced federal programs.

That is, if the money won't disappear down the public drain that is the national debt.

So it would seem that if poor people don't get welfare as they used to, and people who are out of work don't get unemployment benefits as they used to, and cities don't get federal money as they used to _ then it would be appropriate to shut down military bases.

Even ours.

Remember all the red-white-and-blue hype of a couple of months ago? Wouldn't it be the patriotic thing to do to suck it in and accept this base closing as a brave act of peacetime?

Surely, that is the prudent way to go. Everybody who worries that closing MacDill would be the financial equivalent of the end of the world pays federal taxes, and you'd figure they could support closing the base on the theory that it might hold down their taxes.

But thinking this way involves heads, not guts. I don't know about you, but I'm as torn as most everybody else.