Blackwater revives mission -- Security contractor plans training center
Union Tribune (2008-04-23) Anne Krueger
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By Anne Krueger
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
April 23, 2008
Although Blackwater Worldwide has given up its plans to build a training center in East County, the government contractor is still seeking a presence in San Diego County.
The North Carolina company is planning to open an indoor training center in Otay Mesa to train Navy personnel after abandoning its controversial proposal to build a larger facility on a ranch in Potrero.
Brian Bonfiglio, a Blackwater vice president, said the facility will operate out of a 61,600-square-foot building in a business park on Siempre Viva Road, just south of Brown Field. Bonfiglio expects it will cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to get the building ready for training, which could begin by summer.
“This is a cost-efficient means in which we can support the Navy,” Bonfiglio said of the facility, which is a little larger than a football field.
Bonfiglio said Blackwater officials began searching for sites early this year, at the same time the company was pursuing plans to build a training center in Potrero, a rural community about 40 miles east of San Diego.
Blackwater's plans there sparked intense opposition from those who said the facility would bring noise and traffic to the quiet community. Opponents also objected to the role of Blackwater's security guards in Iraq, pointing to a Sept. 16 shooting in Baghdad in which Blackwater employees killed 17 Iraqi civilians.
On March 7, Blackwater dropped plans to build on the 824-acre Potrero site after noise tests showed gunfire shots exceeded county standards.
Opponents were quick to speak out yesterday against Blackwater's latest plans.
Jeanette Hartman, chairwoman of the Sierra Club's land use committee, said she is opposed to any new Blackwater facility.
“We don't need to go any further into training for violence in this country. We need more training for peace,” Hartman said. “I'll be happy when they open a peace center.”
Raymond Lutz, an El Cajon-area resident who maintains an anti-Blackwater Web site, said he has concerns about the new Otay Mesa facility, including whether it has the proper permits. But Lutz said the indoor site is better than the Potrero proposal.
“We're not ruining a pristine valley,” Lutz said. “If you had to site it somewhere, this is a better location.”
The building is at the end of a complex of warehouse structures and is owned by the Los Angeles company Hometex, which will lease it to Blackwater. Bonfiglio gave a reporter a tour of the still largely vacant interior yesterday.
Already in place was a ship simulator – a miniature version of a Navy ship – that Bonfiglio said will be used to train sailors for crisis situations at sea. An enclosed shooting range, with bafflers to cut down on noise, is being built.
Navy personnel will be trained in two classrooms holding up to 24 students each. Bonfiglio said the training at the Otay Mesa site will be on a much smaller scale than the Potrero proposal, where up to 300 students a day were planned.
Although the facility has a shooting range, it will emphasize training Navy personnel to be better prepared for terrorist attacks, Bonfiglio said.
“This training isn't about guns,” he said. “It's about prevention.”
Kelly Broughton, director of the city of San Diego's Development Services Department, said a permit for the Otay Mesa site was requested in February by Raven Development Group. Bonfiglio said the company is responsible for developing Blackwater's training centers and ranges across the country.
The permit was granted March 19. Broughton said the building was already permitted for use as a vocational trade school, and Blackwater's training center would be allowed under that category.
“As long as it was an educational facility, if they're training future police or security guards, that would be considered a vocational trade,” Broughton said.
Bonfiglio said Blackwater has had a contract to train Navy personnel since 2002 through a subcontractor, American Shooting Center in Kearny Mesa. The training will be transferred to the Otay Mesa site once Navy inspectors give their approval to the new facility, he said.
Bonfiglio said Blackwater hasn't determined whether American Shooting Center would assist with training in Otay Mesa.
“We want to improve on the curriculum. We want to improve on the teaching,” Bonfiglio said. “We want to improve on the facilities.”
Bonfiglio said other agencies may use the facilities occasionally if it doesn't interfere with the Navy's training. He emphasized that no independent contractors working for Blackwater would be trained there.
Marc Halcon, owner of American Shooting Center, said he wasn't aware of Blackwater's plans.
“I'm surprised,” Halcon said. “I was under the impression that they had pulled out of San Diego. They never indicated to me that they were going to do this.”
Anne Krueger: (619) 593-4962; firstname.lastname@example.org