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Norfolk losing NOAA marine operations center to Rhode Island

By Trevor Metcalfe, The Virginian-Pilot, Mar 21, 2023

The U.S. Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration building is photographed in downtown Norfolk on March 20. (Kendall Warner/The Virginian-Pilot)

A mainstay presence on the Norfolk waterfront is leaving town for Rhode Island. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Atlantic marine operations center — the operational hub for the government agency’s ships working in the Atlantic Ocean and Great Lakes — is moving from Norfolk’s West Freemason neighborhood to Naval Station Newport in Newport, Rhode Island.

The decision was announced March 15 by Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed. The new $150 million facility will bring 200 jobs to the state, according to Reed’s office, and serve as a homeport for NOAA’s research vessels. The move will help the Rhode Island economy while saving money through consolidation for NOAA and the federal government, Reed said in the announcement.

Just how many of those jobs will be relocated from Norfolk is still an unanswered question, NOAA spokesperson Keeley Belva said. Belva said around 60 employees work out of the Norfolk office, but it’s too soon to say how many of those positions would be moved to Rhode Island.

NOAA has been looking into moving operations for years, Belva said. Based on several studies, including a 2017 independent business case analysis, the agency determined it is “no longer operationally or economically feasible to maintain the Marine Operations Center-Atlantic in Norfolk,” she said. The move will result in more efficient ship operations and long-term savings through shared common capabilities, Belva said. However, she added, “There will be no reduction in NOAA ship mission operations in the Norfolk and Chesapeake Bay areas as a result of the relocation.”

Sen. Tim Kaine wrote to NOAA in 2021 asking to keep the operations center and the homeport of the Thomas Jefferson survey vessel in Hampton Roads. In an emailed statement, spokesperson Janine Kritschgau said Kaine disapproved of the decision to move the facility. Sen. Mark Warner also said he was disappointed.

“Norfolk has long-served as home for NOAA’s Atlantic fleets, providing the support needed to maintain a strong operation while assisting in education and research opportunities and boosting Virginia’s blue economy,” Warner said in an emailed statement, referencing the region’s maritime economic activities like fishing, shipbuilding, ship repair, research and offshore wind.

The research vessel Thomas Jefferson will also move its homeport to Rhode Island, the NOAA spokesperson said. The boat has recently completed surveying work in the Great Lakes and is scheduled to survey parts of Chesapeake Bay rivers in Hampton Roads in 2023, according to the agency.

Once the employees move out of the Norfolk office, the 2023 defense budget directs the federal government to convey two NOAA properties to the city of Norfolk. The two parties must negotiate first, but the budget leaves open the possibility that the government can give away the properties to the city for free.

The 2.5-acre waterfront property at 439 W. York St. includes three buildings and a boat dock, according to property records. Another 3.7-acre property across Smith Creek at 538 Front St. includes a building and a loading dock.

City spokesperson Chris Jones said in an email it’s too soon to determine what would happen once the city acquires the properties.

“The current potential alignment for flood protection measures as part of the city’s proposed downtown flood protection project may utilize the properties, though designs for the phase affecting that area are not complete,” he added.

In the past, NOAA vessels have conducted surveying work to help other ships navigate Hampton Roads waterways, according to previous Pilot reporting.

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