Contractor has steady support at its N.C. base
Union Tribune (2007-10-06) Paul MKrawzak
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By Paul M. Krawzak
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
October 6, 2007
MOYOCK, N.C. – The global storm of controversy settling over Blackwater USA is fueling opposition to the company's plans to build a training center in rural San Diego County.
But 2,300 miles away, the small North Carolina farming community that houses Blackwater's headquarters and key training facility remains steadfast in its support for its largest employer.
The majority of 21 North Carolina residents interviewed in recent days remain accepting, even protective of the company as it undergoes international scrutiny and condemnation arising from its role as a private security force for the U.S. government in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the same time, several neighbors said they fear if they were too critical of the company, it might retaliate by being less sensitive to their complaints or by developing vacant property near their homes, though the company has never made such threats.
At least one neighbor is unnerved by the company's mysterious patrolling of a nearby street every day. And even supporters acknowledge that heavy traffic and the echo of gunfire, which can travel miles, are trying at times.
“I'm OK with it,” Tim Holub, a 19-year Moyock resident, said of the facility. “I just don't like the cluster of traffic.”
Blackwater is by far the largest and most visible of at least 28 companies with private security forces operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2004, the State and Defense departments have paid Blackwater $935 million for private security work in the two countries.
While Blackwater's main facility is on 7,000 acres in two rural North Carolina counties, the company is looking to expand on the West Coast with a training facility on 824 acres in the backcountry community of Potrero.
Potrero residents worry that the facility's noise and traffic will taint the community's pastoral calm. Others oppose Blackwater's work in Iraq and Afghanistan. Several plan to rally at the project site tomorrow in protest.
Opposition has only intensified since Sept. 16, when Blackwater forces protecting a U.S. Embassy convoy opened fire on Iraqi civilians in a Baghdad square, leaving as many as 17 Iraqis dead.
Although Blackwater said it was defending against an ambush, the incident prompted Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to order the company out of the country. He later lifted the order pending the outcome of a U.S. investigation.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ordered yesterday that federal agents ride with Blackwater-escorted convoys in Baghdad.
Despite the growing concerns, many in North Carolina remain supportive.
“As far as the military stuff that they do or security, I don't know any more than (what) I read in the paper,” said Camden County Commissioner Melvin J. Jeralds, a strong supporter of the company because it has been “a big boost for the economy, which is what we need.”
In Moyock, along the coastal swampland of North Carolina, Blackwater employs about 650 people and trains about 750 others each week, according to company officials. Many are there for firearms training.
Dozens of courses are offered, including a five-day program to teach police how to disable shooters who gun down bystanders. That course costs $994 including lunch.
Ronda Ross is a commercial property manager who lives in a new subdivision bordering undeveloped woods and fields owned by Blackwater. In the past, she has been kept awake by the sound of gunfire from the 40 shooting ranges on the other side of the Blackwater property in the next county.
Ross said the company has cut down on the nighttime shooting in response to her complaints. “So far, they have been bearable and they have been responsive, and they have a genuine interest in being a good neighbor to us.”
Still, Ross and others who live closest to the property in Currituck County fear that Blackwater will erect up to 29 firing ranges within 1,000 feet of their homes, as allowed by a special-use permit the county granted last year despite neighbors' fierce opposition.
Sherry Motes, who lives alongside Blackwater, objects to the company sending a marked security vehicle down her street several times a day, but has not complained about it because she is a vocal critic and wants to pick her battles, she said.
But Ross said the patrols are fine with her. They began about six months ago, after a top Blackwater executive asked her if the neighborhood would object to the company's keeping an eye out “for anything out of the ordinary or suspicious,” Ross said.
Blackwater did not respond to a reporter's question about the patrols – or a variety of other follow-up questions sent to the company. The Currituck County Sheriff's Department and other county officials said they didn't know of the patrols.
Blackwater is usually quick to respond when North Carolina neighbors or community leaders raise concerns.
Officials said the company responded to complaints about speeding by erecting electronic radar signs displaying a motorist's speed on the road leading to the complex.
That has reduced speeding, said Currituck County Chief Sheriff's Deputy Sandy Casey, and all but eliminated complaints from residents on the issue.
Camden County Sheriff Tony E. Perry said his department has received only two formal complaints about loud shooting since May 2004. He added that the Sheriff's Department has never written a ticket to Blackwater for violating the local noise ordinance.
During a recent company-led tour for a Copley News Service reporter, a Coast Guard unit was training with shotguns at one gravel-covered shooting range. An Air Force group was training at another. Down the road, the Currituck sheriff's SWAT team was practicing at a range Blackwater set aside for its free use.
In another portion of the complex, the Virginia Beach, Va., police rent space for their own training academy.
The compound boasts three live-fire shooting houses used to practice “room clearing,” three miles of driving track and a pond with mock ship platforms for maritime training – as well as a hotel, cafeteria and classroom buildings.
Blackwater has its own airstrip, a fleet of aircraft and a factory where it makes its “Grizzly” armored vehicles.
The proposed Potrero facility, which is under review by the county, would have pistol and rifle ranges; a 3,250-foot driving track; an armory; a helipad; ship simulators; and an urban simulation training area.
In many ways, Blackwater has been a boon for a conservative community that prizes the jobs and revenue it has brought. Blackwater's employees include clerks, researchers and government contract managers drawn from several neighboring counties, the company says.
The company is the largest employer in Camden County, providing 500 jobs. It also is Camden's biggest taxpayer. Blackwater paid $216,246 in property and vehicle taxes in the county in 2007, out of a total of $6.2 million collected, according to tax administrator Mary M. Rhodes.
The company pays considerably less in taxes in Currituck County, where the majority of its property is located, because almost none of its property there is developed.
When Blackwater purchased the land in 1997, it was unsuccessful in getting Currituck County to amend an ordinance prohibiting firing ranges. The company then secured permission for the ranges and other development in the Camden County portion.
Part of Blackwater's popularity stems from its support for local government, schools and civic groups, such as sponsoring an annual drug-free awareness week, offering the Camden Sheriff's Department new vehicles and making its firing ranges available to local police free.
“They have a pretty positive image in the community,” said Camden County Manager Randall Woodruff, who was featured in a promotional video produced by the company.