BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - After years of talking, the digging is about to begin.
On Friday, local, state and federal representatives marked a special day that will begin construction of a new entry gate for Keesler Air Force Base.
It may be ceremonial, but it represents a big project to protect South Mississippi's biggest investment.
"When people say, 'Why do you spend so much money on a gate?' Well, Keesler Air Force Base has a $1 billion dollar a year economic impact here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast," said U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo. "It's a job creator. It adds to our quality of life. So, to us, it's a no-brainer."
The three-year, $37 million project is designed primarily to keep Keesler Air Force base safer and insulated from Base Realignment and Closure processes.
It's created a challenge for project engineering firm Brown, Mitchell & Alexander. "We do a lot of roadway design," said engineer Ben Smith, "but this one had some unique design criteria for anti-terrorism protection for the base."
Inside the gate development is essentially from Forrest Avenue west into the base. Construction in that area will begin in about a week.
To make room, Biloxi bought six parcels of land, four with homes, and then donated the property to Keesler.
"I just want to say from Keesler Air Force Base how grateful we are for the support that we get from the local government but also the state government," said Col. Debra Lovette, commander of the 81st Training Wing. "This is exactly why airmen come here and decide to become permanent residents of this local community because of that relationship. It's amazing and the people here are phenomenal."
The project will also include expanding and enhancing Division Street from I-110 to the base, which officials say will be an economic generator for the city.
It's been on the discussion board for at least 15 years, but local, state and federal collaboration is making it possible. "Step by step, we figured out how to make it happen," said Biloxi Mayor FoFo Gilich. "Give thanks to the governor, because I can remember like it was yesterday that we were in my living room and we talked about we're going to make that gate happen."
Funding is coming from several sources including the Mississippi Development Authority, federal investments and BP settlement money.