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Eleven people with silver shovels broke ground Friday on a $25.5 million flight and readiness facility at the southwest corner of the Gary/Chicago International Airport and touted its benefits for the region.

"All of us in Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois will be much safer than we have been in the past," said U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind. "And this will be a huge building block as we build a new economy in Northwest Indiana."

Maj. Gen. R. Martin Umbarger, leader of the Indiana National Guard, said the facility will help the Indiana Guard fulfill both its missions. The first of those is to serve the citizens of Indiana in times of disaster or need and the second is to back up the active-duty Army.

It's the second mission that is grabbing headlines now because of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Umbarger reminded listeners his soldiers have been involved in missions close to home as diverse as flood rescue and demolition of crack houses.

The flight facility will house three UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters that will be equipped for medvac. It will also host two OH-58 Kiowas, which can be used for reconnaissance and other missions.

One of each was on display Friday as a backdrop to the speakers and the groundbreaking. Flight crews and other soldiers stood behind invited guests seated in green Army tents.

The flight facility, with its 40-foot-high bays and offices, will be one of the airports most visible tenants. It will be visible from the Indiana Toll Road and large lettering along its side will identify it as an Indiana National Guard flight facility.

Construction will start nine months later on a readiness center that will host up to 180 troops for training and deployments. The money for both facilities came from federal appropriations secured by Visclosky, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind.; and Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind.

The state is funding up to $4 million in infrastructure such as utilities and roadways.

The readiness center was designed by Carras-Szany-Kuhn & Associates Architects, of Schererville. The firm has designed area buildings including Eads Elementary and Elliott Elementary in Munster, St. John Middle School and additions at St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago.

Twenty-three people will be employed full-time at the flight facility. The readiness center will employ 11 full time. Altogether, more than 200 guard troops will be working, training or deploying out of the new facilities.

Troops will include pilots, mechanics, medical technicians, military police and infantry. Twenty armored Humvees will be stationed there.

The construction of the new facilities, the 34 full-time jobs and the training and deployment missions will all have spin-off benefits for the region, according to Paul Karas, airport director.

It is estimated more than 200 construction jobs will be created during the two years it will take to fully construct the facility. The Gary Jet Center will provide the helicopters with jet fuel. Other area vendors should also be able to land supply contracts and restaurants and hotels in the area should also benefit, Karas said.

The National Guard flight facility and readiness center had their ups and downs throughout the planning stages, Umbarger noted. The idea of putting more troops and facilities in Northwest Indiana originated more than four years ago with then-Democratic Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan.

When Republican Mitch Daniels became governor two years ago, all guard projects came in for re-evaluation, Umbarger said. That provided some anxious moments, but, in the end, Daniels came through with even more troops and money for the Gary flight facility and readiness center.

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