EDITOR'S NOTE: Your Republican National Convention host city is a cultural melting pot with a rich history, delectable cuisine, postcard scenery and military muscle. Today: MacDill Air Force Base.
On any given weekday, the crowd at Thailand Restaurant offers a clue about the Tampa icon a few miles to the south.
Men and women in uniform, mostly U.S. military but also from services around the globe, pack the dining room of the South Dale Mabry Highway restaurant.
"We are a very popular place with the people on the base," said Pornrut Thambunvit, whose husband, Amnuay Thambunvit, owns the restaurant.
MacDill Air Force Base is an economic engine for the region, not just Thailand Restaurant. More than 15,000 active duty, reserve and National Guard personnel and trainees and nearly 3,000 civilians are directly connected to the base, according to a MacDill study.
All told, the base generates about $1 billion in military pay, more than $200 million in civilian pay and nearly $1.5 billion in contracting expenditures every year, according to the study.
Including the payroll of retirees living within 50 miles of the base, officials estimate MacDill brings in nearly $5 billion to the local economy each year and created more than 30,000 jobs paying an average annual salary of more than $40,000.
Pornrut Thambunvit said that as the base has expanded, so has the restaurant, which opened in 1979.
"We used to have one room," she said. "We had to expand to two more."
MacDill, a 71-year-old military installation, is spread out over almost 5,700 acres on a spit of land jutting out into Tampa Bay. A local institution, MacDill also is known around the globe as headquarters for the commands that direct the war in Afghanistan as well as oversee special operations worldwide.
The land now used by MacDill has a long military history, having served as a staging area during the Spanish-American War. As Japanese troops rolled across China and the Nazis captured Europe, the War Department selected Tampa as a site for one of many new air bases.
MacDill Field opened April 16, 1941, and was named for World War I aviation pioneer Col. Leslie MacDill.
The base's first mission was to train crews to fly bombers such as the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-26 Marauder.
After the war, the base became part of the Strategic Air Command, but in 1960, as missiles began to replace bombers, it faced an uncertain future. By 1962, most of the base was slated for closure by the Department of Defense — until the Cuban missile crisis showcased MacDill's strategic location.
That was the first time the base weathered the threat of defense downsizing but not the last. For three decades, MacDill became a fighter base, first for F-4 Phantoms, then the F-16 Fighting Falcons. "Between 1979 and 1993, approximately half of all F-16 pilots trained at MacDill," according to base history.
MacDill dodged base-closing bullets in 1993 when the F-16s were transferred out and again two years later. After the fighters moved out, the 6th Air Wing moved in, and missions supporting the Haitian government helped cement the future of both the base and the wing, renamed the 6th Air Mobility Wing.
MacDill is the only base in the world serving as headquarters for two combatant commands: U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command. In addition to the 6th Air Mobility Wing, there are dozens of other partner units, including the Joint Communications Support Element and, since 2008, the 927th Air Refueling Wing.
Because of U.S. Central Command, there are representatives from dozens of militaries around the world at the base.
MacDill is well-positioned as the military prepares to trim nearly a half trillion dollars in the next decade.
Special Operations Command is expected to play an increasing role in future military operations. With strong representation in Congress — Republican C.W. Bill Young, chairman of the influential House defense spending subcommittee, and Democrat Kathy Castor on the House Armed Services Committee — MacDill is expected to survive the looming cuts, too.