Action News Investigates: 8 warships coming to Naval Station Mayport

DUVAL COUNTY, Fla. — Abandoned strip malls and empty storefronts line the road leading up to Naval Station Mayport, which needs a boost. It's about to get one.

Sparks and hammers are flying inside the Marinette Marine Company Shipyard. In the midst of the snow and the frozen Menominee River, at the border of Wisconsin and Michigan, sheets of steel are being cut, bent and molded as a ship is being built.

Action News anchor John Bachman traveled to Northeast Wisconsin to get an exclusive look at a new piece of American military muscle that will bring nearly 1,000 jobs and millions of dollars to Northeast Florida.

A million pieces are being welded together to become a Littoral Combat Ship. Eight of these highly automated warships are coming to Naval Station Mayport over the next five years.

"This vessel can go over 40 knots or 50 mph and get to places where the U.S. Navy couldn't get to in the past," Neil King of Lockheed Martin said.

The $360 million ship needs only 15 feet of water to get to where it's going. There is no propeller; and instead, water jets pump 1 million gallons of water a minute.

The Navy and the ships' builder gave Action News exclusive access onboard the USS Little Rock, the first ship to be homeported at Mayport in 2016.

The ship will move out of the building and into water when the ship is 80 percent completed, which is expected sometime this summer.

The USS Little Rock and the seven other ships in the littoral fleet will bring nearly a thousand sailors as well as civilian jobs and millions of dollars to the Jacksonville area.

Those sailors and their money can't get here fast enough for Vladimir Yzeiri. He has run the Olympia Cafe in Mayport for 12 years.

"Business is so-so," Yzeiri said.

Yzeiri has survived. However, in the last 12 years, he's watched more than a dozen restaurants close. 

"Right now it's kind of dead," William Pough of Platinum Cuts Unlimited 2 said. "We have companies leaving because of the drought we're having."

When the Kennedy aircraft carrier left in 2007, businesses were right behind it, leaving entire strip malls empty.

But the business tide is rising. The Navy is spending $60 million getting ready for the influx of ships, sailors and families.

"There's going to be a thousand extra people here," Commodore Paul Young said.

Young said the Littoral Combat Ship is the future of the Navy. It has a smaller crew, with only about 70 sailors onboard.

It is also more flexible and is able to be outfitted in a week for three different missions, including hunting for mines, submarines or planes.