Saturday, February 13, 2016

Atlantic City, New Jeresy: Interest mounting for aviation park, but first, it has to be built

Stockton Aviation Research & Technology Park Executive Director Joe Sheairs, of Shamong Twp., and Associate Director Janice Bond, of Egg Harbor Twp., talk about modifications to the construction plan of the aviation park building, Monday Feb. 8, 2016, during a meeting at Stockton University in Galloway Township.

Atlantic County is taking some calculated risks in making the long-stalled Stockton Aviation Research and Technology Park at Atlantic City International Airport a reality.

The Atlantic County Improvement Authority has committed to financing the first 66,000-square-foot building in the park this year, estimated to cost $22.5 million, and is overseeing spending of $300,000 from the Atlantic County Utilities Authority to cover costs related to getting the site ready for construction.

Park Executive Director Joseph Sheairs, of Shamong Township in Burlington County, said he is seeing more interest in the park than ever before from potential tenants but has not asked anyone to sign a lease yet.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. I haven’t asked when we haven’t even broken ground yet,” said Sheairs, a former technology company owner whose office is on Stockton’s main campus. “The ACIA and county have said we are doing this. But they still have to issue and sell bonds. When it’s all in place, I’d say it’s time to sign.”

He said several tenants are interested in taking tens of thousands of square feet.

“I wouldn’t sign a lease (under these circumstances). I can’t ask them to do that because we have stalled before,” Sheairs said.

Sheairs has introduced potential tenants to county officials, however, said county chief of staff Howard Kyle.

“We have met solid potential tenants,” said Kyle. “This is consistent with our economic development strategy, with aviation providing the most immediate and promising opportunities for economic expansion and diversification. Nothing is going to happen unless we make it happen.”

Kyle said there is an element of risk involved, but “We are trying to minimize it as much as we can.”

Aviation is Atlantic County’s most promising and untapped industry to diversify the economy and bring high-paying jobs to the region, according to economic development expert Angelos Angelou, whose firm AngelouEconomics was hired by the county to develop an economic development strategy and action plan last year.

His report recommended bringing more aviation research companies to the area around the underutilized airport, as well as aviation service industries.

There has long been a recognition that the aviation industry is ripe for expansion here. But problems have plagued attempts to create an aviation park at the airport for years.

Stockton Aviation Research & Technology Park Executive Director Joe Sheairs, of Shamong Twp., stands outside his office, Monday Feb. 8, 2016, on the campus of Stockton University in Galloway Township.

The South Jersey Economic Development District leased the land for what was then called the NextGen Aviation Research and Technology Park from the Federal Aviation Administration in 2008. But although design work was done on seven buildings in 2010, none was ever built.

SJEDD Executive Director Gordon Dahl lost his job in 2012 amid accusations of financial mismanagement.

Stockton took over the lease in 2013, made the park an auxiliary organization and hired Sheairs in 2014 to replace retiring Executive Director Ron Esposito.

“I think that after so many years of trying we are on the verge of actually doing,” said Stockton’s Chief University Relations & Marketing Officer Sharon Schulman. “This is actually going to happen this time. I’ve been in meetings with potential people looking to rent space. Once the first building is up, I think we’ll be looking at (buildings) two and three rather quickly.”

While the county has provided seed money for the first building, the park shouldn’t need its help to build the rest, she said.

“The kinds of jobs coming will be good for the economy,” said Schulman. “We asked the companies what kinds of jobs they’ll bring, dollarwise. They said $80,000 to $100,000. That will be a nice addition to the county.”
And it will help combat the brain drain the area has faced for a long time, with its most educated young people leaving for other areas.

“Here they will have a place to be employed,” she said.

Now, Sheairs is working with a 58-acre parcel that has an access road, some cleared sites and drainage basins.

He said many of the companies interested in becoming tenants are innovators looking to make their products more visible to the FAA, through its William J. Hughes Technical Center at the airport in Egg Harbor Township.

Others are looking for lab space where they can hook into the tech center through high-speed cable, to share data and use real operational data for testing. They are also interested in being close to the FAA’s Airways Facilities Tower Integration Laboratory (AFTIL) at the tech center.

“Every major modification and safety management study (for airport changes) can only be done at the tech center by the AFTIL lab,” Sheairs said.

The lab recreates specific airports in the virtual world and allows researchers to test changes in the way they are run, or new equipment, in that world.

One company wants to test patented new runway technology that might be able to greatly increase the capacity at airports. It would need airports to build high-speed exit ramps before the midpoint of the runway, and then would manage traffic by collecting information from incoming flights, Sheairs said.

“He’s looking at doing an actual project with McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. He’d put it on the screen (at the tech center) and have (virtual) planes use it,” Sheairs said.

If the Smart Runway cuts the time on the runway needed by each plane, more planes can land at the airport daily.

“That would mean a serious increase in finances for airlines,” Sheairs said.

Stockton has loaned the aviation park $1.5 million, said Sheairs, which the park will pay back when it begins generating rent. The park also employs Associate Director Janice Bond and Administrative Assistant Nicole Marsh.

The park had revenue of about $390,000 in 2014-15, mostly from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, and expenses of $813,000, according to its budget document. The largest expense was a payment of $326,000 to the SJEDD for the park’s architectural plans. Sheairs’ salary is $150,000.

On Thursday, the Atlantic County Improvement Authority voted to begin the bonding process to finance up to $15.5 million of the cost of the first building, with the county contributing as much as an additional $5.5 million.

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