Sunday, November 03, 2013

Plans unfolding to revive stalled aviation technology park

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - Road signs have arrows pointing to buildings that don't exist. Where those buildings are supposed to be is vacant property in the middle of the woods. Scattered throughout the site are makeshift dirt roads blocked by barricades and "Keep Out" signs that warn trespassers they will be prosecuted. This is how the old Next Generation Aviation Research and Technology Park looks now - little more than empty land between Delilah Road and Amelia Earhart Boulevard next to Atlantic City International Airport (KACY).

Plans exist, however, to revive the stalled project now that Richard Stockton College has taken charge and renamed it the Stockton Aviation Research and Technology Park. The words "Next Generation," commonly known as "NextGen," have been dropped from the title to emphasize Stockton's influence, although the entry signs to the research park still bear the old name.

Since Stockton took over in September, staffers have been working to complete a land lease and other agreements needed to finally start construction on the park's first building, a laboratory for the Federal Aviation Administration.

"It's complex. There has been a lot of work on it so far. I believe we're closer to getting it done," Ron Esposito, the park's executive director, said of the lease agreement.

Altogether, seven buildings are proposed, offering a total of 400,000 square feet of office and research space. Esposito, however, declined to speculate when work would begin on the first building. He acknowledged there would be no construction this year.

One of the outdated entry signs to the park underscores the delays the project has encountered. It promises that "construction begins early 2011" on one of the buildings.

The research park has had a difficult history since it was first proposed in October 2005 as a way to create 2,000 high-tech local jobs related to the FAA's national NextGen program. NextGen is supposed to modernize the nation's air traffic control network by switching from an old-fashioned system based on radar to a modern one that uses satellites.

On the federal level, NextGen has been slow to roll out. Billions of dollars in federal funds have been announced for the project, but only a fraction of the money has been released.

Still, Esposito said, he believes that both the FAA's part of the project and local efforts to capitalize on NextGen will coalesce to help create jobs and a better air traffic control system.

"I think the NextGen project is a very important project for the FAA and for the flying public in terms of efficiency and safety," he said. "I still think the idea of a research park presents a tremendous opportunity for this area."

Apart from NextGen, the park's mission is expected to be widened to include other aviation-related programs. Esposito said he has been talking to several aviation companies about possibly becoming tenants. An incentive for private tenants is the park's location next to the FAA's William J. Hughes Technical Center, the federal government's premier facility for aviation research and development.

The research park also has teamed with Stockton and Atlantic City International Airport as part of New Jersey's bid to become one of six testing sites across the country for unmanned aircraft systems. Esposito said the development of unmanned aircraft has potential for farming and other civilian uses, not just as military "drones."

In addition to the private tenants, Stockton President Herman Saatkamp has made it known he hopes to bring in other colleges and universities to partner in the research park for academic study and research, Esposito said.

Stockton's involvement has already given the project greater financial security. Starting in 2014, the college will fund most of the operating budget, Esposito said. If the research park ever develops a funding surplus, money would go back to Stockton to help support the college's operations, according to the new three-year agreement placing Stockton in charge.

"The college's backing provides the Aviation Research and Technology Park with a sense of stability that will enable this important project to move forward," Saatkamp said in a statement. "With Stockton's support, the park can advance the aviation sciences as Stockton develops aviation-related educational programs and research."

Stockton has replaced the South Jersey Economic Development District as the research park's parent organization. Under its former leadership, the district incurred more than $1 million in debt while heading the project.

The district's former executive director, Gordon Dahl, was ousted last year amid allegations he concealed the financial condition of the agency and gave himself unauthorized pay raises. Dahl responded with a breach-of-contract lawsuit that denies the allegations. The district has countersued Dahl.

Talks continue for the transfer of a lease held by the South Jersey Economic Development District for FAA land needed to develop the aviation park. Simultaneously, the park is negotiating to assume the obligations of a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. The grant money has already been spent for infrastucture improvements at the site.

Up to this point, construction has been limited to installing the park's utility lines, clearing land and building the entry road between Delilah Road and Amelia Earhart Boulevard near the airport.

One major aspect of the park's development is securing $3 million in funding from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, a state agency that uses money from the Atlantic City casino industry for housing projects and economic development.

Esposito said the CRDA funding will finance construction of an FAA lab, but the money is being held until the land lease is transferred. Some of the CRDA funds will be used to buy the park's architectural plans from the South Jersey Economic Development District.


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