Taking flight: Aviation tech park is almost ready to spread its wings in Atlantic City

Progress on the National Aviation Research and Technology Park seems to be flying by.

Within the past few months, commitments from yet-to-be announced companies have filled nearly every corner in the recently constructed first building on the 58-acre aviation campus, so the project’s planners are moving onto the blueprints for the park’s next structure.

And, judging by the fact that organizations such as New Jersey Innovation Institute have jumped on board during that time, as well, it’s easy to think that the long-promised project — with stops and starts dating back to 2009 — might be a reality tomorrow.

By now, Howard Kyle, the Atlantic County government chief of staff, knows better than to say exactly that.

“We don’t have any illusions that anything is going to happen overnight,” he said. “But we do recognize that the consistent application of effort in refining a project can — and is — starting to have a payoff to it.”

The payoff has been the strong interest from organizations and businesses in occupying the first building. And, at the same time, Atlantic County officials that have fought for years for recognition were thrilled to announce a Memorandum of Understanding with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and finalize an agreement with the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

“We’re also still in discussions with Rowan University and the National Institute of Aerospace,” Kyle said. “So, we’re expanding the number of research institutions and universities associated with the park. One of the main things is that the model for this has become that it’s a consortium of research universities and institutions.”

The project was as of just a few years ago tied only to Stockton University, which took the reins on the project in 2013 after an original plan for it was scrapped.

A lot of the management of the park itself is now going to be facilitated by NJII. A partnership with this subsidiary of NJIT was teased for several months, but has become official.

“And NJII is a good fit for us because they associate with businesses throughout the state,” Kyle said. “One of the things NJII is trying to do is link this all into a regional economy.”

That regional economy ties into the aviation research that’s being done at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, as well as the development of unmanned aircraft that Cape May County has been encouraging.

Over time, the vision behind the project has expanded to include not just a seven-building research park affiliated with many universities, but also an air cargo operation at the underutilized Atlantic City International Airport and an expanded maintenance operation there.

The project planners are working in concert with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to introduce education initiatives that can supplement the workforce needed in the region. The local vocational school, Atlantic County Institute of Technology, is going to be one of the first examples of this educational program.

Embry-Riddle is helping develop an operational plan covering different aspects of the county’s planned aviation maintenance and repair academy. That work is being supported by a $120,000 grant from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.

Busy as ever finding additional support, county officials near the beginning of April completed an application to the United States Economic Development Authority’s annual i6 Challenge. It’s a competitive grant that awards projects that “build regional capacity to translate innovations into jobs through proof-of-concept and commercialization assistance,” according to the agency’s website.

“Our application calls for developing programs to accelerate and incubate smart airport technologies,” Kyle said. “We put a strong application in and we’re looking forward to hopefully being successful on that. That’s about us starting to develop local homegrown companies in the aviation realm.”

Alongside its efforts to foster Garden State innovation, local leaders have been pulling out all the stops to incentivize companies outside of the state to relocate to the tech park as they showcased the planned building there.

Kyle wasn’t as of mid-April ready to reveal what companies they were finalizing negotiations with, but did say that, in the “very near future,” companies would be announcing their new occupancy in the tech park.

“And one thing I’ll say is you’ve heard talk about this bad business climate in the state because of the tax structure, but I’ll tell you, if you put together the right product, you can get companies interested in coming here,” he said. “You have to overcome that by having a solid product.”

In their striving to compete with lower tax states, stakeholders in the tech park have pitched proximity. Profit from proximity — that’s the line in the advertisements, Kyle said.

The tech park has the FAA on its premises as well as the top-tier research institutions that it’s newly partnered with. It’s also immediately adjacent to the William J. Hughes Technical Center and Atlantic City’s growing airport.

“Any one of those things individually might not be enough, but they become enough as a collective to make it worth it for a company to relocate some operations here,” he said. “So we have this value proposition for companies that we didn’t have previously.”

The companies themselves? They want to know that it’s the real deal.

“That means not only making sure there’s a commitment to build the buildings, but also that there’s real value to being there,” Kyle said. “Anything with economic development, you don’t just do something and magically everyone is beating down your door in an area known for having high taxes and unfavorable business climate.”

But they do become interested when you have something to offer, Kyle added. And now the planners of this long-awaited project feel safe saying they do.

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