EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Oversized, black-and-white photos of old biplanes, barnstorming pilots and Amelia Earhart decorate the entryway to a proposed aviation site next to Atlantic City International Airport.
But it wouldn’t be a museum. This place is supposed to represent the future of aviation — a research and development site for advanced technology to guide planes through the skies with pinpoint accuracy using satellites.
Construction of the NextGen research park has been delayed for years, but recent developments suggest the project has begun to recover and key milestones will be hit by this summer. Most important among them are the transfer of a land lease needed for construction to begin.
The Press of Atlantic City first exposed the park’s former mismanagement and funding difficulties in a 2012 Watchdog Report. Officials overseeing the project insist those troubles are in the past.
One of the first steps is to remove outdated signs that identify the site by its old name — the Next Generation Aviation Research and Technology Park. New entrance signs will point the way to the Stockton Aviation Research and Technology Park, a nod to the project’s recent takeover by The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.
Although supporters of the project remain optimistic, they are not yet saying when construction might start on the first laboratory in the proposed seven-building complex between Delilah Road and Amelia Earhart Boulevard adjacent to the airport.
“We always hope to begin as soon as possible,” Ron Esposito, the research park’s executive director, said while declining to be more specific.
Esposito, executive director since March 2010, wants to get the project straightened out before he leaves. He is retiring from his $150,000-a-year position but has agreed to stay until September while a search is conducted for his successor.
Esposito, 64, of Folsom, took the job after spending 30 years as an executive with the Federal Aviation Administration’s William J. Hughes Technical Center. He is stepping down to spend more time with his wife, Roseann, who is retiring this year as a kindergarten teacher in Folsom.
“It was a hard decision, but at this point in my life, with my wife retiring, that was key,” Esposito said. “We want to enjoy that next phase of our life together.”
The search for Esposito’s successor adds to a list of things ahead for the research park’s board of trustees. The most pressing issue is wrapping up a complicated land lease that will transfer control of the site from the South Jersey Economic Development District to Stockton. The college took charge of the project from the SJEDD in September and removed Next Generation from the official name.
Other outdated entrance signs underscore the delays the project has encountered. One promises that “construction begins early 2011.” Others point to building sites that are little more than vacant land in the middle of the woods.
Howard Kyle, a board member for the research park, stressed that the new signs will emphasize the project’s affiliation with Stockton. The name change will help remove the last vestiges of the troubled NextGen days and illustrates the park’s broader role in aviation research, Kyle said.
“The name ‘NextGen’ is too limiting,” he said. “It doesn’t reflect the mission of the park.”
Kyle and Esposito now see the park being expanded beyond NextGen to include research on other aspects of aviation, including unmanned aircraft, commonly known as drones.
New Jersey’s selection in December as one of six sites nationwide for drone research could boost development of the park. Supporters hope the park will become New Jersey’s headquarters for drone testing because of its location next to the tech center. The center, the FAA’s national research and development facility for aviation safety, will analyze data collected from the drone test sites across the country.
Kyle, who serves as chief of staff to Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, said discussions are underway to get the Atlantic County Improvement Authority involved with the research park, creating even more momentum for the project. Levinson is exploring the possibility of using the authority, a development agency, to assist in the financing of the park’s first building if the venture proves “commercially viable,” Kyle said.
“The county executive’s goal is economic diversification,” Kyle said. “We are looking at the park as one component of the aviation research industry locating here.”
The NextGen project was conceived in 2005 as a local tie-in to the FAA’s national program for the next generation of air traffic control — switching from the old-fashioned, radar-based system to one controlled by satellites. On the federal level, NextGen has been slow to roll out. Billions of dollars have been announced for the project, but only a fraction of the money has been spent.
Money problems and mismanagement also held up development of the local NextGen research park under the SJEDD’s former control. The Press revealed in an April 1, 2012, story that the SJEDD had fallen into hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt while heading the project. The following day, the SJEDD’s board ousted its executive director, Gordon Dahl, amid allegations he concealed the agency’s financial troubles and gave himself unauthorized raises. Denying the charges, Dahl responded with a breach-of-contract suit, prompting the district to countersue.
Although Dahl’s litigation continues, Kyle said the legal battle has not delayed efforts to get the research park back on track. However, another legal entanglement — transferring the land lease to Stockton’s control — has dragged on for months while the college, the SJEDD, the FAA and other agencies negotiate the terms. Esposito expressed confidence that the lease will be finished by this summer.
“The No. 1 priority is the transfer of the lease,” he said. “I think we’re making process. It’s complex, but we will be able to complete the lease.”
Until the lease is resolved and a separate development agreement is completed, construction is at a standstill.
U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee and one of the key political supporters of the aviation park, characterized the lease as “enormously frustrating.”
However, LoBiondo said he has been assured by Stockton President Herman Saatkamp that the college is fully committed to the project. Saatkamp told The Press in March that he remains optimistic about the park and expects to announce partnerships and plans for the first building by summer.
Simultaneous with the lease discussions, 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 infrastructure 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.
For now, the research park essentially remains empty land. Makeshift dirt roads leading to the proposed building sites are blocked off by barricades that have “Keep out” signs warning trespassers they will be prosecuted.
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