LOWER TOWNSHIP — Build it, extend utilities and they will come.
That was one of the messages as the Lower Township Economic Development Committee set its sights Tuesday on the Cape May Airport.
The committee wants to create jobs and has previously explored initiatives such as new oyster hatcheries, changing the township’s name to Cape May Township, finding beneficial uses of dredge spoils, and other ideas to spur economic development.
On Tuesday, the committee joined local, county, state and Delaware River & Bay Authority officials brainstorming ideas for the 1,000-acre underutilized airport property. The airport is owned by the county but leased to the DRBA.
The airport already includes an industrial park that hosts a brewery, print shop, several construction firms, an auto-parts store and other businesses. There are currently about 30 tenants leasing space. The airport also hosts aviation businesses and several museums. It features a business-friendly regulatory environment in that it is not subject to the state’s Coastal Area Facility Review Act or CAFRA. Former state Sen. James Cafiero had it exempted when CAFRA was created and the airport was dubbed “Cafiero’s Donut,” Deputy Mayor Norris Clark noted.
The committee felt more businesses would locate there if more buildings to house them were constructed. One problem is large sections of the airport are not hooked up to utilities. The Naval Air Station Wildwood Museum wants to expand by building a Coast Guard museum but has no space. Aviators want more hangar space. The DRBA gets a steady stream of requests for space from landscape firms, construction businesses and people seeking commercial kitchens.
“Utilities are one of the hurdles. We have the land,” said Michelle Griscom, property manager for the DRBA.
Griscom said there is a project in the works to renovate one industrial building and build another one. The street hockey rink would be relocated to make space for the new building. It would be sectioned into spaces of 1,500 to 2,000 square feet for businesses. Griscom said the DRBA gets a lot of requests for this size space, but she said there is “no time frame” set yet for this project.
She noted a new entrance into the airport has been constructed at this section of the airport and aesthetic improvements such as removing unwelcoming security fencing in some areas have been made. The beer brewing company wants more space and has discussed opening a bottling plant here.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, praised the township for coming up with tax incentives for businesses that locate at the airport. Van Drew more has to be done to improve the local economy, which suffers from a high unemployment rate.
“We have to do everything possible to make business happen. We need creativity. There are a lot of people not working and the economy is not what it needs to be,” Van Drew said.
Others promoted aviation development. Freeholder Will Morey said as domestic uses of unmanned drones are created, he is working to bring such businesses here. Morey said an environmental assessment of the airport must be completed first and it could result in capping defunct wells and the removal of several buildings, which would free up space in areas with utilities. One is the massive Everlon building near the street hockey rink and the other is the former World War II mess hall next to the township police station.
The township also is discussing moving the police to the Villas section, which would free up that building.
“Cape May County has a three-quarter million environmental assessment study going on now,” he said.
DRBA Airports Director Steve Williams said aviation business is down due to high insurance and fuel costs. Williams said one growth area is business aviation.
“We need to sustain general aviation and make it attractive to business aviation,” Williams said.
The problem is air traffic here is tied to the resort economy and is seasonal, running only from April to October.
Township Manager Mike Voll explained the new tax incentives that cover the first five years of a new business but said the airport still needs an identity, such as a link to the tourist or fishing industries, to attract people.
Williams cautioned that most airports run at a deficit.
“The airport will help enhance the economy, but it’s not going to remake the economy,” Williams said.
Clark pushed measures that would “attract capital and investment.” Morey said once the environmental work is done, in about six months, the airport would be ready to actively market.
Van Drew promoted the idea of attracting wineries. DRBA Deputy Director Frank Minor said there have been some discussions with vineyards.
“Job creation is No. 1. We get that,” Minor said.
The meeting ended with a bus tour of the airport.
Contact Richard Degener: