NORTHFIELD — Atlantic County has taken the first step in a joint effort to pay off the South Jersey Economic Development District's debt and allow for construction at NextGen park to finally happen.
Atlantic County freeholders at Tuesday's meeting entered an agreement with the South Jersey Economic Development District and Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties to provide the money owed to contractors for the NextGen Aviation Research and Technology Park.
The county will receive a $250,000 reimbursement from the U.S. Economic Development Administration but would pay off the remaining debt for the contractors. The total would be between $257,000 and $474,000, depending on negotiations.
Howard Kyle, chief of staff to Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, said the county money is from a bond left over from a project the county did to build a road at the park. The money does not come from the general budget, he said.
All four counties are in talks on paying off the district's debt and are working on a plan to allow the district to move forward with NextGen to start construction this year, Kyle said. A formal agreement has yet to be reached, but Kyle said the counties agree they have a share in the SJEDD's debt.
If the other counties decide not to take part in this agreement and bail out the SJEDD ,the county will be credited for this contribution later when the counties decide how much of the debt they ultimately pay, Kyle said.
"We'll be in it for a certain amount (anyway)," he said. "We have an obligation."
The SJEDD was spearheading the NextGen project but has not paid the contractors for more than a year. Officials were considering borrowing money before the counties stepped in.
The district's board ousted former Executive Director Gordon Dahl in April with a unanimous vote of no confidence. Board members said they were largely unaware of financial and business decisions Dahl made that landed the district more than $1 million in debt.
The other counties have discussed backing a loan for the SJEDD to cover the remaining amount of the owed money.
The Atlantic County freeholders did express some concern over putting up the money but ultimately said they believed in the project. The board had been briefed on this topic for months and at a November meeting voted to make the bond money available.
Chairman Frank Formica said the facility would be a big economic generator for the area and provide an industry for local residents beyond health care and hospitality.
"We have an opportunity to create hundreds if not thousands of jobs," Formica said. "It's a chance to do something positive for our economy."
Freeholder Colin Bell was the lone dissenting vote on the bill. The newly elected member said he supports the project but was upset the resolution was added on during the meeting and was not part of the published agenda.
Bell said he wasn't notified about the resolution until 90 minutes before the meeting started and said the public should have been given more notice.
"It's too important an issue to be voted on last minute like this," he said.
But Kyle said the project is facing a March 1 deadline to resolve the debt with the contractors and still receive the $250,000 reimbursement money. He also said the county had to move first so the others would follow suit.
"The county's position is let's take the first step to work it out now. Otherwise we'll be sitting around for years," he said. "If we (delay) this we are sending a message it is not as urgent as we said it was."
Stephen O'Connor, the SJEDD's interim executive director, said the district has between $350,000 to $400,000 in debt to its contractors — which still needs to be negotiated for a final figure — $150,000 in debt for operation expenses and $400,000 for a federal loan.
The district also has a loan for $325,000 that it will pay through selling the architect's plans to the Aviation Research and Technology Park, Inc., O'Connor said.
Kyle said paying off the contractors first is a priority and the rest of the debt is more manageable. The counties will decide how to pay the remaining debt.
O'Connor told the board they had to move on the money immediately.
"If this doesn't move forward the NextGen project is done," he said. "The only way this moves forward is if it's done as expediently as possible."
Cape May County Freeholder Will Morey said the board is also committed to the project. He said the remaining debt does not need to be paid off as quickly as the money owed to the contractors and could be paid through bonding money and then recouping it down the road through money generated by the district.
"Atlantic County is allowing the district to stabilize," he said. "They are doing a great job and stepping up to the plate and Cape May County is joining them."
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