Progress on the NextGen aviation park has come slowly but steadily in recent months as officials from several agencies attempt to navigate a complex web of financial and legal responsibilities.
Despite the newfound sense of determination, it appears increasingly unlikely that the park, beleaguered by past management problems, will meet all of its goals for the year — namely the start of construction.
NextGen Aviation Research and Technology Park board President Ed Salmon has said he wanted to see a shovel in the ground on the first building by year’s end, but that could be challenging given that another deadline has been pushed back — this time indefinitely. After missing an August target date to execute a contract with Northfield-based developer New Vistas Corp., the board targeted Oct. 19 as the new deadline.
Now, after again running into difficulty, the board’s executive committee recently agreed to forgo a specific deadline all together. Instead, the parties are to execute a contract by the “earliest feasible date,” NextGen park Executive Director Ron Esposito said.
“We were a little naive on what it takes to put together a developers agreement,” said Salmon, a former state assemblyman. “These are intense negotiations, and so we decided that to put a date on it is not the best way to go about negotiating. I’m an optimistic person by nature, and I’m going to keep moving forward with the goal of seeing a shovel in the ground this year.”
Envisioned as a seven-building development that would bring 2,000 high-paying technology jobs to the region, the NextGen park planned on the campus of the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township has faced significant obstacles. First announced in 2006, a $7 million infrastructure installation at the park led by the South Jersey Economic Development District was just completed last year.
It wasn't until this year, however, that stakeholders began to understand the serious financial problems plaguing SJEDD, which holds the land lease for the park and had been driving its progress. Leadership changes have since taken place within the district, which is prepared to turn over the land lease to the park's board. That trasfer requires several complex transactions, including modifying financial and legal arrangements.
The complexity of those negotiations is evidenced by the fact that nearly all of park’s board meeting on Wednesday took place in executive session. The public is excluded from those sessions while board members can discuss contracts and financial and legal matters.
Progress has been seen in recent months as the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which had agreed to provide funding for a federal lab in the first building, amended the arrangement to allow a portion of the funding to finance costs associated with obtaining architectural plans for the park — also a part of the transfer process. Meanwhile, SJEDD has taken steps to refinance its debt and close out a grant agreement needed to transfer the lease.
Esposito declined to elaborate on the nature of obstacles in locking in a developers agreement with New Vistas, but he acknowledged that the timeline for the rest of the project, including any building schedule, is all dependent on executing that contract. New Vistas was selected as a conditional developer earlier this year through a rigorous two-part process that began in May 2011.
Under its plan, the company would take between eight and 10 years to complete all seven buildings. Performance deadlines submitted with its proposal show that if construction began by April, the project could take until October 2024 to be complete.
Amy Stavin, a spokeswoman for New Vistas, did not respond to a request for comment.
In the brief public portion of the park board’s meeting on Wednesday, the park’s 2013 budget was approved at $292,905. That marks a $28,600 increase over 2012, primarily attributed to increased legal expenses and the cost of employee benefits.
About 30 percent of the 2013 budget is funded with money from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. The other 70 percent comes from membership revenues from the prior year, Esposito said.
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