A former director of the William J. Hughes Technical Center was appointed to the board of the NextGen aviation park Wednesday in a move officials said could help leverage the interests of major aviation firms.

Larry Williams served as the center’s director from 1982 to 1987. After leaving the center, he went on to work with aviation-related companies in the private sector, and since 1996 he has been a private consultant for aviation giants such as Booz Allen Hamilton and CSSI. He’s also been part of a small joint team sponsored in part by the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA that has developed NextGen architecture and projects.

“Most importantly, Larry understands the vision for the park and he understand the challenges,” park Executive Director Ron Esposito said when introducing Williams during a quarterly board meeting at the Atlantic County Office Building. “I’ve met with him many times while working on the strategic plan for the park.”

Officials said Williams’ longstanding connections with several major players in the aviation industry will be a significant asset as the NextGen Aviation Research and Technology Park’s board continues discussion with potential tenants. First announced in 2005, the park has faced several management and financing hurdles and has yet to secure its first private tenant or see construction of the first of seven planned buildings.

“I don’t know how else to stress how important this relationship is,” said Ed Salmon, the board’s president and a former state assemblyman. “To have someone with this type of experience and background is a major asset.”

Williams will fill the seat of Dennis Bone, whose time with the board ended last year when he retired as president of Verizon New Jersey. He will also be the second former director of the tech center to join the the board. Anne Harlan, who was director of the center from 1997 to 2005, is the board’s current vice president.

Williams, who currently lives in Virginia, said he’s well aware of the park’s challenges but remains optimistic.

“I’m vested here. I love the tech center,” Williams said. “I think we have a long way to go, but I think we can get there.”

Momentum and organization behind the project have increased in the past year following leadership changes that ensued after major financial issues with the South Jersey Economic Development District were discovered. Communication previously deteriorated as the district, which led the infrastructure installation for the park and holds the land lease with the FAA, landed in nearly $1 million in debt.

The parties are now working to pay contractors, close out grants and transfer the land lease from the district to the park’s board — a process that must be completed by March to ensure that all grants previously secured for the project can be used. According to an addendum the lease agreement with the FAA, the SJEDD defaults on the lease if it fails to begin construction of the first building by Dec. 21, 2014.

Other challenges remain. A $9.5 million bid made two years ago by Hunter Roberts Construction Group for construction of the first building expired in December. The deadline to use the bid had been extended four times previously.

The board has requested that the bid be extended a fifth time, but Hunter Roberts hasn’t yet made a determination, said Sam Donelson, acting executive director of the South Jersey Transportation Authority.

Donelson has been communicating with the firm on behalf of the board because of the SJTA’s standing relationship with Hunter Roberts, which recently completed a $25 million terminal expansion adding additional international flight capabilities at Atlantic City International Airport.

Northfield-based development firm New Vistas Corp. was selected as a conditional developer for the park a year ago. Deadlines set at that time allowed for a contract to be in place as early as August, but after pushing back deadlines last year, the board agreed to forgo a specific target date all together, saying negotiations were more intense than originally anticipated.

Esposito said those negotiations are continuing but declined to elaborate on any specifics.

Meanwhile, the board is moving forward with plans to create a university consortium for the park, with Herman J. Saatkamp, president of Richard Stockton College in Galloway Township, leading the board’s efforts. Discussions are ongoing with Drexel University in Philadelphia and Rowan University in Glassboro, officials said.

The consortium could allow for the sharing of development and research between schools and park tenants, Esposito said.

Contact Jennifer Bogdan:

609-272-7239

Follow @ACPressJennifer on Twitter