HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — The Hamilton Township Planning Board cleared the way Thursday night for the first spinoff development from the planned Next Generation Aviation Research and Technology Park.

Conceptual plans unveiled Thursday night for the NextGen International Aviation Center for Excellence on the Atlantic City Race Course property propose between 400,000 and 600,000 square feet of office space in what is now a parking lot behind the racetrack.

A hotel and conference center would be constructed adjacent to a rehabilitated grandstand. Plans also include a new horse stable and a transportation center near the grandstand. The transportation center could house shuttle services and become part of a route between the Hamilton Township site and the NextGen park in Egg Harbor Township.

“This is a very ambitious plan,” said Philip Sartorio, the township’s director of community development. “We’re looking at a first-class venture moving forward here.”

The Planning Board unanimously approved the redevelopment plan for the race course, which is designated as an area in need of rehabilitation in the township. The plan will now go before Township Council.

Current plans, however, are preliminary, and developers would need additional approvals from the Planning Board before construction could begin.

There is no timeline for construction on the project, which is expected to cost between $300 million and $400 million. Officials from the South Jersey Economic Development District have said the Hamilton Township project will be contingent on the opening of the first buildings of the NextGen park in Egg Harbor Township. The first building in that park is expected to be constructed by April 2012.

The Egg Harbor Township NextGen buildings will contain office space for several dozen companies to work on research and development for the first major upgrade to the nation’s air traffic control system.

Stephen Nehmad, attorney for the Atlantic City Race Course, said race course officials were approached by South Jersey Economic Development District officials looking for a site in close proximity to the technology park that could house either administrative offices or space for researchers working on related research.

“This is one of the few locations that can accommodate this kind of critical mass,” Nehmad said. “We really, truly hope to make this a public-private partnership.”

SJEDD Executive Director Gordon Dahl said because there are a number of regulations restricting which types of companies can locate at the Egg Harbor Township park, there’s a need for a nearby location that can accommodate other researchers

“There’s a whole host of aviation technologies that relate to NextGen,” Dahl said. “We do expect this to be much bigger than just NextGen. We also need that conference and hotel space that close to the industry and close to the airport.”

Construction costs for the racetrack project would be paid by private developers, but some state and local dollars might be invested for infrastructure upgrades, officials have said.

Planning Board members expressed excitement over the project and noted that the hotel specifically is needed in the township.

“This is the next jump off point for our township,” Planning Board member John Percy said. “It’s a great spot to be in.”

During the course of discussion Thursday night, Hamilton Township officials also had questions about the future of horse racing at the track given the new development proposal.

Nehmad said that race course officials would like to see racing continue at the track alongside the new development, but noted that the new plans allow much more flexibility in the site’s future.

“Whether racing stays or not, it has an uncertain future,” Nehmad said. “We certainly hope that racing does stay. This plan allows us to maintain the racetrack’s structure.”

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