When Richard Stockton College opted to make the NextGen Aviation Research and Technology Park an auxiliary organization within the college earlier this year, the school known mostly for its liberal arts programs demonstrated a new commitment, one that will undoubtedly involve a presence in the evolving aviation and engineering industries.
Earlier this year, the park and Stockton signed a memorandum of understanding that officials said marks the end of one of the park's major hurdles and provides it with an established development partner.
Beleaguered by an array of development and management problems for years, the park has faced continued difficulties, ranging from attracting tenants to alleged financial mismanagement by a top development official.
More recently, the challenge has been the painfully slow process of transferring the park's lease to ensure progress can be made.
"If you look at successful research parks around the country, usually there is a major college or university that partners and (is a) factor in that entity reaching success," said former state Assemblyman Ed Salmon, president of the park's board. "Partnerships like this can pay tremendous dividends."
Yet the partnership would not necessarily have developed were it not for a mandate from the Federal Aviation Administration that the park, which is registered as a nonprofit organization, find a suitable development partner.
With the park's organization still in its infancy - it wasn't officially registered as a nonprofit until 2011 - the FAA was unwilling to approve a lease transfer for the park's land owned by the FAA until a partnership was formed.
Officials are in the process of transferring the lease from the South Jersey Economic Development District, which led the park into significant financial problems under the leadership of former Executive Director Gordon Dahl.
The lease for the land at the William J. Hughes Technical Center will be transferred to the park's board, but not before its relationship with Stockton becomes further solidified, officials said.
Asked why the relationship would be formed with an institution not particularly well-known in engineering and sciences, Salmon said Stockton President Herman J. Saatkamp's familiarity with the project led to confidence that the college is the right development partner.
"One of the values is that Dr. Saatkamp has been with this effort from day one. He certainly has an in-depth vision of what we want this park to be," Salmon said.
Saatkamp has said the college is prepared to supplement the park's expenses for three to five years, but exactly how much money might be involved has not yet been disclosed. In exchange, the college would benefit from research opportunities and student internships. The risk is minimal, but the payoff is significant, he said.
State colleges are permitted to have nonprofit auxiliary organizations under a 1982 state law. Most often, this allows for these organizations to operate student centers, pubs, dormitories and bookstores provided that they support the educational purposes of the college. The terms of the relationship will still need approval from Stockton's board of trustees.
The park's current budget is $292,905, with about 70 percent funded by membership fees. The remainder is funded by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which has provided money for the park's operating expenses for years but never intended to do so indefinitely, officials there said.
Before any of that can happen, more work needs to be done. The arrangement approved in April was an agreement before an agreement that marked the start of forthcoming discussions. Before the FAA will agree to the lease transfer, the arrangement with Stockton needs to be finalized, officials said.
Salmon, who readily acknowledges that he is always optimistic, said he believes both the final Stockton agreement and the lease transfer can happen before the end of the year.
The park's board, which has traditionally alternated meeting locations among board members, will again meet at Stockton at 3 p.m. July 24. An agenda for the meeting has not yet been released.
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Responsibilities of Stockton
and the NextGen park
Following negotiations, Stockton would agree to:
•Establish and lead a consortium of colleges and universities to interact with the parties involved in the park
•Create programs and courses related to engineering, aviation and avionics
•Provide in-kind faculty and staff to support the project
•Provide financial assistance in amounts to be negotiated
The NextGen Park would agree to:
•Finalize a lease agreement for the park's land
•Supervise, oversee and cooperate with the park's developer to pursue completion of the park
•Use resources to engage potential tenants
•Amend its bylaws if necessary
Source: Richard Stockton College