EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - More than 100 people gathered inside an Atlantic City International Airport hangar Monday afternoon to celebrate the groundbreaking for a new aviation research and technology park down the road.

Gordon Dahl, one of the project organizers and president of the South Jersey Economic Development District, called the research park "a mammoth undertaking" that will lead to the "next generation" of building up southern New Jersey's economy for decades to come.

The Next Generation Aviation Research and Technology Park calls for creating seven buildings totalling 408,000 square feet of offices, laboratories and research facilities. The park will focus on developing new computer equipment that will transform the country's air-traffic control program into a satellite-based system.

If completed, the complex will likely create 2,000 engineering and other high-paying technology jobs, and their research will help improve air safety and travel.

Several other politicians, government and business officials spoke for an hour and a half extolling the benefits of the project. They then used bronze shovels to overturn a pile of mulch. The event symbolically launched the start of road building, electricity and sewer work for the proposed aviation research complex, which will be built on a 55-acre lot by Amelia Earhart Boulevard and Delilah Road. The ceremony also featured tours of a Bombardier Global 5000 business jet and a U.S. Coast Guard rescue helicopter.

The research facility is a collaborative project between the Federal Aviation Administration's William J. Hughes Technical Center, the South Jersey Economic Development District and The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, with support from several state and county officials and agencies.

To fully develop the new research complex, the project will require aviation-related businesses to become tenants at the complex and about $300 million in private investments to develop all of the buildings, Dahl said in a prior interview with The Press of Atlantic City. The park currently has about $13.3 million in public funds and bank financing for support infrastructure and development of part of the first building.

Jerry Zaro, chief of the state Office of Economic Growth, said building the new research complex by the FAA's Technical Center and the Atlantic City International Airport represents an amazing economic and technological opportunity.

"We believe this three-corner piece can be to aviation what Houston is to NASA," Zaro said. "So, folks, the message here today is, 'New Jersey is alive and well and open for business.'"

Wilson Felder, director of the Technical Center, said building the research park will expand the FAA's mission to ensure the country's " air-transportation system remains second to none."

Felder noted that Atlantic County has been the site of many aviation accomplishments, from the world's first air show, which took place in Atlantic City back in 1910, and to the testing and development of the first radar and digital data-communication systems at the technical center.

The aviation research park would be a new partner in the evolution of aviation technology, Felder said, and it "will continue to serve as a powerful engine for U.S. economic growth, and of course, the park will also stimulate growth in Atlantic County and the greater South Jersey region."

Other guest speakers included Stockton College President Herman Saatkamp Jr.; U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.; U.S. Rep Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd; William J. Hughes, a former U.S. representative and ambassador to Panama; Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson; and Tom Carver, executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.

The groundbreaking also drew folks like William Cheatham, an Atlantic City toll collector.

Cheatham skipped an Atlantic City library board meeting because he wanted to find out more about Next Generation technology and the research park. He was impressed with how many jobs the project might create and he hopes the library, which just opened a new teen center, could collaborate with the organizers.

"Oh my goodness, this is wonderful," Cheatham said while wandering around the hangar. "This is what the young people need. The technology is our future."

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