When most people talk about big local business developments, they point to the Revel casino that's inching along in Atlantic City or to now-fallow Bader Field, which has become everyone's field of dreams.
But the region's best economic bet soon may sit about 10 miles from the resort's Boardwalk, a world away from the gambling and glitz and relatively low-paying service jobs.
The federal government is prepared to spend more than $15 billion to overhaul the nation's air traffic control system, essentially building an "Internet in the air" to replace a costly and inefficient ground-based system.
And that could translate into creating at least 2,000 high-paying private industry engineering and technical jobs at the Next Generation Aviation Research and Technology Park, a new research center that is being developed on a 55-acre wooded parcel near the Federal Aviation Administration's William J. Hughes Technical Center and the Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township.
"The potential is enormous in so many positive ways," said U.S. Rep Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, who helped secure some government funding for the project. "Any place in the country will kill to have this."
LoBiondo, the project organizers and several public officials will break ground Monday for a research complex that is expected to eventually boost retailing, real estate and other support services. The ceremony marks the start of new road construction and preliminary site work, financed largely with public money.
The NextGen Park is a joint effort of the Hughes Technical Center, the South Jersey Economic Development District, The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, state and county government officials, and other organizations. The plans call for creating seven new buildings totaling 408,000 square feet of offices, laboratories and research facilities on a lot bounded by Amelia Earhart Boulevard and Delilah Road.
To make all of these hopes become a reality, the research park will require aviation-related businesses to become tenants at the new office complex. The project would also need about $300 million in private investments to move the development beyond the preliminary stages toward completion. The companies that may invest would be competing for potentially lucrative government contracts to develop the "Next Generation" technology.
If the aviation research park is successful, the federal and private contractor dollars represent a diversification of the regional economy from its reliance on gambling and entertainment.
"This is an industry that brings money into the area. It's not just recycling money," said economist Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors.
In general, Naroff explained, every new job typically sparks two to two and a half new jobs elsewhere in the local economy. But each job at the NextGen Park could indirectly result in four to five new jobs in the economy because the funding is coming from outside of the region, Naroff said.
The idea of creating an aviation research center where private, public and academic officials can collaborate on developing a "high technology industry" in southern New Jersey has been discussed as far back as the 1980s, said William J. Hughes, the former congressman and ambassador for whom the tech center is named.
Stockton College hopes the site would become a place where aviation companies, the Federal Aviation Administration and universities create joint research projects and provide training for science and technology-oriented students, said President Herman Saatkamp Jr.
Stockton is in the middle of building a new unified science center and the school is expanding its computational science programs. Saatkamp said those developments that would be helpful with the Next Generation research at the aviation park.
The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that commercial airline delays waste about $9.4 billion a year in productivity. Preliminary monitoring using NextGen technology could cut down delays by 35 percent to 40 percent. The FAA's projections show just a third of NextGen's planned capabilities would be able to cumulatively save over a billion gallons of fuel by 2018.
Preparations to include these new technologies in airports across the country are under way. A total of $15 billion to $22 billion is expected to be spent on NextGen operations by 2025, according to FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto.
The federal budget for NextGen work is rapidly growing - from $50 million in 2007, $212 million in 2008, $688 million in 2009 to more than $800 million in 2010.
Next Generation tech
Next Generation, or NextGen, is an umbrella name the federal government gave a series of projects and computer programs that will replace the way the aviation industry manages air traffic control, surveillance and how planes travel, Tech Center Director Wilson Felder said.
The "flow" of information between the new aviation equipment would be similar to "an Internet in the air," Felder said.
"Up until now, the process of controlling an airplane has been stuff on the ground, radar, computer and navigation systems bought by the government and hooked together and used on the ground," Felder said. "When we talk about NextGen, a big part of it will be in the airplanes themselves. We're going to connect the communications in the air to the system on the ground."
The tech center has worked on similar technological advancements throughout its 50-year history. Examples include perfecting the first radars and applying computers to air traffic control use.
Paula Nouragas, the FAA Tech Center's manager of engineering development services, said NextGen aviation projects, such as a new satellite-based surveillance system, will improve aviation safety and make travel more efficient, allowing airplanes to take more direct flight patterns, use less energy and create less noise and pollution.
The groundwork for the satellite-based tracking system, called Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast, should be done by 2013. All planes flying in national air space will be required to have the system installed by 2020, Takemoto said. The system, which includes traffic and weather data, is already being used in Alaska and southern Florida.
Felder said building the aviation research park in Egg Harbor Township works well now because the government is moving forward and aviation companies will have to invest to keep pace with new developments.
"It's not independent of the economy," Felder said. "But it's on the stronger end of the economy."
Aviation Research and Technology Park
A feasibility study for the Next Generation complex was done in 2005 with $250,000 in funding from the U.S. Economic Development Administration and Stockton College, according to Gordon Dahl, director of the South Jersey Economic Development District, the agency developing the complex.
The project gained momentum last year when more federal, county and state funding was secured for the first stages of the project and a 25-year lease was signed with the FAA for the land in October 2008, Dahl said.
An engineering firm was hired to draw up the development plans and an environmental consultant investigated the property for endangered species, Dahl said. The project got final construction approval in August from the state Pinelands Commission.
Funding for the project has come in from a variety of public agencies, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Atlantic County government, and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.
Felder and Dahl said four types of tenants could move into the research park: companies building new aviation computer systems, companies that work in aviation transportation security, small private aviation businesses and universities interested with the aviation industry.
"It really depends on the individual tenants and what's appropriate for them," Dahl said.
Joseph Sheairs, the interim director for the research park's nonprofit organization, said interest from the private sector is high in the project, and that he and Dahl spoke to more than 40 companies about the park earlier this month at the Air Traffic Control Association Convention in Washington, D.C.
"The economics will affect how fast we build it, but I am sure that the membership will show up to do this research, and some companies are already working on the project," Sheairs said.
Research park business model
Dahl said the research park's nonprofit organization will construct the first building using public and private funds and create communal offices, laboratories and conference rooms that could be used by everyone who becomes a tenant. He estimated the first building would cost about $13 million to $22 million, depending on the building size.
The first contract for the project, building a security fence surrounding the property, will be awarded this month. The second phase, building the roads, sewer lines and installing electricity, has gone out to bid and should be awarded next month, Dahl said. Other bids to install a new pump station and telecommunication lines will be sent out next year.
Dahl said the total infrastructure costs are estimated to be about $7 million to $8 million and construction should be done by November 2010. The cost of the offices themselves would be $300 to $400 per square foot and the lease contract is still being determined, according to Dahl.
Susan Ney Thompson, former acting president for the research park and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority's chief operating officer, said a request for qualifications will go out within the next four to six weeks for developers interested in constructing the park's first office building.
Three office complexes at the Lenox site and English Creek Avenue have been leased outside of the research park should companies decide to move in before the buildings are completed, Thompson said.
Dahl said the site's proximity to the FAA Tech Center, the 177th Air National Guard Fighter Wing and the Atlantic City International Airport will be a large draw. The project already has most of the building approvals in place, which will save time and money, he said.
He also noted that Egg Harbor Township has a tax abatement program companies could use to their advantage.
"No matter what happens to the economy, it's a unique sector in the world. ... The convergence of a lot of federal agencies on one campus that will be doing a lot of the technology that will be deployed," Dahl said. "That, in itself, will be the impetus to drive the park forward."
The "aviation footprint" could even extend beyond NextGen technology and Stockton's academic plans. Dahl said there has been some discussion about partnering with Atlantic Cape Community College to create a new school for air traffic managers. Sheairs said that other colleges, such as Rutgers and Drexel University, have expressed some interest in collaborating as well.
Bigger economic picture
Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson called the project "a stimulus" that could make the area's economy more similar to Silicon Valley in California.
"Right now, we have casino workers, and it's a wonderful thing with restaurants and entertainment," Levinson said. "This is something completely different. This is something we need to talk about. We need to diversify in the county. We need more than casinos, beaches, sand and the Boardwalk. We need more than seasonal things on the coast. This is what we've been working for and been hoping for."
Tom Carver, executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, called the Hughes Tech Center "New Jersey's best-kept secret" and said the aviation research park could become the next great economic event in the region.
Carver believes the project would provide new diversity to the region's economy and it could have a tremendous effect on other businesses as well, such as local developers and the housing industry. The aviation technology developments that could come out of the new research park might have a worldwide impact, Carver added.
"We're talking about an entirely new industry that's virtually falling into our laps," he said. "We must take advantage of that opportunity."
And Nouragas, the FAA engineering development manager, is excited that the research park could create a future workplace and education center for local children with a passion for science to stay close to home.
Nouragas, who has three boys in elementary school, said her children could learn more at the park if they decide to study science when they grow up. "We are going to have a strong technical future in South Jersey," Nouragas said.
Business Editor Kevin Post contributed to this report.
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What they're saying about the park
"This is one of the most exciting projects I've worked on and been involved in for the district. The potential is enormous in so many positive ways. ... Any place in the country will kill to have this. These are thousands of high-level jobs that will have real-world application. The nation is not building airports. We're not building runways. We're going to have a way to safely move larger numbers of people from point A to point B. The decision was made the NextGen project will be the way to get that done. The eyes of the nation and the world will be on us," U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd said.
"Atlantic County will be established, will be the world's leader in aviation research and that's quite a mouthful. We also believe this to be the most important economic project that Atlantic County will have in the advent of casinos," Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said.
"Principally for this region, I think the aviation technology and research park may be one of the major economic developments in the history of the region. Obviously, the casinos coming to Atlantic City transformed the economy of the area. This park will help diversify that economy by bringing in a significant number of researchers," said Herman Saatkamp Jr., president of The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.
"We're talking about a tremendous boast not only to this arena here but the entire state of New Jersey," said Tom Carver, director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority
"It's a wonderful thing for our area and the United States to have a group of tech people whose main job is how to make air travel safer, easier and maybe even more affordable, and it's also going to give our students who want to be in the aviation industry a place to come and get educated," Egg Harbor Township Mayor James "Sonny" McCullough said.
"It's an exciting and important project of Atlantic County. It's just what we need with the economic downturn we're in. It's a ray of sunshine that will lead to not just jobs but growth and nothing but positives," state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, said.
"The South Jersey Transportation Authority is supporting this project from roadway to runway, from improving the access road at the intersection of the airport to the research park to providing facilities to test and launch emerging technologies that will improve efficiencies vital to the expansion and delivery of service at the airport," SJTA executive director Bart R. Mueller said in a press statement.
"It has all types of opportunities for the region, not just to bring additional expertise, but to build upon the role academia plays in the region and it's going to create new jobs (and) provide substantial employment going forward," said William J. Hughes, namesake of the FAA Tech Center, former U.S. representative and ambassador to Panama.
"I think as we all know with the economic times we've been facing, to be able to have a project you can break ground on it is a wonderful opportunity for the region to create thousands of well-paying jobs, and that's certainly going to be a win, win, win," said Edward Salmon, chairman of Salmon Ventures Limited, an energy and utilities consulting firm, former Millville mayor, county freeholder and director of the state Board of Public Utilities
"This is the type of initiative that promises to create jobs locally and keep New Jersey at the leading edge of innovation, all the while making our skies safer. Our air transportation system is in dire need of a modernization, and we are watching that process take off right here in Atlantic County," U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said in a press statement.