Contractors at the NextGen Aviation Research and Technology Park in Egg Harbor Township are owed about $495,000. In the back-and-forth accusations about why some of those firms have not been paid in almost a year, one thing seems clear:
The South Jersey Economic Development District shows all the signs of an agency run amok.
A Press of Atlantic City Watchdog report by staff writer Jennifer Bogdan revealed several reasons to question the ongoing existence of the agency.
• The district, which holds a lease to the technology park property from the Federal Aviation Administration, is nearly two years behind in required audits. A previous audit cited "significant deficiencies" in accounting practices.
• SJEDD board members say they were unaware of the district's financial condition and did not know of
Executive Director Gordon Dahl's plan to recoup the district's investment in the technology park through leases to park tenants. Other stakeholders say the district agreed to incur the expenses at its own risk.
• Atlantic County was so concerned with the district's operation and finances that it withdrew from the group last month, after 32 years as a member. Explaining the decision to leave the organization, Atlantic County Freeholder Frank Formica, a former SJEDD board member, said, "We cannot in good faith be part of an organization that has been less than responsible with the public trust and public funds."
• An access road running through the NextGen property, financed by Atlantic County and intended to alleviate some of the traffic from the circle near Atlantic City International Airport, was gated shut by Dahl, in what certainly appears to be retaliation for the county's decision to leave the organization.
The South Jersey Economic Development District, the only one in New Jersey, was formed in 1979 by Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties. Working with the U.S. Economic Development Administration, its mission is to help plan and fund projects to boost the area's economy. It has helped secure millions of dollars in grants for projects such as the New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville and Atlantic Cape Community College's Allied Health Technical Institute. It administers a revolving loan fund for area businesses and offers start-up loans for innovative projects.
But it never handled anything as large as the NextGen park, which was lauded as a way to bring companies to Atlantic County to develop satellite-based technology to replace the nation's aging air traffic control system. The SJEDD's failure to secure tenants for the park has endangered millions of dollars in low-interest federal loans, and the apparent lack of financial oversight could put the entire project in jeopardy.
Currently, the NextGen park board, with the support of Atlantic County, is trying to wrest control of the research park site away from the SJEDD.
In the meantime, the access road through the research park should be opened immediately. There's no reason for drivers at the Airport Circle to be held hostage by this dispute.