EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — After a decade of disappointments and setbacks, federal and local officials broke ground Monday on the Stockton Aviation Research and Technology Park.
In the next few weeks, Hessert Corporation will begin laying the foundation for the three-story, 66,000-square-foot building that will create an estimated 200 to 250 full-time jobs and feature high-speed connectivity to the William J. Hughes FAA Technical Center laboratories, state-of-the-art classrooms and conference rooms, and a rooftop lounge.
The groundbreaking was a major milestone for Atlantic County, whose economy has relied heavily on a gambling market that continues to struggle amid the closing of five casinos in Atlantic City.
The building is the first of seven planned facilities that officials hope will create an aviation industry in Atlantic County, one of the key recommendations in the economic recovery report authored by AngelouEconomics in 2015.
“This project could have gone belly up several different times, but we finally have this as a real thing,” said U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, who helped secure millions in federal grants for the park. “What this gives us that we didn’t have before is the opportunity to further market ourselves with companies big and small in the aviation industry, which we’re the center of because of the (William J. Hughes FAA Technical Center).”
The building, set to be completed in about a year, is owned by the Atlantic County Improvement Authority because it put up $17.2 million to hire Hessert and get construction started. The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority also chipped in over $2 million.
The park itself is a nonprofit auxiliary organization of Stockton University that combines industry, government and academics with the goal of conducting private and public research in the aviation industry.
Once the seven buildings are completed, the park could generate more than 2,000 full-time jobs and host college courses.
No renderings or timelines for the next six buildings are available.
“Stockton believes the the research park will be the perfect conduit for joint research opportunities between the academy and industry,” Stockton President Harvey Kesselman said Monday. “We consider this project to be a critical instrument for change in the world of aviation research and a major change in the landscape of the economic future of Atlantic County and the state of New Jersey.”
Kesselman added that Stockton’s commitment to the park, the FAA and to Atlantic County will continue to be unwavering.
While the groundbreaking is a major milestone for Atlantic County, the construction of the park will go forward without the executive director who helped get it off the ground.
Joe Sheairs resigned as the director Friday, making way for former FAA Technical Center acting Director John Wiley and attorney Joe Salvatore to take over the position’s responsibilities.
Sheairs was lauded by several of the speakers at the groundbreaking, including County Executive Dennis Levinson. Sheairs said afterward he had always planned on resigning once construction was ready to begin.
“I had always had a handshake deal with (Congressman LoBiondo) that I would get us to this day,” Sheairs said. “My wife and I bought a house in Florida, and we want to move to the next phase and have the freedom to do that.”
Sheairs said he has committed to help with a project at the tech center that provides engineering services to the FAA for a few years and then will move to Florida.
Now, the onus will be on Wiley, Salvatore, the SARTP board of trustees and county officials to lock in tenants and secure funding for the construction of the next six buildings.
“It’s bringing the right people in, not just bringing in tenants,” said Wiley, who is also the president of JLW Consulting LLC. What we’re really starting to do is look at what is the right kind of work to bring into the area and build up South Jersey.”
Wiley added he hasn’t been involved with any consulting recently through his company and that his contract doesn’t force him to give up his position as president to be the executive director of the park.