LOWER TOWNSHIP — Just before officials broke ceremonial ground at the Cape May Airport for the first of three buildings that will make up an “innovation hub” for tech businesses, Cape May County Freeholder Will Morey got on his phone and said the men were one shovel shy.
Materializing from the horizon, a six-propeller drone towing a gold shovel flew to the men across a field that will, in the next few years, house the next two buildings of the tech village.
“For UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) integration into the national airspace system, this is an ideal place to develop, test and also have close proximity,” said Morey, citing dense air traffic in the northeast air corridor and the “uncluttered” air space directly above Cape May.
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The drone’s appearance signified the future of innovation the county hopes to usher in. The Village Tech, as the first building is called, will cost $6.2 million, supplemented by a $3 million federal grant received in August. Also on hand for the ceremony were leaders from the first two businesses to commit to the space, both of which already have facilities in Cape May County but hope to expand. The county says the first building, which will be about 20,000 square feet, is already 50% leased. It should be completed in the first quarter of 2020.
Michael Lanzone, CEO of Cellular Tracking Technologies, said his company, one of two that have committed to the project, employs 18 workers and 30 contractors. New hires can’t fit in their current facility, he said, forcing them to expand. The aviation telemetry firm, which makes bird tracking technology, is currently based nearby.
“Our facility that we have now in Rio Grande is pretty much overflowing,” Lanzone said. “And so everyone we’re hiring now works remotely. And that will change very soon.”
Officials expect the move to bring 50 new jobs over three years, according to a news release.
Marvin Crisp, CEO and founder of D-Tech International USA, said his business, first started in the United Kingdom, has an existing facility nearby. The new building will allow them to manufacture entirely in Cape May County, he said.
The company, which has an app to streamline library services, will hire about 30 new employees for the facility, Crisp said, from manufacturing to service positions.
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The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration, which provided the grant, estimated the project, in total, will create 130 jobs.
Those jobs will diversify the area’s economy, said Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton.
“This is a supplement to our tourism business,” Thornton said. “That tourism business promotes very few full-time … jobs here.”
In diversifying the area’s economy, those involved hope to dull the edge of the offseason’s impact.
“I really hope that this helps bring in a lot more companies to do the same thing,” said Casey Halverson, chief operating officer of Cellular Tracking Technologies. “What I’m hoping ... is that the money that is essentially paid to the tech workers will make its way back into the community.”
The drone was piloted by Nate Ernst, founder and president of Sky Scape, a drone technology company based in Manahawkin. Ernst said he’s considering a move to the tech village.
“For me, it’s simply a factor of convenience,” said Ernst, a founding member of the public-private partnership focused on drone integration in the area. “We travel all over the country, but if we can find an area like this where we can test this (type) of technology in an environmentally friendly ecosystem, it’s a big win for everybody.”
The Delaware River and Bay Authority has invested more than $20 million on infrastructure improvements at the airport over the past 10 years, according to Thomas Cook, executive director of the DRBA.
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“The start of construction of this tech village is the next step in the transformative process to make the airport an economic growth engine for this area,” Cook said.
Lanzone has the same vision.
“High-tech industry brings high-paying jobs and year-round employment,” Lanzone said. “I’m excited to start a new chapter of our growth here in Cape May County.”