Area business and economic development leaders Tuesday praised a new proposal for the Atlantic City Race Course property as a way that the planned NextGen Aviation Research and Technology park in Egg Harbor Township could benefit the region's economy through growth in the aviation and technology sector.

The first spin-off proposal related to the NextGen plan could bring new life to the race course property.

The project, which would include six office buildings, a 20-story hotel, a transit center, new roads through the ACRC property that connect with the Hamilton Mall and grandstand renovations at the race track, would cost an estimated $300 million to $400 million, said Gordon Dahl, South Jersey Economic Development District director and former Hamilton Township Planning Board president.

The South Jersey Economic Development District paid about $20,000 for the conceptual plan in Hamilton Township and approached race course officials with the preliminary proposal several months ago, Dahl said. No developers have been named because the plans are so new. But the goal is to coordinate construction with the opening of the first building at the EHT NextGen research park, which could be complete in the next year and a half, Dahl said.

He said the plan will be submitted to the township Planning Board early next year as part of a redevelopment plan for the race course.

The plan works well with the NextGen proposal and with planned aviation-related programs at local colleges, and it provides another alternative to the gambling industry, Hamilton Township Mayor Roger Silva said.

"So we have more stability in the area. It's a ratable, it's a creator of jobs, which we really all need desperately, and more importantly, I think it will help the retail community," Silva said. "I think it adds a lot of everything, and I think everyone is hoping this comes to fruition sooner rather than later."

Race course executive Maureen Bugdon said the betting activities at the track would remain the same.

"I believe that with rehabilitation and some investment into a new simulcast area and upgrades to what we currently offer, it indeed could be enhanced," she said. "Certainly the addition of a hotel to the property would only be a positive for the operation."

Bugdon said race course officials don't know when construction would begin on the proposed office park, particularly because potential tenants will depend on the opening of the first buildings at the NextGen research park.

"The first building at the airport is scheduled to open, or have a ribbon cutting, in about 15 months, and once you see tenants signing on to that, you should see more and more activity here," she said. "We're really not putting a timeline on this because that will precipitate it."

Construction costs for the race track project would be paid by private developers, although there would be some state and local government dollars invested for roads and utility infrastructure to help spur the private investment, Dahl said. The exact amounts were not known.

The Egg Harbor Township NextGen buildings will contain office space for several dozen companies to work solely on research and development for the long-anticipated overhaul of the nation's air traffic control system. But in addition to that research space, which is paid for through $5 billion in federal funding, there needs to be additional office space to house related businesses, Dahl said.

"We've identified a lot of new market opportunities for aviation, including the expansion of NextGen technology, unmanned aircraft systems and a whole host of global operations in developing airport technology," he said.

It's those opportunities that are expected to create tenants for the proposed Hamilton Township office park, tentatively called the International Aviation Center for Excellence. And the niche, unmanned-aircraft technological market could mean as many as 23,000 jobs nationwide specifically geared toward that sector over the next 10 years, Dahl said. "We want a big chunk of that."

The announcement also carries wider implications for those in the region seeking jobs related to the NextGen work, but lacking the academic research credentials that will be required for many of the thousands of anticipated jobs at the park, said Richard Perniciaro, director of the center for regional business and research at Atlantic Cape Community College.

The college announced last month it would offer an associates degree in air traffic control, and Perniciaro said growing potential for the aviation and technology job opportunities that don't require high-level college education is good news. "We don't train research scientists, but we do train people that can help them."

Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said the proposal was a positive sign for the county's economic growth.

"We believe that (NextGen and aviation technology) is the future for Atlantic County and South Jersey and we also believe that it is going to be symbiotic. The spin-offs from the park, we believe, will be considerable, so this is just one example of people being excited and interested and coming to Atlantic County."

John Kurtz, president of the Mays Landing Merchants Association, said if the project is built as proposed, it would be a boost to the area's retail economy. "The best part is the proposed hotel. There is no hotel in Hamilton Township."

The prospect of new construction also is a positive sign for those in the building trades, said William Pauls, president of the South Jersey Building & Construction Trades Council. A 20-story hotel could create between 400 and 500 construction jobs that could last about a year to 18 months, Pauls said. Most of the area's construction work is related to public projects, such as bridges and schools, Pauls said.

"But we could use something like this, and this is really the first private project we've heard about."

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