Speakers at an economic development forum said Wednesday that the pillars for broadening Galloway Township’s and Atlantic County’s economic base are aviation, health care and higher education.
But one speaker, Larry Williams, a former Federal Aviation Administration William J. Hughes Technical Center Director, said during the forum—and elaborated through comments afterwards—that delays in building the first NextGen Aviation and Research Park building in nearby Egg Harbor Township have squandered momentum towards capitalizing on aviation research in the region.
Not a single tenant has been signed for the research park according to its executive director, Ronald J. Esposito.
Esposito, who himself is a former acting Tech Center Director, was in the audience of about 200 at the new Campus Center Theater at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. The forum was organized by Atlantic County government to address non-casino economic opportunities.
Not having any tenants signed for NextGen is no surprise to Williams.
“You can’t sell what isn’t there,” said Williams, now an aviation consultant based in Virginia.
“You also need need timeliness” along with a projected dateline for what happens and when in order to maintain momentum and sign tenants to the research park, said Williams.
“You need to spell out a whole architecture of how to succeed,” and that has not happened, said Williams.
He also said that relying on tenuous FAA funding to pay for aviation research is a mistake given the sluggish economy, the possibility the FAA’s funding will get cut and competition form other areas
He also said NextGen—a mobile GPS guidance system meant to replace-ground-based radar—has a finite lifespan, but other aviation research does not.
“You can’t wait for the FAA. Aviation is global," Williams said. "The impetus is on the state of New Jersey to begin building out additional aviation facilities around NextGen. There are so many tentacles.”
Williams called for creating an Aviation Center of Excellence, in addition to NextGen, that would become the cutting-edge center for testing all potential aviation advances.
While Williams said other states are attempting similar initiatives to create new aviation business, only New Jersey has a technical center to attract laboratories, experts, technically-oriented colleges and universities, high-tech companies and available airspace.
“This is the only area of the country that has it all,” he said.
Williams praised the work of Esposito, “flying all over the country to try and sign tenants,” but said work on the first building must start to serve as a catalyst for Esposito to succeed.
“If you build it, it will be full in a year or less,” said Williams of constructing the first of three planned buildings.
Infrastructure work on the Next Gen park concluded nearly two months ago and the only activity at the park since then was to test a sewer pumping station, according to Gordon K. Dahl.
Dahl is executive director of the South Jersey Economic Development District, which oversaw the infrastructure work on the park, which is adjacent to the Tech Center and Atlantic City International Airport.
Esposito said signing leases has lagged because no master developer is in place yet to oversee the buildout of the park. He said he could not discuss details of the master developer selection process.
He did acknowledge there are frustrations over the perceived slowness of the project.
“This is a long process. The expectations were real high. People have to realize all of the ingredients are here.”
Stephen Moliver, leader of the Galloway Township Business Association, who was critical earlier this year of the across borders to Galloway, says the township is still not ready to leverage its position and bring in aviation business.
But he said he was heartened by the county taking the lead on starting a discussion of the three most promising economic opportunities for the township: healthcare, higher education and aviation.
He said he’d like to see the low-profile Atlantic County Development Corporation take a more active role in overseeing regional economic initiatives.
He also said he’s concerned that there’s no major tenant signed yet for NextGen, but he warned against counting on that one aviation initiative because creating the new guidance system has a “limited shelf life.”
Like Williams, Moliver said the region needs a broader investment in aviation research.
But he also said health science research and healthcare, as well as education are more important toward the township’s growth.
Galloway is home to a large hospital campus of AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, as well as clusters of medical offices and Stockton College. College and hospital officials spoke at the forum, outlining how they see their institutions changing in the coming years.
Galloway Township Manager Steve Bonnani, who left the meeting about midway through the three hour forum, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The forum was titled Beyond the Boardwalk and was meant to address economic opportunities for the region beyond casinos.
Just three mid-level Atlantic City officials—two involved in planning, one in affirmative action—attended the meeting. Atlantic City has served as the key economic generator for the county during the past 30 years, but a slump in gaming has changed that outlook.