Atlantic County's efforts to build an aviation industry and create high-paying technology jobs got the boost of a decade this month.
The Atlantic County Improvement Authority last week approved a $17.2 million contract for construction of the first building at the Stockton Aviation Research and Technology Park, a concept that struggled to get off the ground since plans were first announced in 2005.
The work, which could begin next month, is hailed by officials and politicians as a way to diversify a largely casino-dependent economy that has struggled as casinos closed and gambling spread to neighboring states.
“I'm absolutely thrilled,” said U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, praising county officials, the Federal Aviation Administration, Stockton University and everyone involved with the project. “Unfortunately, the initial stages of this got tangled up with legal battles and bumps in the road, but this is now a reality.”
LoBiondo helped secure more than $3 million in federal grants related to the project. He also helped convince officials from the FAA to lease 55 acres of land adjacent to the William J. Hughes Technical Center as a site for the park.
Originally called the NextGen Aviation Research & Technology Park, the project was plagued by legal issues and alleged fiscal mismanagement.
The effort to build the park was rekindled in the past few years by Stockton University and the county.
Construction of the first building, which is expected to be complete by next spring, is one phase of the project.
But the next phase will be critical — finding tenants.
Joe Sheairs, executive director of SARTP, said there has been a lot of interest for years from multibillion-dollar companies because of the park's unique relationship with the FAA.
The problem, however, was the county had nothing but an idea to sell.
“We didn't have a building until Friday,” Sheairs said. “People on the industry side of this who were interested kept saying, 'show me.'”
Now, Sheairs is talking to four major companies that are inquiring about leasing space in the building, he said. Potential tenants must use the space for aviation research.
He declined to name the companies because nothing has been signed, he said.
When completed, the three-story building will feature 60,000 square feet of office space, a Federal Aviation Administration laboratory, classrooms, member laboratories and a rooftop lounge.
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