By Claire Lowe
HAMILTON TOWNSHIP – Township Committee was thrilled to receive news last week on the possible redevelopment of the 255-acre Atlantic City Race Course property into the International Center for Aviation Excellence, a project intended to enhance the county’s emerging aviation technology industry.
Attorney Stephen Nehmad of Nehmad, Perillo and Davis, representing the Atlantic City Race Course, introduced the idea to Township Committee at its Dec. 20 meeting.
“We have come up with some very, very exciting plans which we believe represent perhaps the most progressive and exciting redevelopment proposal that we have seen in this township in well over a generation,” Nehmad said.
The race track property, at the request of its owners, was designated as a redevelopment area in 2009.
South Jersey Economic Development District, which has been one of the lead agencies involved in the development of the 58-acre Next Generation Aviation Research and Technology Park at the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township, began developing a plan for the race track six months ago, Executive Director Gordon Dahl said.
SJEDD is proposing an aviation business park featuring a grand entrance into “town center” of office buildings, a hotel and a focus on maintaining the historical integrity of the race track and accompanying building, Dahl said. The actual buildings will be “green,” up to at least LEED Silver standards, he said. It draws momentum from the NextGen Aviation Research Park project, the proximity of the FAA Technical Center and Atlantic City International Airport, and the need for redevelopment at the race track site.
While the new facility would focus on next generation technology, which presents many export opportunities worldwide, Dahl said the new center would start from where the NextGen Research Park leaves off – unmanned aircraft.
Dahl said the SJEDD engaged an expert in unmanned aviation and did some in-house research into new global opportunities in aviation.
“What we believe is NextGen is not the sole technology that aviation has to offer,” he said, noting that the U.S. government buys $4 billion in unmanned aircraft every year.
“We looked at studies that were commissioned by other agencies and what we saw was that there’s purposes outside the military for unmanned aircraft,” he said. “That purpose will generate a lot of economic opportunity.”
Dahl said allowing unmanned aircraft into the civil airspace will create some 23,000 jobs across the nation in the next 10 to 12 years.
“With that, we also engaged a design team to look at how to approach that market. What were the spin-off opportunities from the actual research park development?” Dahl explained.
The new park will not only accommodate research and development, but also other supportive engineering functions, design functions, administrative functions and marketing and public relations opportunities.
“It’ll be tied in – and it’s directly related to – as a spin-off of what were doing at the (NextGen) aviation park, but it doesn’t have the same parameters as the research park,” Dahl said.
The NextGen park, which will create about 2,000 jobs, is limited to research and development opportunities only. The new aviation center will accommodate much more.
“It’s similar in size, but not as heavily devoted to research and development. We think that job count is going to rise. At the research park, we have 400,000 square feet of research-dedicated space. This facility, at 400,000 square feet, can accommodate 2,500 to 3,000 jobs, plus what you would get at the hotel functions,” Dahl said.
To design the space, the SJEDD hired architects John Kohlhas of Environetics in Philadelphia; Jim Lindemon of LWDMR Architects in Jersey City; and Millville and Tom Sykes of Sykes, O’Connor, Salerno and Hazaveh in Atlantic City.
It wasn’t until after a conceptual plan was developed that the idea for the aviation center at the race track was presented to Atlantic City Race Course officials.
Nehmad said the concept envisioned by SJEDD and its architects “retains the iconic race track structure and building, recognizing as we all do how close to all of our hearts that building and structure is in this community.”
The plan calls for a promenade leading up to the race track where the offices will be located, and a 250-unit hotel with 30 percent of the units being suites. The exterior of the hotel is planned as a reflective glass tower, about 20 stories high at 233 feet. Because of the height, they will need a height variance. The highest structural point of the existing race track building is 133.9 feet.
Nehmad said he received correspondence from the Hamilton Mall indicating enthusiasm for the project; he offered a copy to Township Committee.
ACRC President Maureen Bugdon gave testimony on the promise of the project during the meeting.
“The most important thing I saw when first approached with this plan, three words: jobs, jobs, jobs,” Bugdon said.
She said she believes aviation will become one of the biggest industries in Atlantic County, second only to the casinos.
As a resident in Hamilton Township and a parent in the school district, Bugdon said she was concerned to find out how it would affect Hamilton Township residents. She said the race track has been a longtime staple of the township before its commercial expansion, and maintaining the integrity of the township is very important.
“We’ve been here since 1946,” Bugdon said of the race track. “We like to be open with our community; we like to work hand in hand with the township, and that’s why this really appeals to us.”
The race track has also been in contact with neighboring communities regarding the project, she said.
Most importantly, Bugdon said, out of all the ideas that have come before the race track over the years, “this one’s real.”
Bugdon said road repairs on Leipzig Avenue would hopefully happen in conjunction with this construction.
The cost of a facility like this has not yet been worked out, but to fund this project, Dahl said that the SJEDD would try to secure federal and state infrastructure funds similar to the ones used to fund the NextGen Park.
The next step for the SJEDD and the race track will be to go before the Planning Board to create a redevelopment plan, Nehmad said.
After the presentation, Mayor Roger Silva said, “wow” and called the plan “aggressive.”
“We’re all focused on the economy, and without jobs, we don’t survive,” Silva said.
Silva said he’s excited about the project, adding that the new programs offered at ACCC and endorsed by the SJEDD would help to enhance the aviation research industry.
“This is fabulous. This will just complement everything,” he said.
Silva said he doesn’t know how Township Committee could not support the plan, especially with the need for growth in the community.
Committeeman Charles Cain was also enthusiastic about the opportunity.
“The timing could not be better,” he said.
Cain asked Dahl to consider the children of Hamilton Township when planning the project, possibly offering a program to train the local children prior to college.
“We don’t want to create jobs, we want to create careers,” Dahl responded.
Committeeman Thomas Palmentieri said it is what was envisioned when the zoning was changed on the property about eight years ago, but cautioned about the need to be conscientious of traffic conditions that such a large facility may create.
Nehmad said Dahl has been developing an idea for a transportation center at the site, tying in major employment centers in the county like AtlantiCare, Atlantic Cape Community College, Richard Stockton College and the Hamilton Mall. Dahl said the transportation center would be a critical part of the development plan, utilizing energy efficient vehicles.