The Cape May Airport is primed for business development now that a dispute over its historic preservation has been resolved, officials say.
The county and the airport’s owner, the Delaware River & Bay Authority, reached an agreement this month with the operators of the Naval Air Station Wildwood museum to designate a portion of the property a historic district.
The airport served as a World War II air base and training center, where 42 aviators died learning how to dive-bomb enemy targets. Today, the airport and its historic wooden hangar are home to a nonprofit aviation museum and more than a dozen businesses.
But the sprawling airport in Lower Township has long been targeted for future light-industrial or commercial growth. As early as the 1970s, former state Sen. James Cafiero, R-Cape May, Atlantic, Cumberland, persuaded state regulators to keep much of the airport property zoned for business growth despite its proximity to and inclusion of contiguous protected wetlands along Fishing Creek.
“We see it as a real opportunity,” Freeholder Will Morey said.
Morey said the airport could attract businesses ranging from aviation to technology that do not need ready access to major cities or transportation routes, a disadvantage of southern Cape May County’s geographic isolation.
“It has its challenges and its opportunities. The airport is not going to be a distribution center. We’re a dead end — so to speak,” Morey said.
If the Stockton Aviation Research and Technology Park in Egg Harbor Township, formerly called NextGen, gets off the ground, it could have a spillover effect in Cape May, Morey said.
“I think that gives us spin-off opportunities in the region. We’ve seen good opportunities in Millville with Boeing moving into the area,” he said. “We have an airport that could be attractive. It’s not a heavily trafficked airport, which has some advantages.”
Lower Township plans to launch a tax-abatement program early next year for businesses that build or develop there, Councilman Norris Clark said. These businesses would get property-tax breaks on the value of the improvements they make.
“This is in the context of one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. Everyone is getting on the same songsheet with this,” he said.
Employment in the county drops precipitously after the summer tourism season ends. Cape May County, along with Atlantic and Cumberland, has an unemployment rate much higher than the state average or median.
“One idea proposed is to look at a business incubator park for facilities that wanted to produce local goods like jelly or honey. We’re going to bring some real estate developers to the airport and give them a tour. And see if we can’t encourage some businesses to take advantage of the tax abatement in cooperation with the DRBA,” he said.
Helping matters, the working relationship between the county and the DRBA has vastly improved, Morey said.
“The county is interested in being a real collaborative partner. I don’t think we’ve had that kind of relationship in 10 years,” he said.
The authority is working on a revised airport layout plan for the Federal Aviation Administration to reflect the new historic district and designate future areas of growth and development, spokesman James Salmon said.
“The designation removes some of the uncertainty at the airport,” he said. “You don’t have to go through the process, ‘Can I take this (building) down? Can I build this here?’ We’re trying to be smart about how we develop the airport.”
Additional businesses ideally would complement the airport’s existing businesses and museums, he said.
The authority leases space to several dozen business tenants ranging from the Flight Deck Diner to Cape May Brewing Co. to the engine-repair business Eckel’s Diesel Service.
“The airport is a bit of a sleeper,” said R. Goby Gobalian, of Lower Township, owner of Pen Turbo, a company that repurposes Caribou cargo planes for modern uses.
“The area doesn’t support a lot of industry as such. It’s just not that kind of neighborhood. There’s no infrastructure to support it,” he said.
But Gobalian said he could see the airport attracting a diversity of small businesses, like the brewery that operates side by side with a home-improvement contractor.
Gobalian said he chose the Cape May Airport for his business because it had a tall wooden hangar that could accommodate a large cargo plane. One of the Cape May-rebuilt planes air-drops supplies to soldiers in Afghanistan.
“We like it here. It’s pleasant. It serves our purposes,” he said. “But it can’t expand. You can’t do more airplanes out of this place. The infrastructure isn’t there. If this had really taken off, we would have had to build a whole new hangar.”
Carl Suit, of Lower Township, owner of House of Print, said service businesses such as his graphic-design and marketing company do not need high roadside visibility since he rarely gets walk-in customers. His business consists of a large production center on concrete slab where he prints T-shirts, vinyl banners, outdoor signs, wall advertising and other products from his or his clients’ computer designs.
“We work with other businesses. We don’t need a storefront,” he said. “But a full-on retail location would have a difficult time.”
If he had any advice, Suit said he recommends the authority consider more signage on and off the sprawling airport to give visitors an idea about where to find different businesses. The entrance road has a billboard with the logos for each business but finding them is another matter.
“Just some signs to show the public that there are businesses here,” he said.