GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — An aviation research park stalled by funding shortages, lawsuits and alleged mismanagement appears to have “turned the corner” as hopes build that construction may finally start this year, the project’s new chief executive said Wednesday.
Joseph Sheairs, executive director of the Stockton Aviation Research and Technology Park, said he has been busy talking with colleges, researchers and aviation companies since taking charge of the project last fall.
Sheairs has been recruiting tenants to fill the proposed seven-building research complex on a 58-acre site next to Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township.
“My team has been very, very active in discussions,” Sheairs told members of the park’s board of trustees at their meeting Wednesday.
It was the first board meeting since Sheairs was hired in September as the $150,000-a-year executive director. Sheairs had served as the park’s interim executive director in 2009 but left the following year to return to his aviation and engineering consulting business in Shamong Township, Burlington County. Most recently, he had been serving as a consultant for New Jersey’s test program for unmanned aerial systems, commonly known as drones, a project that includes Stockton.
Stockton had conducted a national search for the aviation park’s new executive director but decided on the locally based Sheairs to take charge. His background includes 35 years of experience in aviation, engineering and technology. His academic credentials include an engineering degree from West Point and a master’s degree in computer science from the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Sheairs is under pressure to get construction started after years of delays caused by funding shortages and alleged mismanagement by the aviation park’s former parent organization, the South Jersey Economic Development District. Stockton took over the park in 2013 to stabilize the project after a shaky SJEDD tenure.
One key development occurred this week, with the announcement that the SJEDD and its former executive director, Gordon Dahl, settled dueling lawsuits over the park’s alleged mismanagement. The litigation was dropped by both parties, clearing up a legal impediment that had slowed down construction of the project.
In a status report to the board covering the past several months, Sheairs noted that he has been encouraged by interest in the project from colleges, engineering and aviation companies, and Federal Aviation Administration contractors. He has been talking to them about possible research partnerships and becoming tenants in the park.
“It’s been an amazing response,” he said.
Edward Salmon, president of the park’s board, has repeatedly said he hopes construction will begin in 2015. No construction date was announced by Sheairs during his report to the board, but he did say he expects a land lease will be transferred from the SJEDD to Stockton in April, which is needed for work to get underway.
“It seems we’ve turned the corner, both economically and with people’s interest,” Sheairs said.
The project was conceived in 2005 as a local spinoff of the FAA’s $40 billion NextGen program to modernize the nation’s air traffic control system with satellites in place of an aging radar-based network. Construction delays and a series of false starts have since deflated those expectations.
Currently, the site is little more than vacant land and an access road that cuts between Delilah Road and Amelia Earhart Boulevard next to the airport and the FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical Center.
When the project was proposed, local political leaders had predicted it would create 2,000 high-tech jobs and help diversify the economy. The park’s importance to the local economy has been underscored by the closing of four Atlantic City casinos and loss of 8,000 casino jobs last year.
“There is tremendous potential with this project. It’s not an option. We’ve got to make it happen,” said Howard Kyle, a member of the park’s board and chief of staff to Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson.
Kyle said the park would be much more than a stand-alone project. He envisions it being the catalyst for “an aviation cluster” of high-tech companies throughout Atlantic County.
Construction funding has not yet been set, but Kyle said the Atlantic County Improvement Authority is being discussed as a financing source. Rent payments from the tenants that occupy the research park would create another source of funding, he noted.