Something concrete at last … literally. The groundbreaking next month on the first building at the Stockton Aviation Research and Technology Park has been anticipated for so long that it’s tempting to celebrate.
Too soon. This is actually the beginning of the worthy effort to diversify the area economy by growing its aviation technology sector. This could or should have happened several years ago but was stalled by the missteps of the original project overseer, the economic slump locally and nationally, and the lack of progress by the Federal Aviation Administration on its NextGen air traffic system modernization.
We’re glad to reach the phase in which industry interest in working alongside the William J. Hughes FAA Technical Center ceases to be hypothetical. The executive director of the aviation park has said four major companies have inquired about space in the building. That’s good, but we’re not uncorking the champagne at least until the first leases are signed.
The corporate interest is one good sign. Another is that the federal government appears intent on getting the NextGen project moving. One possibility is air traffic control operations might be moved from the FAA to a nonprofit corporation, as several other nations have done, for operation and modernization. An assistant administrator for NextGen told The Press editorial board last month discussions on that possibility have just begun.
Rep. Frank LoBiondo, who will participate in the aviation park’s May 15 groundbreaking, as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Aviation introduced an FAA reauthorization last year that included the air traffic upgrade plan. It failed due to opposition in the Senate, but prospects look better now, and the Trump administration has indicated its support for the plan.
LoBiondo already is holding hearings on this year’s FAA reauthorization. Whatever path the federal government decides for NextGen, it should greatly increase work on the satellite-based navigation system and generate corporate interest in working closely with the tech center.
The research park also deserves state support in the form of incentives typically given to encourage technology investment and to help economically struggling areas. The Atlantic County area’s economy has been among the slowest in the nation for a few years.
The park was included in the state innovation zone act that passed the Legislature last year by a vote of 99 to 3. It would have provided significant employee-based tax breaks for companies locating in the aviation zone and its incubator facilities.
Unfortunately, Gov. Chris Christie pocket-vetoed the bill. Maybe he felt the state couldn’t afford more tax-reducing incentives, or maybe that too many areas of New Jersey were included.
A new version of the bill is working its way through the Assembly. The Legislature should pass it again, and Christie should sign it this time — the perfect time to give the aviation research park a chance to compete fairly with economic development areas around the nation.
Celebrations are still on hold, but we’re getting pretty hopeful. Perhaps even the many delays will turn out to be fortunate, timing the launch of the county’s aviation research development with the ramping up of NextGen. That might really get off the ground.