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Commissioners consider funding aerospace park


Staff Writer

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Washington County could be part of an agreement—along with Sullivan County, Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol—to fund an aerospace park in the Tri-Cities.

The Washington County Commission’s Commerce Industry and Agriculture committee examined and discussed a draft agreement with the Tri-Cities Airport Authority to join the four other surrounding government bodies in consideration of developing an aerospace park on 160 acres in Sullivan County.

“If we string out five, six, seven years getting that thing (the land) flat out there, we’ve missed the opportunity (to add aerospace clients),” CIA chairman Todd Hensley said at the May 4 meeting. “If we don’t get that moving out there—I’m just going to say two years in my opinion or less—we’re gonna miss the gains that we could create.”

In the draft, the project cost is set at $18 million. It also states the Authority will issue its revenue bonds and that each of the five bodies would guarantee the repayment of its proportional or “pro rata” share. The draft calls for a $4,050,000 financial commitment from Washington County. Sullivan County’s would be $4,851,000, Kingsport’s would be $3,366,000, Bristol’s would be $1,683 and Johnson City’s would be equal to Washington County’s amount.

Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge said in addition to the possible revenue from the park, these new jobs could also be a benefit for the county.

“Virtually every aerospace job is accretive to our median per capita incomes. That’s one of the real benefits of this aerospace park potential,”Eldridge said. “Yes, it’s going to be an opportunity to create jobs, but more importantly, good paying jobs that are going to increase our median per capita incomes.”

Hensley said this park could also bring maintenance repair build out organizations ready to join the site.

“It just isn’t job creation. Those businesses that will locate there drive your air traffic numbers up. We’re on the cusp of getting service to Houston and Chicago. We have a couple of MROs (maintenance repair build out organizations) there that have regular business,” Hensley said. “Air traffic numbers and routes are so micro-managed by those companies, that just a few seats here or there can make them say, “Huh. Okay. That aircraft’s now going to Tri-Cities.’

It could just snowball. It could help a lot of things we don’t even realize.”

Though the commissioners could see the opportunities from the potential agreement, Eldridge also said if the county fully invests, the pro rata share of that commitment needs to be remitted back to Washington County.

Though the document presented at the meeting was only a draft and the committee agreed to discuss the topic again at the next CIA meeting before the draft sees the full commission, the opportunities the draft presented seemed attractive to most in attendance of the meeting.

“Hopefully all five will agree to participate in the program and it will provide East Tennessee with one of the greatest opportunities we’ve ever had to invite business industry and manufacturing into the Tri-Cities area on a scale equal to this,” Commissioner Lynn Hodge said. “And there’s no other opportunity like this available. Now, it will call for some commitment and long-term commitment. And I think we’re moving in the right direction. You can’t market something that you don’t have.

“If you’re thinking that this is an opportunity for Washington County, Sullivan County and the entities therein, then this is the opportune time to do it.”