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Tri-Cities airport seeks support for aerospace project

This is an artist rendering of what a 160-acre aerospace park would look like. The photo was included in the packet that was handed out during the August 3 meeting.
This is an artist rendering of what a 160-acre aerospace park would look like. The photo was included in the packet that was handed out during the August 3 meeting.


Staff Writer

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The Tri-Cities Regional Airport has been bringing people to and sending them from the region for decades. Now they are looking to bring the region closer together with a $15 million aerospace project.

Tri-Cities Regional Airport Director Patrick Wilson gave a presentation to the Washington County Commercial, Industrial and Agricultural Committee during the Wednesday, August 3, meeting — the same presentation he had given city managers and county mayors a week earlier.

The airport, which is governed by a board with representatives from Bristol, Virginia; Bristol, Tennessee; Johnson City; Kingsport; Washington County; and Sullivan County, is looking for those six entities to pitch in with a  project that would add 140 acres of site-ready development to any aerospace business.

Developing that site would make the Tri-Cities Regional Airport an intriguing destination to some of the world’s aerospace industry developers, supporters say due to its central location to population centers which lay north and south of the Tri-Cities area.

“If  we could push this site to anything close to this 160 acres and take advantage of all the infrastructure that has already been put in place, it gives the region something that could really be a game-changer for the region,” Wilson said.

Wilson added that the airport is continuously looking into different grants that it may be able to receive from the Federal Aviation Administration, but he said that “if we are lucky enough to get one grant out of the FAA, that is about it and we are trickling down to nothing that we could get on the state side.”

That is the reason that Wilson is making his tour through the different governmental bodies — his next stop is Bristol, Tennessee, on August 16. Having the entire region on-board is important, he said, because that is the area that the aerospace industry looks at when sifting through the different locations.

“… it gives the region something that could really be a game-changer for the region.”

Director Patrick Wilson

Tri-Cities Regional Airport

“When the airlines look at a market, there not seeing city boundaries or county boundaries; they are seeing the population of a region and we think it is very much the same when we are talking to the aerospace industry,” Wilson said.

Washington County Commissioner Todd Hensley said that all of the six entities that have a hand in the airport should pitch in for this renovation that could provide an economic boost for the entire region.

“I know this is a possible rosy, if not impossibly scenario in this current climate, but if you have a $15-million project that is going to benefit all of the entities, (it would be good) if there is someone to get the regional partners to agree to come in and say ‘Hey, let’s move this whole thing forward,’” he said.

Washington County and Johnson City Commissioner said that the process had already begun, which is one of the reasons that Wilson was presenting. He added that he would not consider taking on the $15 million alone.

It would “have to be a regional partnership, I don’t think that is even a question. I’ll never say never, but that would be a hard sell.”

Hensley echoed his thoughts again.

“This is a real regional development piece and I think that’s why it is important for people to know this isn’t an actionable thing,” he said. “So no one go out and say that the county is getting ready to spend $15 million. That’s not what this discussion has got to be about; this discussion has got to be about getting all the partners motivated to put something in place.”

Wilson showed a slide that compared the industry wages, which mentioned that the general manufacturing positions in the Tri-Cities have a median salary of just over $34,000 per year. Aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and technicians average just over $58,000 per year.

The Aerospace Park has had $23.2 million invested into it since the concept development started in 1999, with the first site grading happening in 2001.

The park has some unique benefits, according to Wilson, as it has a five-acre concrete aircraft apron that can accommodate large aircraft and that has access to an existing taxiway and ramp, which provides direct airfield access.

The land currently houses 21 acres which is certified for immediate development by the Tennessee Department of Community and Economic Development. It is also the only site with that certification that has direct airfield access.

The convenient location of the airport has helped Wilson and his staff explore multiple opportunities for the airport.

“Since 2014 we have put a significant effort into learning where the aerospace industry is going and attracting some of that business to the airport,” Wilson said. “In that research, there are really two hotbeds of aerospace development that we have identified in the world. One is Southeast Asia and the other is the Southeast United States.”

At the end of the meeting, the CIA committee agreed to have their next meeting at the Tri-Cities Regional Airport on September 1.