By COLLIN BROOKS
The Washington County Commercial, Industrial and Agricultural Committee took their meeting on the road on Thursday when they met at the Tri-Cities Regional Airport. The purpose of the venue change was for the committee members to get an idea of the scope of over 150 acres that the airport is trying to turn into an aerospace industrial park.
The airport presented its vision to the committee during the August meeting, which prompted the venue change. While many members of the committee seemed to voice their support for the project, it will take a regional effort in order to make the $15 million, two-year grading project happen.
Tri-Cities Regional Airport Patrick Wilson has given the same presentation he gave the CIA Committee to Johnson City and Bristol, Tennessee. This week, he is scheduled to present to Sullivan County and Kingsport.
“There seems to be some traction amongst the regional players to move forward and at least explore opportunities where the city and county governments could come together and move this thing forward. It is a great opportunity,” newly elected chairman Todd Hensley said. “…Right now we just want to make sure all the players are talking and are willing to explore the possibilities.”
Former Chairman David Tomita noted this project as being similar to the Washington County Industrial Park, where the county was forced to get the site pad ready, before any suitors truly showed major interest.
“You can’t sell a cow field,” Tomita said. “(Businesses) can’t wait five years for us to get everything ready for them, they want to go.”
The Washington County group seems to be leading the discussions when it comes to making this project a reality, but none of the members have said that the county was capable of taking on the brunt of the money by themselves.
Wilson said that the airport has gone from $2 million in state funding a year to $600,000 due to changes in law.
“We know it is going to take close to $15 million to move this dirt, at $600,000 a year, we are never going to get there,” Hensley said. “What we also see is a window of opportunity that we are kind of — in my mind — approaching the top of right now. In the Southeast you have a lot of aviation industries…but if we wait until we can do this with federal dollars, we are going to lose our opportunity.”
Hensley said that is the reason for the regional partnership push.
“All we can do is start the discussion, if it works, it works, if it doesn’t, then we tried our hardest,” Hensley said.
Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge said that it was going to be tough for Washington County to participate in this, if they were to look at it as an investment in the airport.
“However, if we look at this as an investment in good paying job creation, a very unique opportunity that we have in the region to create hundreds of high paying jobs, then it becomes very simple,” he said. “When you consider the amount that is going to need to be invested, if we have all five governments participating (excluding Bristol, Virginia)…if you look at it from the perspective of what that investment would be from the participating government entities it’s a very minimal investment.”
Eldridge said that the Washington County Bond Council is looking at different ways that each entity could participate without too much burden for each of them.
“I think when we see the structure that they develop, we are going to be surprised at how affordable this really could be among the five governments,” Eldridge said. “Yeah, we are talking about a big number, $15-$20 million, but I think they are going to be able to develop a structure that will be affordable for local governments.”
The committee took no action to support the proposal, but simply wanted to wait and hear a report from Wilson about what the other governments are thinking after his meetings with them.
Since 1999, when the airport master plan concept was developed, there has been $23.2 million spent on the infrastructure of the aerospace park. Most recently, in 2014 Hamilton Road has been relocated and a taxiway had been extended which amounted to 10.3 million. Before that, in 2007, that same taxiway, “R” was first extended.
That money also helped the airport develop a 21-acre site that is currently ready for development and could possibly hold a 150,000 square foot facility. The site has been certified for immediate development by the Tennessee Department of Community and Economic Development and is one of the only sites on a runway in the state.
One of the main reasons that the county has been pushing for the aerospace park are the increased wages that are associated with those types of jobs. Aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and technicians earn $58,390 per year, while an aerospace engineer earns just over $107,000 per year.