Executive Director Gene Cossey (center) reports on the proposed memorandum of understanding between the airport, Northeast State Community College and the Tennessee Board of Regents. PHOTOS BY SCOTT ROBERTSON
Northeast State Community College and Tri-Cities Airport (TRI) are back in the workforce development business together. A project in which the college and airport will work together to create a space for Northeast State students to learn aerospace industry skills will move forward after months of what Airport Authority Chair Dr. Jon Smith referred to as “fits and starts.”
The authority voted unanimously on Feb. 27 to contract for $95,800 with Atkins, an engineering company that often works with the airport, to handle design and bid work for the project, pending Northeast State’s receipt of an Appalachian Regional Commission grant and pending the college signing a memorandum of understanding with the airport.
Ten months ago, the airport authority agreed to spend $200,000 designing a new hangar for the project. The plans at the time were for the college to provide $1.6 million of the $3 million project cost through an Appalachian Regional Commission grant. The airport received a grant from the state of Tennessee to cover part of its share.
That plan, however, unraveled when Northeast State decided it would rather build a structure on its side of the fence that separates the college from the airport. The airport acquiesced, and handed back to Tennessee the grant money that would have covered the airport’s portion of the construction for a new hangar.
“We did ask (Northeast State) if it would affect their grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission,” airport manager Gene Cossey told the authority at the Feb. 27 meeting. “At that time, they did not think that it would. But a few weeks later they did get notice from the ARC that it would affect their grant and that they needed to have a location on the airport to get the grant.”
By that time, the state funds that would have helped fund a new hangar on the airport property had been reappropriated to another airport and so were no longer available for the Northeast State/TRI project.
The plan now is to rehabilitate Hangar 301, a vacant hangar on the far side of the airfield from the main terminal. According to a memorandum of understanding signed by the airport and Northeast State but not yet signed by the Tennessee Board of Regents, that hangar will be leased to the college for the purpose of housing an aircraft maintenance technician program.
There is no guarantee this plan will succeed either. Cossey and Smith both spoke in the meeting of “hurdles and hoops to jump over and through.”
For instance, the ARC still has to approve the notion of rehabilitating an existing structure instead of building a new one. The Tennessee Board of Regents must still sign the memorandum of understanding. The college and the airport must come to mutually agreeable terms on the lease price for the rehabilitated hangar over what airport officials are planning to pitch as a 20-year lease. And, the rehabilitation of the building must be done to both parties’ satisfaction.
Normally, Cossey said, he would not even approach the authority for approval of anything with so many i’s undotted and t’s uncrossed. However, since the airport must now go back to the state for new funds, time is of the essence. “We need to be on top of this and we need to be moving now,” Cossey told the authority. “Otherwise, it will put our timeline way out beyond where we want.”
Northeast State and TRI officials have a shared goal of having airframe classes underway at the facility in Fall Semester 2021. “We’re afraid that if we wait too much longer to bring this to you that we’ll be behind on the grant curve with the state and we’d put it up into 2022,” Cossey said. “We don’t want to push it that far. So that’s why we’re bringing it to you even with these pending issues.”
There are some blessings that have come with the consternation over the changing plans, Cossey said. “One of the benefits is going to be that (Northeast State was) going to have to spend almost $400,000 on a sidewalk from the school to the new hangar. Nobody liked the idea of spending that much money on a sidewalk. There will also be more parking at this location for their students.”
From the airport’s perspective, the silver lining is that the existing hangar location is closer to where Aerospace Park will be. Director of Business Development Mark Canty told the authority he consistently hears from companies and site selectors that one of the most positive aspects of Aerospace Park is the workforce development aspect that the Northeast State partnership will bring. In fact, Canty said, “a lot of them want the workforce development to be in full swing,” before they will seriously contemplate moving operations to the park.
“We don’t have anybody ready to sign on the dotted line right now,” Canty said. “We are hearing from some prospects they would like to see that the project is completed before they get more serious about looking at it. We’ve all been involved with government projects that get three-quarters completed and then stop. So, I think we’ll have a lot more serious interest the closer we get to completion.”
“We like the location much better than building a new hangar,” Cossey said. “We think it works better for the program. We’re just concerned ARC won’t approve it but again, I think we’ve hit enough bases. We even got some congressional support going over to ARC in a letter stating this is important and valid. So, we think that this is the best option for us and we’re just hoping we get over these hurdles to make it happen.”
In other TRI news, the airport’s finances for the current fiscal year are good. Director of Finance Rene Weber told the authority that for the first six months of the year, revenues are up 8.7 percent (around $350,000) and expenses are down around 3.5 percent (around $125,000). Additionally, Weber said, passenger traffic is up 12.2 percent after a 6.2 percent increase over the course of the previous year.
The airport authority also signed off on transferring the Avis Rent-A-Car operation on-site from Wallace Leasing to Avis Budget Rental Car LLC (Avis Corporate). In addition, the authority approved a one-year extension for its fixed base operations contract with Tri-City Aviation. The contract is generally re-upped on a five-year basis, Cossey said, but that did not happen last year because of the timing of the departure of previous director Patrick Wilson and Cossey’s hiring. Both parties agreed it made sense this year to agree to a one-year extension during which time both will discuss how best to move forward a year from now. Finally, the authority heard from David Jones, deputy executive director, regarding the state of Tennessee moving ahead with plans to implement safety improvements along the highway in front of the airport, including widening and the addition of traffic signals.