Photo above: Bristol Mayor Jack Young, Johnson City Mayor David Tomita, Kingsport Mayor John Clark, Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable, Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge and Tri-Cities Airport Authority Chairman Dr. Jon Smith at a Regional Partnership Agreement signing ceremony at Tri-Cities Airport Nov. 8. Photo by Dave Ongie
By Dave Ongie and Scott Robertson
The mayors of five northeast Tennessee cities and counties joined the chairman of the Tri-Cities Airport Authority (TCAA) Nov. 8 in signing a document codifying their commitment to fund a significant portion of the cost of creating an airport-based business park.
“The Tri-Cities Airport has always been an example of regional cooperation since its creation,” said Dr. Jon Smith, the chairman of the TCAA. “The development of an aerospace park is an important example of continuing efforts by our city and county commissioners to come together for a common goal to try to attract quality jobs.”
It is hoped the 160-acre park will attract aerospace sector jobs and capital investment to the region within the next two to three years. Twenty-one acres of the site are already certified through the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development as a Select Tennessee Site, making it the first airport site in Tennessee to receive this certification. The funding from the local communities, along with funds from the Tennessee Valley Authority and hoped-for grant funds being sought from the Tennessee Department of Transportation, will go toward grading the rest of the land in preparation for development.
Proponents of a regional approach to economic development hailed the day as potentially historic. Said Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge, “This step that has been taken is really a big step, to me, for two reasons,” he said. “No. 1, because it presents such an opportunity for quality job creation in the Tri-Cities. No. 2, and this probably means more than anything else, we have created a template not only for cooperation among the local governments in this region, but we’ve created a template for investment.
“Local governments have put $8.5 million in this project,” Eldridge continued. “For me, this is a foundation for us to build on. There will be other opportunities for us to work together, to cooperate, to make investments that make our region better. I think a big part of what we’re doing here today is celebrating the opportunity this is providing us.”
In a lighthearted moment after the papers were signed, Johnson City mayor David Tomita reached over and put his arm around Kingsport mayor John Clark. It was symbolic of the cooperation that has been shown by the two cities, which routinely compete with each other and Bristol.
The level of cooperation that it took to make the Aerospace Park a reality didn’t come easily, but Tomita seemed satisfied with the results. “You’re going to hear a lot today about cooperation, collaboration and partnerships, and that’s a great thing,” Tomita said. “What we’ve done here is something that does not come easily. Those papers … There’s a lot of blood, sweat, tears and emotion in those papers. We’re proud to be here executing them today.”
Airport Director Patrick Wilson said the signing has drawn positive attention from several sectors. “We have received recognition for what has been done in bringing the cities and counties together from the economic development community at the state level, from the airport industry congratulating us on having that regional effort, and we see it from the aerospace industry becoming excited to have an entire region that gets it as far as what it takes to attract companies.”
The next step in the funding process is the submission of a grant application to the Tennessee Department of Transportation, Wilson said. “TDOT has issued grant criteria for what’s called the Aeronautics Economic Development Grant.” The airport must submit its completed application by Dec. 8 in order to compete for grant funds. “Our staff is working to bring that application together. Thankfully, we have been working on the various concepts and forecasts and construction estimates for the cities and counties for more than a year. So we have a lot of the data TDOT is asking for from our previous work.”
TDOT is giving airports across the state the chance to apply for dollars from a one-time grant offering. “TDOT is looking for, from us, basically a description of the project and a narrative on the goals of the project as relates to economic development. The good thing about that is that our project is totally focused on bringing opportunities for private investment from companies to the region and to Tennessee, and with that, job opportunities. That’s exactly in line with what this aeronautics economic development grant is for.”
Former Tennessee Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd, now a candidate for governor, was part of the task force responsible for the creation of the TDOT grant funding. “Airports across the state are the front doors to our communities, and all across the nation they are losing funds,” Boyd said at the signing. “This grant focuses on economic development, so airports have to focus on how they are going to bring economic growth into their communities to get a portion of the funds.”
Again, Wilson said, the fact that governments in the region have united to put skin in the game should be a selling point to TDOT. “They have agreed to fund 50 percent of the $17 million total that is needed for the full development of the site. The cities and counties have put $8.5 million of local funding toward the project. We have already received a grant from TVA’s InvestPrep program for $350,000 of that. The local governments are matching that. That leaves $8,150,000 of the local dollars that we are requesting a state match from the grant of $8,150,000 as well.”
The TDOT grant application review process should be fairly concise, as the state has already indicated it will notify grant recipients sometime in January.