Tri-Cities Airport receives TDOT Aerospace Park grant, seeks final funding


Patrick Wilson

By Scott Robertson

The long-awaited Tennessee Department of Transportation Aeronautics Development (AED) Fund grant announcement January 11 gave the Tri-Cities Airport Authority (TCAA) $4.1 million to put toward development of its Aerospace Park project, a business park designed to attract high-paying jobs and capital investment. It also left the authority with $4 million more to raise before site preparation work on the park can be completed.

$4 million down…

“We are extraordinarily pleased to receive this grant,” said Jon Smith, chairman of the TCAA on Jan. 11, the morning the grant was announced. “We believe it is a significant step in moving the region forward by attracting jobs and investment from the aerospace industry.” The Aerospace Park grant application stated, “by year five after completion of the site development project, the TCAA has established a benchmark goal of MROs or aircraft manufacturers investing $25 million in facility construction and creating 650 jobs.”

Patrick Wilson, airport director, said the grant would allow the project to move forward on schedule. “The combination of local city and county funding and some from TVA combined with this $4.1 million grant from TDOT is really going to move the site development significantly ahead. We’re ready to move right into design and would hope to be bidding the project out in mid-summer, then start construction in early fall.”

Clay Walker

A portion of the Aerospace Park site has already been graded. The Tri-Cities Airport Authority estimates the cost to have the full 140-acre site ready for occupancy at $17 million, $9 million of which was covered before the AED grant announcement. The governments of Bristol, Johnson City and Kingsport, along with Sullivan and Washington counties have committed a total of $8.5 million toward development. TVA has also committed $350,000. The TCAA had applied for $8.15 million in AED funding.

“We’re happy to get that assistance and appreciate it,” said Clay Walker, CEO of NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership. “We really appreciate it that the (AED) program exists to further legitimize the significance of airports as economic development engines and recognize the economic impact they have around the state. Obviously, this doesn’t get us to where we need to be to have Aerospace Park finished in the manner we’d like it finished but it’s a nice step in the right direction. Four million dollars is certainly a significant amount of money. We’re getting closer and closer. We just need to keep after it.”

…$4 million to go

     Keeping after it is precisely what the TCAA and its supporters in regional governments and economic development organizations are doing. The authority has hired Stones River Group, a public affairs and government relations (read: lobbying) firm in Nashville to help secure the additional funds, possibly through legislative appropriation in the coming term of the General Assembly.

“I think there is a determination on the part of the partners that we are going to finish that project,” said Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable. “The only question is, will the state continue to assist us, and I believe we can expect that.”

Ramsey in the Senate chamber. File Photo

At the Regional Legislative Breakfast sponsored by the Chambers of Commerce of Bristol, Johnson City and Kingsport Jan. 26, however, Fifth District State Representative David Hawk sounded a cautionary note regarding that appropriation. “We are hoping that we were going to be able to find somewhere through legislative or administrative budgeting that we would be able to come up with the additional $4 million,” Hawk said. “That is certainly on our radar screen. And just a little inside baseball, our Chairman of Finance in the House of Representatives (Charles Sargent) is a great guy but, as he looks at budgetary issues he is the first one to tell you he grades off of local, regional, statewide initiatives. Local projects will get a C rating, which rarely ever gets funded. A regional project gets a B rating. It very seldom gets funded. Statewide initiatives get funded more often than not. We have been up against a rather challenging hill to climb at the house level in order to work with the chairman.”

So, in addition to the Stones River hire, the Washington County Economic Development Council voted Jan. 25 to hire former Tennessee Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey to lobby on behalf of the legislative appropriation.

Smith told the WCEDC board, “Any support is greatly appreciated. Certainly, we are still somewhat short on Aerospace Park in terms of what we can build out. We appreciate any support we can get. We are fortunate the cities and counties have already stepped up. So yes, we would like the help if that’s possible.”

Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge said those relationships could be the key to the park’s success. “There is no one more influential with the state legislature than Ron Ramsey. In that regard, that’s bringing everything to the table we can bring to secure this funding.”

Johnson City Mayor David Tomita then made a motion the board hire Ramsey. That motion passed without dissent.

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