Does Aerospace Park have enough money to fly?

Hank Hayes • Mar 26, 2018 at 12:27 PM

BLOUNTVILE — It looks like the state funding stream for the Tri-Cities Airport’s Aerospace Park project has been drained for now.

A $500,000 site development grant announced days ago by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development put the project’s grant funding at around $5 million, according to airport Executive Director Patrick Wilson.

The background: On the airport’s southside airfield, the plan is to develop a “build-ready” site for a future “maintenance, repair or overhaul” facility or other aviation-related industry. Part of the site is state-certified. Airport officials expect Aerospace Park could attract up to 2,000 aviation-related jobs.

What’s been happening: The Airport Authority and the airport’s former owners — Bristol, Kingsport, Johnson City, and Sullivan and Washington counties — signed an agreement backing an $8.5 million bond that will help pay for grading the southside airfield. That grading, according to the agreement, is estimated to cost up to $18 million. To date, airport officials say more than $23 million has been invested in infrastructure serving the total 160-acre area including grading a portion of the site, constructing an industrial access road and installing utilities. Twenty-one acres is certified through the TDECD as a Select Tennessee Site. Ten additional acres is expected to be prepared by late 2018.

Are powerful people on board with Aerospace Park? The project has the backing of Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell. The Northeast Tennessee delegation of state lawmakers has met with Gov. Bill Haslam to pitch the project.

Still, the project is about $3.5 million short of its fundraising goal, said Wilson.

Haslam’s budget amendment recently filed with state lawmakers did not include another earmarked appropriation for Aerospace Park but did include $10 million to be added to the state’s Aeronautics Development Fund, according to state Rep. Timothy Hill, R-Blountville, and state Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol.

“If the budget passes in its current form, that pot of money will be about $20 million and we will have the opportunity to apply again,” Hill pointed out.

In the meantime, Wilson stressed the project will move forward with site grading happening this year.

“We will come out of that with two 50-acre sites and come back with a future phase to finish it off,” Wilson promised.

State Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, filed a bill to create a lawmaker board overseeing the Airport Authority and prohibiting the airport from hiring a lobbyist, but he has not attempted to move that legislation forward. That bill was opposed by the Airport Authority.

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