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The big dig

Hank Hayes • Jun 12, 2017 at 8:30 AM

BLOUNTVILLE – The estimated total price tag just to move dirt remains at 20 million bucks.

The first phase of that big dirt move appears to be in place.

While the dirt is being moved, the push is to recruit aviation-related jobs goes on.

Tri-Cities Airport’s Aerospace Park project – viewed as the region’s next big jobs producer – contains 160 acres on the airport’s southside airfield, but only about 20 acres are certified by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (ECD).

After a total build out, airport officials predict the site could produce up to 2,000 jobs.

What’s going on with the project now?

Airport Director of Operations David Jones disclosed to Airport Authority commissioners on the Administration and Operations Committee last Thursday that Elizabethton, Tenn.-based contractor Summers Taylor was the low bid at $2.6 million to clear a taxiway side portion of land.

Ninety percent of that cash is expected to be funded by the Federal Aviation Administration, with the airport paying for the remainder, and the work could start as early as October, said Airport Executive Director Patrick Wilson.

After that work is complete, Airport Trade and Business Development Director Mark Canty said the state-certified land would increase to 30-35 acres.

How is the rest of project going to be paid for?

As for the rest of the needed cash to clear the land, legislation recently passed by the Tennessee General Assembly would allow the Tri-Cities Airport Authority to borrow money and issue revenue bonds. It would also allow Northeast Tennessee city and county governments -- the airport’s partners -- to pledge their “full faith and credit and unlimited taxing power” as guarantors to pay the principal and interest on bonds.

“We will issue the bonds but we can’t pay those back because we don’t have the revenue source, so the cities and counties through an intergovernmental agreement will pay that $8.5 million,” Wilson noted. “The other $8.5 million, we hope, will come from the state in the form of a grant.”

Over the last year or so, Wilson has been meeting with Northeast Tennessee city and county officials to raise awareness of the need for cash to grade all of the property and make it job producing.

The airport’s Administration and Operations Committee passed a resolution of intent for the airport to reimburse itself for Aerospace Park expenditures.

Airport legal counsel Bill Bovender had previously noted the Airport Authority does not have a credit rating although it is authorized to issue bonds.

The airport has hired Raymond James and Associates as its financial adviser for the proposed bond issue related to the site’s development and had the Atkins engineering firm do an environmental assessment of the site.

What is being done to market Aerospace Park?

Canty, ECD and the NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership are marketing the site to so-called “maintenance, repair and overhaul” companies as all this work is being done.

New Tennessee Economic Development Commissioner Bob Rolfe, during an April stop in Kingsport, was brought up to speed on Aerospace Park, regional industry recruiter Iliff McMahan advised the Kingsport Economic Development Board.

The airport, said Canty, is “bumping up” its marketing dollars for the site in its proposed $6.3 million spending plan for the coming fiscal year. Wilson previously noted there’s a window of about 5-10 years to attract aviation-related companies.

How is the airport doing financially?

Airport finances as this major undertaking progresses will remain stable despite a projected slight downturn in passenger traffic, said Airport Finance Director Rene Weber.

Weber said revenues in airline landing fees, rental cars and parking are projected to exceed budgeted amounts.

“Our revenues have remained solid despite the decline in traffic,” Weber noted.

The airport is served by Delta, American Airlines and Allegiant Air.

For more about the airport, go to www.triflight.com.

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