By Collin Brooks
Before her announcement that she would be running for Governor of Tennessee, House Speaker Beth Harwell sent a letter to the Tennessee Aeronautics Commission urging them to seriously consider the Tri-Cities Airport’s Aerospace Park project for a major grant from the state.
Harwell recently toured the site and said she believes the project will give the region a significant economic boost.
“The Aerospace Park project at the Tri-Cities Airport is an innovative and worthwhile project for these grant funds,” said Harwell in a news release. “I hope the commission will give serious consideration to this project, because I believe it will be beneficial for the entire Northeast Tennessee region.”
That benefit will come with what many believe will be a steady economic boost for the region.
With that in mind, Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge and some County Commissioners were hoping they would be able to pay for their funding of the project with money that was recently awarded from the Tennessee Valley Authority for “impact payments”. However, according to Eldridge, the county won’t be able to use those funds.
“It is one-time money,” he said. “If we were going to pay all of this up front we could have used the TVA money and just made lump sum payments over four years. However, with the agreement being structured essentially as a guarantee, it just really complicated it, because there is the potential you get 10 years out and there is revenue coming into Aerospace Park to pay the debt service.
“Well, now Washington County has already paid all of its debt service and you would have to start rebating Washington County. So it just made it a really complicated agreement.”
County and city officials are hoping that with state aid, they will only have to contribute half of the over $18 million for the total project. With that in mind, Eldridge said the county will plan on making their annual contribution of close to $130,000 over a 20-year period.
The TVA impact payments are granted for areas that have major TVA projects which place unique demands on the area’s infrastructure (roads, schools, etc.) beyond normal operations. The impact payments are designed to help compensate the county governments for the increased costs associated with the project while it is underway.
Washington County recently received an impact payment of $863,000, of which Johnson City received $281,297.44 and the county received $581,702.56.
Currently, as the agreement reads, Johnson City will be responsible for just over $4 million of the Aerospace project, while Washington County will also contribute the same amount. But with state aid, in the form of a grant from Tennessee Aeronautics Commission, everyone’s contribution would be cut in half. There is not a current timeline released from the state as to the qualifications for the grant or when it will be awarded. However, $30 million was included in Governor Bill Haslam’s budget for Aeronautical improvements across the state.
Eldridge noted that Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol, Tennessee are all expected to approve the inter-local agreement in July. Eldridge said that is based on information he gathered during monthly meetings between the city managers and mayors. He said that Sullivan County won’t act on it until August, which is when the full Washington County Commission will see the agreement for the first time.
Johnson City Mayor David Tomita said that the Intergovernmental Financing Agreement, which includes Sullivan County, Washington County, Kingsport, Johnson City and Bristol, Tennessee, is not currently on the city’s agenda for their meeting on Thursday, but he said that he hopes they will hear it by the end of the month.
“We as a commission certainly support this project wholeheartedly,” Tomita said.