By Scott Robertson
A potential derailment of the region’s primary economic development project was avoided Monday night when the Washington County Commission voted to back the funding of $1,912,500 toward the development of the Aerospace Park project at Tri-Cities Regional Airport. The governments of Bristol, Johnson City, Kingsport and Sullivan County had previously voted (all unanimously) to help back the airport authority’s issuance of $8.5 million in bonds to develop the business/industry park, which is seen as a magnet for high-paying aerospace sector jobs and investment in the region.
Because the project is not in Washington County, and because the county has already backed other costly economic development projects in the last couple of years (the ETSU Fine and Performing Arts Center, the creation of two build-ready sites at the Washington County Industrial Park), several commissioners had expressed skepticism in the days before the meeting about the commission’s willingness to support the project.
The solution came in the form of a windfall from the Tennessee Valley Authority. Each year TVA spends working on repairs at Boone Dam, it pays Washington County a little over $500,000 in fees to cover economic development expenses. Commissioner Richard Johnson suggested the commission use those funds, which he referred to as, “manna from heaven,” to cover the county’s part of the Aerospace Park investment beginning next fiscal year.
“And this is zero taxpayer dollars?” Commissioner Mike Ford asked. “That is correct,” answered Budget Director Mitch Meredith.
The final wording of the amendment to the resolution as authored by Commissioner Skip Oldham read, “The financial commitment of Washington County under an intergovernmental agreement shall be paid in the annual economic impact fees paid by the Tennessee Valley Authority to Washington County in the annual amount of $559,493 beginning in the fiscal year 2018-2019 and continuing until Washington County’s obligation under the intergovernmental agreement is satisfied.”
That amendment passed by a vote of 24-1 with Commissioner Danny Edens casting the lone dissenting vote. The amended motion to enter into the agreement then passed by a vote of 23-2 with Commissioner Robbie Tester joining Edens in voting against.
Tri-Cities Airport Director Patrick Wilson attended the commission meeting and expressed his gratitude and satisfaction afterward, saying a formal announcement of unified support from all the local governments will be scheduled for Nov. 8. Another $8.5 million for grading work on the park site is being sought from the Tennessee Department of Transportation. The state has earmarked $30 million statewide from which the airport authority hopes to draw those funds.
For more on Monday’s commission meeting, click here.