Since McGhee-Tyson Airport (the airport serving Knoxville) announced it had hired then-Tri-Cities-Airport (TRI) Director Patrick Wilson away on August 31, a few folks in the business community have asked me whether I believe the Aerospace Park initiative – regionalism’s hallmark – is in any danger of falling through.
Let me be clear. Oh, Good Lord, no. If anything, just the opposite. Aerospace Park appears to be picking up steam.
The main reason is that while Wilson oversaw all the day-to-day activities at the airport, he had a remarkably capable staff, none of whom have given any indication they plan on going anywhere. Where Aerospace Park is concerned, that staff, including Interim Director David Jones, the former operations director, is all in.
Jones reported to the Airport Authority at its Oct. 25 meeting that the staff has already submitted a grant application to the Tennessee Department of Transportation. “We were a little short of the funding to do the final push to fund the entire Aerospace Park project last year,” Jones said. “So, we are circling back to get the balance if we can from the TDOT grant fund this year. The application was submitted last Thursday.”
The airport has $1.4 million on hand to add to the applied-for $1.7 million in Aeronautics Economic Development Fund dollars. That would allow for completion of all the grading and infrastructure work on the entire site.
Jones told the authority he believes there is a “good chance” the TDOT grant will come through. “I think there will be about $20 million (in total Aeronautics Economic Development Funds) distributed across the state. They recognized last year the value of our project and I would hope that this year, they would say, ‘Well, for $1.7 million, Tri-Cities is pushed to the finish line with this particular development.”
The airport authority will know by the end of this year, and Jones said the staff will be ready for it. “If that grant comes to us, we want to have the ability of the chair and the legal counsel to sign that grant and return it as soon as possible.” To that end, the authority gave the chair and legal counsel the power to sign the necessary documents to receive the grant funding as soon as the state decides.
Could the state decide against spending those grant dollars at the TRI? Yes, but as even Wilson, who will be moving to a competing airport before October is out said, “We should recognize the team effort of the staff, between Mark (Canty), Kristi (Haulsee) and David, they have put together a quality document. I have seen some of the other grant applications, and they don’t rate in comparison to this document.”
Canty has been in charge of marketing Aerospace Park. In the last few weeks, he has attended three major trade shows which were all sponsored in part by the Aerospace Park brand. Canty told the authority he made contact with serious candidates to locate facilities in the park when it is completed, including companies who would bring foreign direct investment to the site. Between Canty’s efforts and those of the region’s economic developers, most notable NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership, which attends trade shows with airport personnel, there is no lack of effort to find the rite tenants for the site.
Meanwhile, Haulsee has been working to bring additional business to the airport through the potential addition of more passenger flights. She declined to speak in a public meeting about the state of negotiations with the most likely new carrier, but when one authority member asked if she was getting “warm fuzzies” from them, she nodded affirmatively.
In the meantime, the search for Wilson’s replacement is underway, and the authority feels it has the right headhunting firm working on it. It’s the same firm that put Wilson in Knoxville.