EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. - The underutilized Atlantic City International Airport - which has the capacity to accommodate up to a million flights annually but which currently handles less than one-tenth of that - could soon soar as a center for aviation technologies.
Ground is expected to be broken early next year for the first of up to seven buildings for a new aviation and technology center that could bring as many as 4,000 high-paying jobs and as much as $300 million in private investment to the region, according to officials.
"The airport really is such a great resource in this region on so many levels. . . . We see great potential here," said Joseph Sheairs, executive director of the planned Stockton Aviation Research and Technology Park, which will be on property across the street from the airport's terminal.
"There is a great opportunity here for us to continue to develop an important industry for this region."
The idea was introduced a decade ago and was previously called NextGen Aviation Research and Technology Park. Its name was changed about three years ago when Stockton University took over the project.
In the meantime, Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology in East Elmhurst, N.Y., began the process of creating an 18-month aircraft maintenance certification program that could graduate as many as 500 students a year from a facility at ACY.
John Bifone, a spokesman for Vaughn, said the institution was not ready to comment on the plan.
But Howard Kyle, Atlantic County's chief of staff for economic development, said the county was working with Vaughn and other prospective clients to continue "building an industry" involving aviation in the county, which has long depended on tourism.
County officials said they also could not comment directly on Vaughn's proposal to locate an adjunct campus at the airport. The program would need various state approvals before it could proceed.
Vaughn is a private, specialized aviation and engineering school with about 1,200 students in the Flushing section of New York City, adjacent to LaGuardia International Airport, which it utilizes in some of its training programs.
School officials told the county they hope to get the program established here by June 2017 and then graduate the school's inaugural class by the end of 2018. A similar program, which teaches students to repair all types of aircraft, is taught by the college at its facility near LaGuardia.
Local officials say the move could help boost regional unemployment. In addition to Atlantic County, Vaughn officials said they have been working with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on the plan. The port authority oversees operations at LaGuardia and ACY.
Cheryl Ann Albiez, a spokeswoman for the Port Authority, referred all questions about the New York institution's using ACY as a classroom to Vaughn.
Recent casino closures have created a wave of job losses in Atlantic County, where the value of the gaming industry has fallen by as much as $2.5 billion over the last decade, according to analysts.
And while officials say the airport - and the surrounding public and private industry generated by it - already contributes more than $678 million in salaries and spending to the region, they are looking to it to provide additional economic growth.
The airport complex includes the William J. Hughes Technical Center, a $206 million federal aviation laboratory and test facility, and the nation's only air marshal training ground. The center employs 2,700 employees and generates about $229 million in wages, according to a recent report on the airport issued by the Center for Regional and Business Research at Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing.
The facility is also home to the 177th Fighter Wing of the New Jersey Air National Guard, which is assigned to patrol the East Coast as part of its Homeland Security mission.
The 4,300-acre ACY is in Egg Harbor and Hamilton Townships about 12 miles west of Atlantic City. Over the last 20 years, government initiatives have added more than $50 million in investment into the facility, including the expansion of its main terminal with new gates, lounges and restaurants, and a $26 million six-story parking lot.
The airport has long been poised to get major airlines to utilize it - but without much success - with officials contending that its location between major hub cities like Philadelphia and New York makes it a perfect spot for overflow air traffic.
Other experts say that may be why it has such difficulty attracting the bigger carriers. It currently handles only one commercial carrier, Spirit Airlines, which offers budget service, mostly to Florida. About a dozen charter and private-jet companies also operate out of the facility.