Why ‘A.C.’ should mean ‘Atlantic County’ when it comes to economic future of the area

What’s going on in Atlantic County is about more than just the resurgence of Atlantic City.

Atlantic County is where there is “disruptive economic development” happening.

That’s according to Howard Kyle, the Atlantic County government chief of staff.

Kyle, speaking at a recent event focused on innovation hubs and how they can benefit New Jersey at the New Jersey Innovation Institute in Newark, pointed to the National Aviation Research and Technology Park as an example.

The Park, which has been stagnant for almost a decade — and gone by different names in that time — is finally picking up a little steam, Kyle said.

And one of the reasons is that its operators believe that the region can survive on more than just Atlantic City tourism, Kyle said.

“The biggest problem we face is that people have in their DNA to just go back and look at tourism and not really look at this,” he said. “They keep going back and saying, ‘If we fix Atlantic City, we can fix Atlantic County.’ Our response back is, ‘No, we need to fix Atlantic City, and one way we fix Atlantic City is by fixing Atlantic County and integrating Atlantic City into a more regional economy.’ ”

Simply put, the county needs more than just the city to prosper.

“You constantly hear people say we want to make Atlantic City a world-class destination,” he said. “That sounds great. But look up world-class destination. This is not Hong Kong, this is not Madrid, this is not Rome.

“Atlantic City is 10.7 square miles. You can only build on 3.7 square miles. A lot of it is marshland or beach. What are you going to do with 3.7 square miles of a barrier island to sustain the economy of a 565 square mile county? Not much. The well-paying jobs for Atlantic City residents in the future will most likely be in the suburban communities.”

And what those jobs in the suburban communities will look like also are known factors.

The county retained a Austin firm to do an economic study of Atlantic County. It identified five strategic industries.

Tourism, of course, was at the top.

But next in line was aviation, followed by light manufacturing, entrepreneurship and life sciences.

Aviation was identified because of the Federal Aviation Administration’s William J. Hughes Technical Center being located in the county, right next to the underutilized Atlantic City Airport, Kyle said.

“That asset had been highly underappreciated,” he said. “Not only in Atlantic County, but also in the entire state of New Jersey. And I think the state is beginning to wake up and recognize the importance of that.”

Most feel the vision for the airport and surrounding FAA land, which has just begun its first phase of development as part of the NARTP project, pulls away from traditional thinking.

The airport strategy has gone through several iterations, including hoping for direct international flights or shifting to packages rather than passenger traffic. Now, there are talks of making the airport the testing site for all aviation research at the park as well as making ACY a smart airport.

The Atlantic County government and economic alliance have partnered with the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which operates the airport, for the potential synergies.

“(It’s a) very underused asset,” Kyle said. “It has a 10,000-foot runway, which is rare. It is also very inexpensive to get in and out of there, very inexpensive to operate there, very close by other major airports which loans itself to two major things — air cargo operations and also to maintenance repair operations.”

The alliance has been in talks with a company interested in doing maintenance repair work. But where will they get workers from?

That’s where the aviation academy comes in.

The aviation academy just received a $100,000 grant from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority as part of its pilot innovation competition this year.

The county, along with NJII, is also now working with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida — which does aviation maintenance training — to develop the academy near the airport.

That’s just one of the many moving parts right now.

The coalition also is working to increase produce distribution through Atlantic City Airport.

There is over $1 billion of produce brought into the U.S. through Miami ever year — which is very expensive and a very congested airport, Kyle said. The produce from Central America, Mexico and South America can, for a lower price, fly into ACY, where it can be processed and then driven to distribution areas.

After a due diligence process, a new 100,000-square-foot processing plant is being built near the airport.

Yet, another option for the aviation hub is to work with the Cape May airport and the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Burlington County.

“We are developing an aviation cluster, actually an aviation triangle, that would take our aviation district in Atlantic County, the joint base and some (drone) work they are doing in Cape May,” Kyle said. “Establishing a strong, viable aviation industry in New Jersey that previously did not exist previously.”

But this will only be possible if the momentum that is being felt around the aviation tech park — including a time limit on the Garden State Growth Zone economic incentive for the one-mile radius outside the airport — increases.

Kyle said that even after the growth zone incentive sunsets in June of next year, the governor already has spoken to the group about creating a new type of incentive to keep the momentum going.

The coalition behind the tech park already has seen major moves in the past year, especially compared to the prior years, and believes the future economic health of the area is tied to this growth, Kyle said.

Especially since tourism has been a key reason why the median income in Atlantic County lags the country.

“Tourism jobs, hospitality jobs don’t pay a lot of money,” Kyle said.

“Our goal was not to build a research park in and of itself, but as one component of an overall aviation industry.”

Once aviation is established, Kyle said the life sciences would be the next focus for the county.