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Tennessee bill would help fund Tri-Cities Airport aerospace park

Nathan Baker • Feb 5, 2017 at 12:02 AM

A bill filed in the state General Assembly would allow five municipal and county governments in Northeast Tennessee to guarantee bonds issued by the Tri-Cities Airport to help develop an aerospace park in Blountville.

SB0020, filed by Bristol Republican Sen. Jon Lundberg, and its companion bill, HB0028, filed by Rep. Timothy Hill, R-Blountville, would give the entities that formed a regional airport authority the power to pass resolutions pledging their full faith and credit and taxing power to guarantee repayment of airport loans.

Lundberg said the bill, if enacted, would give the regional airport the same abilities to raise money of metropolitan airports in the state.

“The airport is one area that economically really changes the space there,” the senator said. “It already has made a strong mark, and it’s one of those where it would be foolish if we don’t invest there.”

Eighteen years ago, the airport authority set a goal in its master plan to invest in and build an aerospace park on 160 adjacent acres to draw aviation industry tenants.

So far, using state and federal aviation grants, a road was rerouted and a runway extended to allow access to 21 flat, construction-ready acres for the park.

Airport Executive Director Patrick Wilson estimates $17 million is still needed to grade the remaining 140 acres and extend the utilities that ring the airfield.

If the bill is enacted, Wilson said the airport could borrow for the project, then the governments represented on the authority board could contribute funds to help repay the debt. The leading proposition is for the entities to fund the project proportionally based on their populations.

Wilson met with the governmental bodies or committees representing all six partners on the board: Johnson City; Kingsport; Bristol, Tennessee; Bristol, Virginia; and Washington and Sullivan counties, and said local leaders seem receptive of the plan.

“It’s been a positive response,” he said. “I think most of them recognize that this could be a region-changing opportunity to have this kind of site, and they’re excited about working together on this.”

Washington County Commissioner Mitch Meredith, also the county’s director of finance and administration and a member of the airport authority board, said any appropriations to the airport to help repay borrowing would need to first be approved by the Budget Committee and the full commission during the budgeting process.

One consideration in those discussions, he said, would be how much of an economic impact the taxpayers’ investment in the aerospace park is expected to produce.

Jon Smith, an economist at East Tennessee State University and the chair of the airport authority, said having 160 acres ready to build would allow the airport to compete nationally for new repair and maintenance industries.

“It would become one of the premier sites in the country,” Smith said. “The reason I think it’s such a good idea is, on top of the investment capital you would see coming in from these new industries, they would also bring in jobs that are really high-paying.”

Economic development officials and municipal leaders have been clamoring for the project for years, and finally seem to be poised to make it a reality.

Wilson said multiple companies have expressed interest in the park, but fully developing the land will help seal the deal.

The state bill has been assigned to the transportation committees of the House and Senate, but has not yet been given hearing dates.

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