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Runway access a go for Grand Forks County tech park tenants

GRAND FORKS -- Tenants of the Grand Sky technology park under construction on land rented from Grand Forks Forks Air Force Base will now have access to a runway for flying unmanned and manned aircraft.

GRAND FORKS -- Tenants of the Grand Sky technology park under construction on land rented from Grand Forks Forks Air Force Base will now have access to a runway for flying unmanned and manned aircraft.

The base and Grand Forks County signed a joint-use agreement 18 months in the making Wednesday that will allow commercial tenants of the tech park to use the base's runway.

Adding the final signatures to the document during a ceremony held on base were U.S. Air Force Under Secretary Lisa Disbrow and Grand Forks County Commissioner Tom Falck.

"I would say this is leading edge," she said of the agreement. "In fact, what's impressed me in the last few days I've been here is the vision the state has."

Disbrow has been touring the state, and officials close the Grand Sky project arranged for the agreement to be completed in time for her arrival. The under secretary was greeted Wednesday by state and local government officials and base personnel, all of whom praised the agreement and the opportunities it opens for businesses.

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"This is an important endeavor today -- expanding the utilization of the airspace here and moving forward with the quest of commercialization of unmanned systems," Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley said. "That's what North Dakota is about. This isn't simply testing an idea. ... It is about commercializing and utilizing unmanned air systems for the improvement of life here on this planet. And that's real."

The first use of the runway by a tenant is expected later this year, Grand Sky officials said in a news release. The honor will likely go to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., which is building a temporary hangar on the park site until its training facility is completed later this year.

Partnering up

Wednesday's signing is another key piece of the partnership between Grand Forks Air Force Base and the county -- one state leaders want to continue to see develop.

"We want to have research and development, we want partnerships, we want to have the latest and greatest technology. ... We want to develop concurrent airspace for manned and unmanned aircraft," Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said of Grand Sky. "We want to do all of those things so this is a resource and a tool that the Air Force can't do without."

The joint-use agreement between the two public entities is for 50 years, the same term as the county's rental agreement with the Air Force for the 217 acres of base land leased for Grand Sky. The county in turn subleases the land to Grand Sky Development Co., which is responsible for constructing the park.

The joint-use agreement can be renegotiated every five years and stands in the event of a new developer coming in on the project.

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More than two hours before the signing at the base, the Grand Forks County Commission met to approve the agreement before authorizing Falck to sign the document on the county's behalf. "There will be no cost to the county," Tom Ford, coordinator of the Base Realignment Committee, told the commission at the meeting. "Any cost to use the runway will be picked up by the developer, Grand Sky, who has also been involved in these negotiations as well."

Ford and county representatives had been meeting weekly to negotiate the terms of the agreement with the Air Force for more than a year.

Park progress

The joint-use agreement signing comes just more than a year after the official Grand Sky lease signing between the base, county and park developer.

Construction began last summer on the park, and several buildings are expected to be completed this summer. Two major tenants and manufacturers of unmanned aircraft, Northrop Grumman Corp. and General Atomics, both held groundbreaking ceremonies last fall at the park.

Both are behind large unmanned aircraft used by the military for surveillance. Aircraft manufactured by both companies are stationed on the base and require a runway for take off.

"Large UAS offer a multitude of capabilities that can't be matched by small UAS in terms of flight duration, range, payload capacity and payload types," Grand Sky Development Co. President Thomas Swoyer Jr. said. "Additionally, the Grand Forks joint-use agreement allows use of the runway for training purposes, which will allow our tenants the ability to offer in-demand UAS pilot training and help supply the industry with a needed workforce."

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In all, project officials estimated the park will produce 3,000 jobs when completed, including onsite positions, jobs in surrounding communities and some outside the state.

The park is part of an overall state effort to establish an unmanned aircraft hub in Grand Forks. "This is a historic day not only for our region of the country but also for the Air Force," Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said. "I don't think we should let this pass without saying the work isn't done."

State officials have said North Dakota will continue to invest in the industry. About $35.1 million in state money has been allocated to developing the industry, including dollars for research grants and operating the Northern Plains UAS Test Site in Grand Forks, which is charged with researching the integration of unmanned aircraft into commercial airspace.

Grandy Sky also has been the recipient of state funding, which was released upon the park hitting certain milestones, including locking in an anchor tenant.

Related Topics: GRAND FORKS COUNTY
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