Erie County and the surrounding region need to land the NASA Plum Brook airport.
It is a crucial component of the future economic health of the area.
Once NASA Plum Brook was one of the economic stars of the area; today it is mostly empty land surrounded by a cyclone fence that encompasses more than 20 percent of Perkins Township's area and a portion of Oxford Township. Its facilities are underutilized, and ongoing research projects are few.
There has been a lot of talk about building a runway adjacent to Plum Brook -- one that will be two miles long to accommodate large transport airplanes carrying equipment that can be tested at the facility. The testing would enhance Cleveland's Glenn NASA facility in solidifying its part in the development of the Orion spacecraft which will transport astronauts to the moon and beyond.
The "deal or no deal" question is, "How does the community make this happen?"
Greater Erie Marketing can't do it. The organization does not have the sophistication or the expertise to take on a challenge of this magnitude.
The Erie County Chamber of Commerce is a great organization for lending moral support for the project, and if called upon will provide resources to help get it done, but the Chamber can't do it alone.
Perkins Township simply doesn't have the political clout or the human resources to make it a reality.
The Erie County Commissioners are riding the coattails of the $1.5 million grant U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur has secured for a study into the feasibility of building the new runway, but other than working to get surrounding counties to participate in a regional airport, their abilities are limited.
Building a two-mile long runway which would have multiple uses is a bigger project than local officials are capable of accomplishing on their own -- despite the best of intentions.
Several years ago a group of Perkins Township officials called upon U.S. Rep. Paul Gillmor, who represented the area at the time. The group asked Gillmor to help put new life into NASA Plum Brook. And, while he appeared to be attentive during the meeting, for all any of those in attendance knew, he could have been thinking about a hamburger and fries for lunch because he never said another word about the issue and never made any follow-up comments.
At least now Erie County is represented by Kaptur, who has shown a genuine interest in the area and is working to help rejuvenate Plum Brook. But again, she can't do it alone. To get the attention this project needs, she is going to have to refresh Gillmor's memory about that meeting and call upon our U.S. Senators and U.S. Representatives throughout northern Ohio to get the job done. It will require crossing party lines, but NASA Plum Brook is not a political-party issue, and none of these politicians should look at it that way.
What most local people do not realize is that when it comes to this runway and when it comes to NASA Plum Brook, the Greater Cleveland Partnership has adopted the project as "a must have" right along there with Kaptur.
Several months ago the Greater Cleveland Partnership met with local elected officials, representatives from Kaptur's office and local business leaders to discuss the need for the runway. The organization has a vested interest in the Glenn NASA facility and at the same time acknowledges that NASA Plum Brook is a key component in the future success of Glenn's involvement in the Orion project.
The meeting was a general discussion of NASA's future, the importance the Orion project will have for Cleveland and how Erie County can also benefit if all individual groups work together and provide one voice to accomplish the runway goal.
The Greater Cleveland Partnership representatives didn't try to take control of the project. They didn't thump their chests saying they were the ones who were going to get this done. They presented themselves with dignity. They brought with them an "olive branch" and extended an offer to work with NASA and elected officials (on the local, state and national level) to help reach this monumental goal.
They explained to the group that NASA Plum Brook would need the runway no more than 80 times a year to bring in equipment. They acknowledged there is no place else in the world that has the facilities Plum Brook has and that for years those facilities have been underutilized. They also explained that the equipment that could be tested at Plum Brook is so sensitive that transporting it here by rail or the road could damage the equipment before it gets here.
They explained the runway, when it is not being used for transporting equipment to be tested at Plum Brook, could be used as a regional airport that would benefit the tourist industry as well as other industrial concerns in the area.
The presentation made a lot of sense.
Erie County Commissioners said the next step is to meet with Huron County officials to work on developing a regional airport facility that would include the NASA runway. Maybe Ottawa County should be brought into the fold as well and should be given the opportunity to participate.
If not, then it should be full speed ahead for Erie and Huron counties. This is a concept that makes senses for all of us. It's our future -- and our children's future.