NASA Plum Brook seen as engine that could rev up Erie County's economic fortunes

Erie County officials gazing at NASA Plum Brook Station's lightly-occupied 6,500 acres see the space agency's land as a launching pa
Tom Jackson
May 24, 2010


Erie County officials gazing at NASA Plum Brook Station's lightly-occupied 6,500 acres see the space agency's land as a launching pad for economic development in Erie County.

A new study commissioned by the Erie County Economic Development Corp., notes Plum Brook can be used to help generate private sector jobs that pay well.

"If capitalized upon properly, Plum Brook Station can stimulate private sector investment and facilitate the growth of an aerospace cluster in Erie County that will in turn support the growth of high-tech industries generally," the report said.

The report pointed to two NASA installations, the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, that each support thousands of jobs.

Erie County's commissioners didn't wait for the report to come out to begin work on projects designed to bring out Plum Brook's potential.

They have worked for months to get a proposed new airport at Plum Brook off the ground. The airport would serve the NASA facility and Erie County as a new general aviation airport. Commissioners have been talking with officials from the Federal Aviation Administration, trying to find out if it would be possible to obtain FAA grants to cover most of the cost of construction.

Retired Brig. Gen. David Stringer, director of the Plum Brook management office, explains that Plum Brook needs a runway large enough to accommodate the world's biggest transport aircraft, such as the C-5.

Companies that build satellites and other spacecraft don't want their expensive equipment bouncing on trucks on highways. They like to fly the equipment in whenever possible, so building a runway would help Plum Brook attract more equipment tests, he said.

NASA would only need the runway 20 times a year or so, but a runway big enough for large NASA transports also could serve charter flights carrying people to Kalahari and Cedar Point, air transport companies rushing shipments to and from the Ohio Turnpike, and corporate jets serving facilities such as Sawmill Resort, Stringer argues.

Commissioners also recently announced plans to open a new high technology business park on Huron-Avery Road, just east of U.S. 250. The property, which will serve as the site for the new county municipal court building, would provide easy access to U.S. 250 and Plum Brook.

Plum Brook has about 280 federal and private sector employees, including about 100 who are working to dismantle and clean up the site of a nuclear reactor shut down in 1972. NASA has announced major plans to develop Plum Brook's testing facilities for Project Constellation, NASA's effort to return astronauts to the Moon and eventually send them to Mars.

During a September press conference, NASA officials announced a 20-year master plan for development of Plum Brook and NASA Glenn Research Center. The plan includes assigning space for a new airport.

The Plum Brook plans also call for modifying the Space Power Facility to improve its ability to test spacecraft that will be used for Project Constellation, building an office and industrial park to provide space for aerospace companies serving Plum Brook, building a new entrance to Plum Brook providing access via Scheid Road off of U.S. 250, and installing a space-themed tourist attraction.

The new industrial park could attract companies working on fuel cell, solar cell and wind turbine projects, the report suggests.

Some of the work has already begun.

The Space Power Facility already features the world's largest thermal vacuum chamber, a giant cylinder 100 feet in diameter and 122 feet tall. It allows NASA to test spacecraft in an environment that mimics the temperature extremes and other properties of space.

Construction already has begun on a $51.4 million contract to augment the Space Power Facility by adding an area to perform noise and vibration tests, replicating the rattle and noise that takes place when space vehicles are blasted into orbit.