Alpena doesn’t receive designation
Despite its effort and the many qualifying components its proposal offered the Michigan Advanced Aerial System Consortium’s attempt to have the state become a center of excellence for unmanned aircraft testing was denied by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The FAA held a press conference on Monday morning and when the names of the selected sites were announced the consortium, which includes Alpena, was not among the winners.
New York; a coalition of Alaska, Hawaii and Oregon; Nevada; North Dakota; Texas; and Virginia/New Jersey were granted the designation for unmanned aircraft testing, training and development. The test sites will be used to help prepare private and public entities, as well as the FAA for increased drone use in the United States in coming years.
The saga in Michigan began in Alpena County two years ago when the board of commissioners spent almost $179,000 to hire a consulting company, Explorer Solutions, to find a commercial use for the property the county owns at the airport. It was determined the unmanned aircraft business was a nitch that could lead to development.
While in the process of building relationships and exploring partnerships the federal government announced its intentions for the six test sites and MIAASC was formed to pursue one of the centers of excellence.
Although disappointed, Commissioner Cam Habermehl said the plan is to move forward with Explorer Solutions on attracting companies to test in Alpena.
“I’m disappointed, but I don’t feel defeated,” Habermehl said. “We are still going to move ahead. We still have our project and we still have businesses interested in coming here. I don’t think this is going to change that. It would have been a benefit to have it, but we can still move ahead without it.”
MIAASC Chairman Rick Carlson said in an email to the county that the group must not be discouraged by the news, but continue to work to promote the services it can provide for the unmanned aircraft industry.
“Unfortunately we are not one of the six, but the FAA decision should not end our efforts to encourage unmanned aircraft systems activity in Michigan,” Carlson said. “We will organize a teleconference for the board in January to discuss how we move forward.”
Commissioner Tom Mullaney, who is the vice chair on the MIAASC board, said he believes there was a lot of political jockeying by the states and the federal government. He said he figured Nevada would get a site due to the fact that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid represents the state and pulls a lot of weight in Washington.
Mullaney said Virginia made sense for selection because many members of congress live there while working in Washington. Mullaney said New York had the support of Hillary Clinton, who could be a Democratic presidential candidate in 2016, which could have helped land one of the designations. Mullaney said some states spent a great deal of money to lobby consideration and may have benefited from it in the end, as well.
He said looking back there were some steps that could have been taken to improve the MIAASC’s chances. Mullaney said he is also disappointed the effort was reported on by the state’s media very little outside of Alpena.
“It appears the Midwest was totally disregarded and Michigan takes another hit,” Mullaney said. “It seems like we don’t get a lot of respect in D.C. I think we could have done a few things differently. Some states had a department set up for just this. We did our news releases, but they never made it out of Northeast Michigan. We couldn’t get writeups in the Detroit or Lansing papers. That didn’t help promote us at all.”
Commissioner Lyle VanWormer said the plans made for the airport have not changed. He said the county intends to continue to focus on the original project which is now a touch behind schedule due to the focus on the center of excellence.
“I feel we took a step back instead of moving forward because of the center of excellence,” VanWormer said. “We were working on our plan for 18 months before the FAA even announced its intention. We were moving forward and it kind of slowed us down. We still have everything that made us appealing before and we are still in a good spot. We’ll continue on with Explorer Solutions from where we stopped to go for the center.”