Local officials still hopeful despite setback

ALPENA – Word spread quickly in Alpena Monday morning after the Federal Aviation Administration announced its decision of which states will be declared a center of excellence for unmanned aircraft research, testing and development and that Alpena County and Michigan were excluded. Most were disappointed, but many also were hopeful drone business still could become a reality in the area.

Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce Director of Economic Development Jim Klarich, who has been involved in the process with the Michigan Advanced Aerial Systems Consortium, said he was surprised by some of the locations that were chosen over the proposed sites in Michigan. He said the FAA’s decision doesn’t diminish the possibility of future growth in Alpena in the blossoming unmanned aircraft industry.

“We believe the assets we have here in Alpena will speak loudly to the appropriate audience in the industry,” Klarich said. “We still have tremendous support from the Air National Guard and the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center and it lends to our ability to do unmanned or manned development. I feel our site is second to none, at least east of the Mississippi. We think that will be very marketable to the private sector.”

CRTC Base Commander Col. Bryan Teff said it is disappointing the center of excellence request was denied. He said the base is ready to move forward, and expects MIAASC and Alpena County will as well.

“From a military standpoint the base will be moving forward with its unmanned aircraft initiatives,” Teff said. “Overall I think Alpena is going to have other opportunities. We just might need to look at some other strategies, but I think we will still be able to find success in this if we keep continuing to push forward.”

Alpena Planning and Development Director Adam Poll hasn’t been involved in the project because he has been in his position for the city for only a brief period of time. He said he has been brought up to speed on the issue of unmanned aircraft development in Alpena and he thinks efforts to move beyond the FAA selection must be made.

“It could have brought a great deal of investment into the city, but I’m still optimistic about the industry in Alpena and the higher paying jobs it could provide to the area,” Poll said. “We still have all of the attributes and that should make us very attractive.”

Some of the attributes that made the consortium proposal seem like a slam dunk to be accepted was the state has a variety of weather conditions to fly the drones, the proposed sites also has the largest restricted airspace east of the Mississippi River and much of the testing could take place over water or in low populated areas. The proximity of the military bases in Alpena and Grayling and access to international boarders also seemed like assets that could separate the proposal from the rest.

Chamber Executive Director Jackie Krawczak said she is disappointed in the decision, but expects the local business leaders and governing bodies to keep pushing ahead.

“There is still a great deal of potential and I think the people in the Alpena community are confident we have the ability to do this,” Krawczak said. “Alpena has outstanding resources for that particular industry.”

There were more than 50 proposals submitted to the FAA for one of the test sites and the MIAASC proposal made the first and only cut to the final 24. Alaska/Hawaii/Oregon, North Dakota, New York, Nevada, Texas, as well as a partnership effort between Virginia and New Jersey were the FAA’s choices for the research facilities.

Steve Schulwitz can be reached via email at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5689. Follow Steve on Twitter ss_alpenanews. Read his blog, Upon Further Review … at www.thealpenanews.com