Should the city of Pendleton green-light an unmanned aerial systems industrial park at the airport, it will likely have the plans to do it.
At a meeting Tuesday, the Pendleton City Council unanimously approved $597,211 in task orders from engineering firm Murraysmith to complete designs that would extend utilities to a new industrial park north of the airport.
Although the city is capable of paying for the plans by drawing from $24.7 million in water and sewer loans from the state, Mayor John Turner said the city doesn’t have the money to build all the new infrastructure.
By city staff’s estimate, extending water, sewer, electricity, communications and natural gas would cost the city $13.9 million. Building a new airport reservoir and pump station to increase fire flow and meet potential demand would cost an additional $11.5 million.
While a decision to go through with the plans and build the industrial park lies in the council’s future, Steve Chrisman, economic development director and airport manager, said the demand is already there for more than 100 acres of shovel-ready land.
Following two years of “crickets,” Chrisman said the UAS range is now on pace to bring in more than $1 million in revenue for the fiscal year.
Chrisman said “two very large aerospace companies” have already inquired about Pendleton’s plans for a UAS industrial park.
More immediately, a lack of available hangar space means new clients don’t have space to store the aircraft they’re testing. If the Pendleton airport had more hangars, Chrisman said, he could easily bring in three drone companies which would each bring with them 5 to 50 jobs.
Because UAS technology is still relatively new, Chrisman said these companies aren’t willing to invest in new hangars themselves.
While Pendleton is investing a lot of its own money, funding from other government agencies is expected.
Chrisman said the state has tentatively approved a new $300,000 grant to rehabilitate one of its World War II-era hangars for UAS use.
City Manager Robb Corbett said the city is also confident that it will receive $3 million from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to build new hangars, although the grant has not yet been awarded.
Turner reminded Chrisman and the council about some of the responsibilities the UAS revenue would be expected to take on.
With a state grant expiring in July, the airport will have to cover $250,000 in salaries for the range manager and range officer positions.
Even though Chrisman said the city is on track to meet its benchmarks to slash more than $1 million off of a $1.7 million state loan to build new hangars at the airport, the city will still be responsible for paying down the balance of the debt.
Lastly, the airport still owes about $2 million in interfund debt to the city.
Chrisman said UAS range revenues should continue to rise to meet its expenses, but he argued that an “explosive start-up” like the UAS range shouldn’t be saddled with the debt that was accrued across decades in the past.
Beyond the money the UAS range is directly bringing to city coffers, Chrisman said he’s working with Business Oregon to accurately measure the economic impact the range has brought to local businesses in the restaurant, retail and hospitality industries.
Chrisman also said companies like PAE ISR, A^3 (an Airbus subsidiary), and Modern Technology Solutions Inc. aren’t just flying in employees from elsewhere, but also are creating Pendleton-based positions.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “They’re hiring people right here in Pendleton.”
As of Tuesday evening, those three companies were advertising four jobs based in Pendleton.
Chrisman said the UAS range would be a sustainable enterprise for the city, and encouraged the city to think about in terms of decades, not years.
“It’s not going anywhere,” he said.
Contact Antonio Sierra at email@example.com or 541-966-0836.