ALPENA - Even if Alpena County is not granted one of the federal government's Centers of Excellence designation, it doesn't mean Alpena County Regional Airport will not see any type of drone related business. According to Commissioner Cam Habermehl the county was moving forward with trying to lure the unmanned aircraft sector to the airport before it became aware of the designation that if awarded could help land a great deal more business and government money for future projects.
At this time the county, along with about a dozen partners, is creating a special committee that will devise a strategy and proposal to present to the government and hopefully lead to the designation for not only Alpena, but other sectors of the state as well. Habermehl said having partners in line who will share the benefits provided by being designated a Center of Excellence could be key in having a chance of being selected by the government. He said he is sure the federal government would issue the designation where it would have a positive impact on as many people as possible.
"I think without the additional partners we wouldn't get it," Habermehl said. "The government would look at a total of about 30,000 people in a small area and have to compare it to millions of people from some of the alliances other states have formed, so it will probably take a joint effort. I, however, don't think it would have a chance without Alpena."
The government has not issued the request for proposal for the Centers of Excellence and it could be well into next year before a determination is made and the designations announced. In order to have everyone on the same page an 11-person committee is being formed that will include Habermehl, Commissioner Tom Mullaney, a representative from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Michigan Department of Transportation, the governor's office and others. A meeting is taking place Monday to hash out some of the board's goals, as well as structure the committee. Mullaney said Explorer Solutions will be on hand to talk finances.
"We are going to establish the board of directors, the chairman and things like that. The budget will be presented and submitted to the state as to how much money is going to be needed for the project and to have Explorer Solutions be the consultant who works for the state on this," Mullaney said.
Like Habermehl, Mullaney said having partners in place will make a stronger case to getting the certification. He said he went to a conference in Las Vegas that featured aerospace and unmanned aircraft experts from around the world. He said there were groups offering presentations trying to attract attention to why they should be a Center of Excellence.
"Right now we are trying to catch up with the state of Ohio and the state of Indiana, which are our main competition. But they could also become co-members, but that is still to be worked on," Mullaney said. "This is really an important part of the project right now. We need to get this set up with the state and then we can start working on how to write up the proposal."
Both Mullaney and Habermehl reiterated that Alpena has a lot to offer and with the help of its partners, it has as good a chance as any to receive one of the six designations.
"We have more available airspace for this than anybody else east of the Mississippi and our colleges, especially the University of Michigan, are tops in the country in terms of their aeronautics research program. When it comes to unmanned aircraft, it and other colleges that are a part of this are among the best." Mullaney said. "Our facilities and the base and the technology at the base also are positives, especially at Grayling and the (Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center)."
Habermehl said he hopes the Center of Excellence will be awarded to the coalition, but for some reason if is not, the county is still prepared to continue with its original plan, which was to have drone related development at the airport.
"The Center of Excellence would be an addition to the drone project we were working on and it would be a help, but one does not depend on the other," Habermehl said. "The project would still move forward."
Steve Schulwitz can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5689.