It’s no secret that the aviation industry is experiencing significant shifts and growing pains. Demand for pilots, mechanics and maintenance technicians are at all-time highs while the industry continues to face workforce shortages and personnel retirements. Despite these challenges, the industry isn’t slowing down anytime soon, which is why those who are working to build aerospace clusters, address workforce challenges, foster collaborations and incentivize new projects are so crucial to the health of the industry and the advancement of their local communities. It is with such demand in mind that we are thrilled to move forward with the development of the Mid-Atlantic Opportunity Park — a groundbreaking expansion spanning nearly 130 acres across the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport (JST).
A collaboration of partners with the shared goal of building up western Pennsylvania’s aviation industry and assets is leading to transformative change and innovation in warp-speed time. Centered around a planned aviation maintenance and service hub, the Mid-Atlantic Opportunity Park is an example of leaders coming together to meet industry needs head-on. By advancing aviation training programs, offering unmatched incentives and creating an ecosystem for success, we are establishing an ideal scenario for aerospace companies seeking growth while fostering progress for both the region and industry.
At the core of the Opportunity Park will be a state-of-the-art, 100,000-square-foot Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility with direct access to a 7,000-foot runway. This facility will significantly enhance the airport’s capabilities, serving as a regional hub for routine repairs, servicing and inspections of aircraft, including narrow body airline, military and corporate aircraft. We are actively pursuing an MRO operator to anchor this facility which will be supported by avionics parts suppliers, as well as distribution and training facilities.
When the Opportunity Park opens in 2024, this venture will not only create hundreds of high-wage jobs, but also stimulate the growth of the aviation/aerospace industry in western Pennsylvania to effectively meet escalating demand. To ensure success, we are working on aviation curriculum that will be infused into regional high schools; have secured a Keystone Opportunity Zone (KOZ) designation committed to offering competitive business incentives; are developing a commercially viable, first-of-its-kind UAS ecosystem, and much more. All of these pieces meshed together mean one thing: this region is the place to be for MROs and new aviation businesses that want to expand, meet their needs and have the long-term systems and support in place to do just that.
Strengthening the Workforce Pipeline
One of Pennsylvania’s greatest strengths lies in its highly skilled and diverse workforce. From top-ranked state colleges and universities to aviation and technical schools, the Laurel Highlands region of western Pennsylvania is surrounded by top-notch talent — with new industry-focused programs and partnerships being established all the time.
Our aviation ecosystem is only as strong as the workforce that supports it, which is why I’m excited about the new initiatives in our region that are gaining momentum and drawing attention from the industry.
In 2022, Saint Francis University (SFU) expanded its existing relationship with Nulton Aviation Flight Academy to provide students access to SkyWest Airline’s Elite Pilot Pathway and Aviation Maintenance Training Pathway programs. SFU received a $1 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to establish an Aviation Maintenance Technician School, and SkyWest even donated a decommissioned CRJ200 aircraft to SFU last year, offering aspiring aviation mechanics real-world, hands-on experience.
We’re also excited to be taking our aviation training and workforce development into high school classrooms. Work is well underway to integrate aviation curriculum into regional public high schools starting as early as this fall.
Furthermore, it’s well known that some of the nation’s leading aviation education and training establishments are located here, including the Aviation Institute of Maintenance, Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics, and Pennsylvania College of Technology. In addition to these world-class institutions, the area boasts over 212,140 students enrolled in higher education, with Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Saint Francis University, the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University serving as educational pillars.
Our workforce pipeline is strong and growing. Our partners are dedicated to nurturing the workforce that’s needed now and well into the future, and we are ensuring that western Pennsylvania is one of the most attractive destinations in the country for the aviation industry for generations to come.
Fostering the Ecosystem With Support From Forward-Looking Leaders
As an entrepreneur, I’ve had the privilege of working in other states and have partnered with many business leaders who have worked in other parts of the country, as well, and I can tell you with certainty that the business, academia and government leaders here in the Keystone State are unlike any other. Their can-do attitude, collaborative spirit and positive pro-business mindset are unprecedented and directly contribute to economic development success.
One such partnership is Aerium, a new nonprofit launched in 2022 by numerous partners, dedicated to creating education and career opportunities in the aviation industry. Like the Opportunity Park, Aerium has garnered substantial state and local support, receiving over $13 million in funding over just a few years. As the chair of Aerium, I can confidently say that we envision it playing a critical role in the development and expansion of our region’s aviation industry and workforce, including that of the Mid-Atlantic Opportunity Park, for decades to come.
In addition to the partnerships between Aerium, SFU, Nulton Aviation, SkyWest and others, our initiatives have garnered immense support from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the airport authority, federal, state and local leaders, and many more. This collective effort has enabled the Opportunity Park to secure a Keystone Opportunity Zone designation — one of the nation’s boldest and most generous economic development programs — that offers tax abatements, exemptions, reductions and credits to businesses that choose to establish themselves within the zone. Moreover, most business purchases within the zone will be exempt from state and local sales tax for property used in operations.
We also look forward to the strong potential of the region to be a leader in the UAS sector. With the Pennsylvania Drone Association as a key partner, we are working to incorporate a commercially viable UAS ecosystem within the Opportunity Park — with the vision to offer rapid-response drone medical deliveries, beyond visual line of sight operations (BVLOS), provide collaborative opportunities with our defense sector partners and support local UAS business operations — making this region a first-of-its-kind in the space.
None of these achievements would be possible without the engagement of our key partners. Federal, state and local leaders have joined forces to make our region one of the most attractive destinations in the country for the aviation industry. Pennsylvania State Senator Wayne Langerholc (chair of Transportation), U.S. Congressman John Joyce, U.S. Congressman Glenn “GT” Thompson, Pennsylvania State Representatives Jim Rigby and Frank Burns, members from the Cambria County Board of Commissioners, and others have all actively worked to bring the Opportunity Park to life by supporting our many industry initiatives.
I think Senator Langerholc summed up the state’s support best when he said that this park has the opportunity to be a “real game changer” and that “we have advocated across many levels — local, state and federal — to get the necessary dollars here and help fund this great project.”
As a passionate advocate for the aviation community in western Pennsylvania, I’m thrilled to witness the remarkable progress made by these strong public-private partnerships to expand and advance the aviation ecosystem in the region and directly meet industry needs. From breaking ground on the Mid-Atlantic Opportunity Park to strengthening our workforce pipeline and paving the way for industry growth, numerous partners are working hand-in-hand to transform and evolve the industry.
Anticipated to open in 2024, the Mid-Atlantic Opportunity Park offers build-to-suit leases in an ideal location for companies seeking access to a highly mobile population and a region with a growing industrial base. Situated in the heart of the northeastern United States, it provides direct access to prominent metropolitan clusters such as New York, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, D.C. This advantageous proximity allows companies to tap into large customer bases, establish robust supply chains, and facilitate seamless transportation of goods and personnel.
Pennsylvania’s rich aviation heritage, demonstrated by its commitment to aerospace innovation and industry, further enhances its appeal. The region is home to renowned institutions like NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, while industry giants such as Lockheed Martin and Martin-Baker have chosen it as one of their bases of operations. This legacy fosters a culture of excellence, attracts top talent, and creates a collaborative ecosystem for the growth and development of new aviation technologies.
The surrounding Cambria County communities also offer an outstanding and affordable quality of life, with the added advantage of being a short drive from the metropolitan assets of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Nestled in the scenic Laurel Highlands of western Pennsylvania, the region boasts a vibrant history in the steel industry and a wide range of historical, cultural and recreational offerings. The area’s economy has also experienced significant expansion in health care, technology and finance, providing ample opportunities for both residents and businesses to grow.
With its close proximity to John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport, the Opportunity Park benefits from the support and services of Cambrian Hills Development Group-affiliated fixed base operator Nulton Aviation Services, while the airport itself is equipped with a direct-access, concrete-reinforced, 7,000-foot-long, 150-foot-wide runway.
By continuing to develop and support the Mid-Atlantic Opportunity Park, and by encouraging new business to locate to the Keystone State, we can harness Pennsylvania’s great potential to create job opportunities, attract industry players and drive economic growth. Through our collective efforts and the establishment of a robust aviation/aerospace ecosystem, western Pennsylvania is on track to emerge as a greater hub for the aviation and aerospace industries.
For more information about the Mid-Atlantic Opportunity Park, visit theopportunitypark.com.
About Dr. Larry Nulton:
An aviation entrepreneur and member of the Pennsylvania Transportation Advisory Committee, Dr. Larry Nulton graduated from Penn State University before earning his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Bowling Green State University. Today, Dr. Nulton is the co-owner of Nulton Aviation Services, chair of his new nonprofit, Aerium, and CEO of Cambrian Hills Development Group, the organization responsible for the development of the new Mid-Atlantic Opportunity Park.