WALLOPS — The effort to bring a job-creating, multi-billion dollar U.S. Navy unmanned aircraft project to nearby Wallops Island gained momentum last week when Delaware Governor Jack Markel fired off a letter to high-ranking officials urging them to choose the facility just 45 miles from Ocean City.
The U.S. Navy is currently considering three locations for his highly coveted MQ-4C Triton unmanned aerial vehicle program including NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility just south of Assateague and Ocean City along with two other locations in Florida. The Navy is expected to announce its decision later this summer.
Gaining the Triton program at Wallops could provide a major economic boost to the area specifically and the Delmarva Peninsula in general. Triton, a $14 billion program, is projected to have a 20-year life cycle for the Navy at its new home, bringing with it an estimated 400 new high-paying, high tech jobs. Studies indicate bringing more jobs to Wallops would have an aggregate economic impact of roughly $400 million.
For years, regional officials have lamented the fact many of the area’s brightest and best leave the Eastern Shore because of the lack of meaningful, high-paying jobs, but that trend has reversed somewhat in recent years with the growth of NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility. For example, roughly half of Wallops Island’s current employees live in Worcester County and that number is growing.
Having the Triton program at Wallops could grow those employment numbers exponentially with as many as 400 new employees added, all of whom would be buying homes, raising families, shopping and supporting area businesses in the region. With two sites in Florida also under consideration, Delmarva officials have launched a three-state partnership to help urge the Navy to choose Wallops for the Triton program.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe have already sent letters to high-ranking Navy officials urging them to choose Wallops, and the Worcester County Commissioners earlier this month formally issued its formal endorsement. Last week, Markel joined the fray, sending a letter to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson urging them to consider Wallops for the Triton project.
Maryland State Senator Jim Mathias had secured the meetings with Markel and coordinated the First State’s entry into the Triton sweepstakes with Peter Bale, chairman of the Wallops Island Regional Alliance. Mathias said with Delaware now on board, a strong case for gaining the Triton program at Wallops has been made.
“This is a tangible demonstration of the Delmarva alliance that we talk about so much on paper with one common goal,” he said. “This is evidence of Delmarva working together.”
Mathias said bringing the jobs associated with the Triton project to the shore would improve the region’s ability to retain its brightest and best.
“We need the Eastern Shore to be the epicenter for these tech jobs,” he said. “We have a proud tradition on the shore that our kids group up to be bright and productive members of our community from farmers to firefighters. Now let’s talk about adding ‘rocket scientists’ to that list.”
In his letter, Markel wrote, “I wanted to reach out and offer my support for the selection of the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia as the east coast Forward Operating Base for MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft. I believe Wallops will provide an ideal home for these revolutionary new aircraft.”
Markel agreed the partnerships between the three states on Delmarva along with other local jurisdictions could carry significant weight in the Navy’s final decision.
“I have always believed that successful economic development takes partnerships and cooperation,” the letter reads. “In the modern economy world, regional strategies are one of the best ways to compete on a global scale. This project offers an opportunity not just for Wallops or the state of Virginia, but for the Delmarva region more broadly.”
In the letter, Markel told Pentagon officials Delaware specifically and the region in general already has a highly skilled workforce available to support the Triton project at Wallops.
“Delaware and the peninsula as a whole offers a unique opportunity to this project that the Navy should consider as it evaluates its options for a future site for the Triton aircraft,” the letter reads. “The close proximity of the project to our state means that you would be able to draw upon our top quality workforce in order to meet your staffing needs for the project. The University of Delaware is renowned for its mechanical engineering program, and Delaware State University has an aviation program that ranks as one of the finest in the country.”