New Braunfels company opening nation’s first commercial drone park
The drone park’s 217-acre campus is property leased from the Grand Forks AFB. The site will connect to the base’s runway, which is key, considering the size of some of the drones being developed for use by agencies such as the Defense Department and Department of Homeland Security.
Crews prepare to launch an octocopter as part of a celebratory groundbreaking at Grand Sky, the drone park near Grand Forks, N.D.
North Dakota development Grand Sky, the nation’s first business park for all things drones, has a local connection.
It’s being developed by New Braunfels-based Infinity Development Partners, whose four partners have established a niche doing private sector real estate projects on military bases.
The drone park’s 217-acre campus is property leased from the Grand Forks AFB, an apt site because the base’s current flying mission involves unmanned aircraft on platforms including Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk, which has a 131-foot wingspan.
Northrop Grumman already has signed a 10-year lease, as has General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., which makes the Predator and Gray Eagle and plans to locate its North American training academy there.
The state of North Dakota kicked in $13 million in grants for infrastructure, and there’s been about $35 million in private investment committed so far. Thomas Swoyer, Infinity’s president, estimated that by the time it’s all completed, which could take more than a decade, it will be about a $300 million project.
“We’re permitted to build 1.2 million square feet,” Swoyer said. “That will encompass hangars, offices, shop space, data centers — a number of different uses but all of it focused on or supporting unmanned aircraft, the unmanned aircraft industry.”
The site will connect to the base’s runway, which is key, considering the size of some of the drones being developed for use by agencies such as the Defense Department and Department of Homeland Security. There’s also a tie-in with the University of North Dakota, which offers degrees in unmanned systems. The North Dakota Department of Commerce has one of the Federal Aviation Administration’s six test sites for testing commercial use of drones, as doesTexas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
“A lot of people, when they think of drones, they tend to think of quadcopters that fly on Amazon or maybe think of Amazon delivering packages with small aircraft,” Swoyer said. “There are a lot of drones being used that are very, very, very large, in particular at Grand Forks Air Force Base.”
Swoyer got his start redeveloping military bases in 2000, when he worked forWeston Solutions Inc., a company that partnered with Orion Partners Inc. on the renovation and redevelopment of dilapidated buildings at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston.
The BAMC deal required an enhanced use lease, which allows for private sector investment in unused or underused military properties, so long as the use is compatible with the installation’s mission. It was a first-of-its-kind arrangement that allowed private investment on military property. While it wasn’t the original intention, the military ended up leasing the buildings back because of a post-9/11 mandate to move operations to secure spaces like BAMC.
“I was very much a task member in a much bigger play there,” Swoyer said. “But at any rate it exposed me to that program and kind of gave me an understanding of it and how it could work and how it could be used.”
In 2011, Swoyer and Brad Gerken, a civil engineer and former colleague at Weston, formed Infinity with two other partners who specialized more in financing and deal-making. They decided to make enhanced use leases their specialty.
They connected with Grand Forks County officials at a conference of the Association of Defense Communities and were hired on initially as consultants and then as the developer last year.
The groundbreaking for Grand Sky was in September.
John Schmisek, a former Grand Forks County commissioner, said the Grand Forks people were impressed by Swoyer and what they saw in a tour of the made-over BAMC.
“We became aware of enhanced use leases and we were aware that his company and his group had had some experience with an enhanced use lease with a big project there,” Schmisek said. “We toured it and went through it and all of us kind of went, ‘How are they making this work?’ And yet they were.”
Grand Sky is a major endeavor that in the next 10 to 20 years could bring 2,000 to 3,000 jobs to Grand Forks, a community of about 55,000, Schmisek added.
“That’s significant,” he said. “And they’re high end because they’re in that area of unmanned aviation.”