A decision by Boeing to build a second assembly line in Charleston for its 787 Dreamliner aircraft would be an economic game changer for the state on the same level as BMW's decision to locate in Greenville 17 years ago, according to the head of the state's largest manufacturing association.
Not only do estimates peg the potential new jobs in the region between 900 and 1,200, but the massive new facility would dramatically recast South Carolina's role in the aeronautic industry — transforming the local air industry from a minor component of the local defense industry into a major player in civilian aviation.
"To put it simply, it would be huge," says Lewis Gossett, president and CEO of the S.C. Manufacturers Alliance.
"First, because of the sheer number of jobs, then because of its impact on suppliers who are already here, and finally because of all the companies that would be drawn here in its wake," he says. "Like BMW, its impact would extend across the state."
The automaker has pumped more than $8.8 billion into the state's economy, leading to the creation of 4.3 additional jobs across the state for every one created at the factory, according to a 2008 study by the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina.
"What's more, you're talking about a company that's a good employer, pays good wages, and is a good corporate citizen ... the kind of company you'd want to have a presence in your community," Gossett says.
Boeing executives will decide by year's end whether Charleston or Everett, Wash., will be the site of its second 787 production line.
The company has had a presence in the Lowcountry for nearly a decade thanks to the engineering, support, and maintenance services it provides to the U.S. Air Force's C-17 program. Boeing made big headlines earlier this year when it bought the Charleston fuselage plant of former supplier Vought Aircraft Industries for $1 billion. In total, the company currently employs 850 locals.
Though spokeswoman Candy Eslinger acknowledged Boeing has applied for building permits from the City of North Charleston, she continued to maintain the move was simply "a procedural step" and repeatedly asserted that no final decision has been made regarding the site of the new assembly line.
"As time goes on, if this were to move forward, we would be asking for a number of permits from a variety of agencies," she says.
The current permit application, which was filed in August, would allow for clearing an estimated 82 acres lying between the current Global Aeronautical building and South Aviation Way as early as Nov. 2. That would make way for construction of a 720,000-square-foot building on the campus, as well as taxiways linking the facility to Charleston International Airport. Additional permits would be needed to build the facility and infrastructure.
Charleston's chances appeared to get a boost in late September when Washington state Gov. Chris Gregoire presented a white paper to Jim Albaugh, the new head of Boeing's Commercial Airplane Group, that laid out a business case for the firm locating its second assembly line in Washington, but included no significant incentives for the company.
South Carolina officials are absolutely salivating over the prospect of landing the facility.
"What we're talking about is a world-class company, and the kind of investment that... well, that's well worth every effort to make it happen," Gossett says.
It's no secret that over the past several years South Carolina manufacturers have suffered, having traditionally relied on the health of the auto, home building, and commercial construction industries.
"Now, there have been rays of sunshine more recently, with some plants reopening and people called back to work, but we haven't had the kind of development that really revs a state's economic engine," Gossett says. "This Boeing facility is exactly the kind of project we need to get moving again and to further our longstanding efforts to create a strong and diverse manufacturing economy.
"This is the kind of project we should pull out all the stops for... the kind of project that will lead us out of this recession and form the foundation of a strong economy and a strong tax base," Gossett added.
Charleston no stranger to aerocluster efforts
The cornerstone of economic development efforts in the tri-county region is the Forward Charleston report, which was delivered by Angelou Economics in April 2005. Since then, a number of local entities have participated in the initiative intended to bolster the fortunes of aerospace and aviation companies here.
With the announcement by Vought and Alenia Aeronautics to locate in the Charleston area in late 2004, the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, the state Department of Commerce, and other regional economic development allies worked to capitalize on the news. Representatives attended the Paris Air Show in 2005, the Farnborough Air Show in the United Kingdom in 2006, and the Paris Air Show in 2007 to meet key industry executives and promote the Charleston region's assets. Also in association with state and regional allies, the development authority attended the National Business Aviation Association show, focused on light jet manufacturing, in 2008.
The Charleston Metro Chamber has also been engaged in the effort on numerous fronts, including support for the extension of runways at Charleston International Airport to enhance future development in aerospace and aviation and work through The Education Foundation to link public education programs to specific industries, including aviation.
Meanwhile, Trident Technical College has worked closely with senior executives and instructors at Vought, Alenia, and now Boeing to develop customized aerospace and aviation programs which have received high marks from company officials.
Project leader Mary Thornley noted recently that enrollment was up approximately 20 percent and that their aeronautical studies classes were at capacity.
The Lowcountry's Aerospace Industry
AAI Services Corporation, aaicorp.com — Software/hardware design and production; flight simulators
Boeing, boeing.com — 787 Dreamliner manufacturing; aircraft maintenance/ repair/ support at Charleston Air Force Base
Eaton Corporation Aerospace Operations, eaton.com — Machined components for aerospace industry
Evergreen International Aviation, evergreenaviation.com/index.html — Operates Boeing Dreamlifter (specially modified 747 large cargo freighter) in support of Boeing 787 manufacturing
Global Aeronautica, globalaero.us — Assembly, integration, systems testing for 50 percent of Boeing 787 Dreamliner fuselage
Parker Hannifin, parker.com — Manufacturing fluid pumps for gas turbine fuel systems
Rotomotion, rotomotion.com — Design, manufacturing aerial robotics
SKF Aero Bearing Service Center, skf.com — Aircraft engine bearing inspection, remanufacturing
Venture Aerobearings, ventureaerobearings.com — Jet engine bearings manufacturing refurbishment (joint venture SKF and GE Aviation)
2AM Group, 2amgroup.com — Engineering, technical logistics, quality management in automotive, aerospace, and marine applications
Brackett and Cochran Manufacturing, mfgbybcm.com — Precision fabrication, integration, subassembly, welding and powder-coating; flight simulator parts; MRAP parts
Carolina Equipment and Supply, blastandpaint.com — Manufacturing, distribution of high pressure cleaning machines used for repainting/ degreasing aircraft
Coastal Hydraulics, coastalhydraulics.net — Hydraulic and pneumatic systems for industrial equipment
IMR Test Labs Charleston, imrtest.com/index_charleston.html — Engineering, testing, analysis for aerospace, automotive, other industries
Leatherwood Electronics and Manufacturing, leatherwoodmfg.com — Electronics, precision fabrication
Trelleborg Sealing Solutions South, tss.trelleborg.com/us — Wholesale distribution of sealing devices, gaskets
UEC Electronics, uec-electronics.com — Electronics design, assembly
Wesco Aircraft Hardware, wescoair.com — Distribution of aerospace/ aviation products
Source: Center for Business Research, Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, July 2009