By Duwayne Escobedo
One that didn't get away
- VT MAE considered other sites in addition to Pensacola airport
- New $37 million project increases company's Gulf Coast footprint
- Payroll for 300 workers will top $12 million a year
When an aerospace company that's had an operation in this region for 23 years decided it needed to expand, it could have looked anywhere. But it focused on this region, an affirmation of the value of doing business here.
VT Mobile Aerospace Engineering, previously called ST Aerospace Mobile, scoured South Mississippi, South Alabama and Northwest Florida to find a location for an additional facility to repair large aircraft. In the end, it decided on Pensacola.
The company will have two hangars. It's a significant increase for the company, which has ten hangars 60 miles away from Pensacola at the Mobile Aeroplex.
Scott Luth said Pensacola economic development officials knew VT MAE was looking and talking to others within a 100 mile radius from its base in Mobile. The Greater Pensacola Chamber senior vice president of economic development and others were determined to land the aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) company.
Luth sees VT MAE as the first of many aviation-related companies that will bring good-paying, high-skilled jobs to Northwest Florida over the next decade.
"The entire process they were looking at other airports and facilities," Luth said. "This is a great success. It definitely helps to go through a couple year selection process and successfully get the investment and get the commitment. We realize it's a long-term strategy and not going to happen over night."
VT MAE is a subsidiary of Singapore-based ST Engineering, which reported revenue of $6.63 billion in 2013. It agreed in September to establish a facility at Pensacola International Airport Commerce Park after two years of negotiations with the city.
The agreement with VT MAE to provide MRO services for commercial airlines and air freight operators was celebratedSept. 9 when Pensacola city council members unanimously approved the 30-year airport lease.
Sen. Don Gaetz, the Florida Senate President, said it was a "great day" and attended the event at City Hall in Pensacola. "This may be the biggest day for economic development cooperation in the history of the city of Pensacola," he said.
"Today's about taking action on our city's promise and potential," said Mayor Ashton Hayward. "This lease not only establishes a partnership with one of the largest MRO providers in the world, but also gives Pensacola a clear foothold into the aviation and aerospace industries."
VT MAE is expected to create at least 300 jobs when operations at the 18.68-acre site begin in mid-2016 at facilities capable of housing two wide-body aircraft at once. The design and layout of those facilities is expected to wrap up at the beginning of 2015 with construction to begin soon after.
Federal, state and local sources of funding combined to help with the $37.3 million price of the project. The incentives include $18.6 million from the state, including $11.6 million from the Florida Department of Transportation and another $7 million from British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon oil spill funds. In addition, Pensacola chipped in $8 million and another $3.2 million came from an Escambia County sales tax fund. In exchange, VT MAE pays $243,000 a year in lease fees. Its annual payroll is expected to average $41,000 per employee and top more than $12 million total, 50 percent more than the city's incentive share.
Plus, the aviation company is projected to pump $61.9 million into the local economy a year, according to the Haas Business Center at the University of West Florida.
VT Systems chairman and CEO John G. Coburn, a retired U.S. Army General, cited Pensacola's location, infrastructure and leadership as the main reason that attracted the company, which has 1,300 workers in a Mobile operation that began in 1991.
"We have played a pioneering role in the development and growth of the aviation industry in the Gulf Coast region in the last two decades and have been looking for a suitable location to expand our presence and service offerings in this region," Coburn said. "We look forward to creating greater value for our customers, and hope to bring many value-added jobs to the people of Pensacola and Escambia County."
Now the work begins to establish the aviation infrastructure and technical workforce VT MAE and other aerospace companies will need, said Brice Harris, West Florida Office of Economic Development and Engagement associate director.
The VT MAE project at the airport establishes the necessary pieces, such as taxi ways, to open up about 100 acres for further development for other interested companies.
"This shows the seriousness of our leadership and support systems to bring such industry here," Harris said. "Once critical infrastructure is in place, it becomes immensely more feasible to expand it."
State, local and economic development officials also promised additional dollars to meet the demands for a skilled aerospace and aviation-related workforce. Plans include creating an Aircraft Maintenance Training Program at George Stone Technical Center and money for other new engineering and aircraft courses, certifications and degrees, such as the airframe and powerplant. Long-range plans by Pensacola State College call for a $26 million STEM Center located at the main campus in Pensacola, with labs located across the street at the city's airport.
Luth said the "most exciting part" of the VT MAE development is ramping up training for future employees. Pensacola officials gave VT MAE executives a tour of NAS Pensacola, the "Cradle of Aviation," to show the area already has a population that is knowledgeable about aerospace.
"We have a lot of workforce development and testing to do to find out what the needs are and what the gaps are, so we can continue to bring these high-skilled jobs to our area," Luth said. "All the colleges, school districts and training centers have stepped up to make sure we have folks that will have the training necessary for jobs that are going to be created."
Harris agreed with Luth that the VT MAE commitment "begins to really establish the workforce pipeline that's necessary for this project and future projects."
Corporate family: VT MAE is part of VT Systems of Alexandria, Va., part of ST Engineering of Singapore.
Local operation: VT MAE
Location: Pensacola International Airport, 2430 Airport Blvd., Pensacola, Fla. 32504
No. of local workers: plans for 300
Focus areas: aircraft maintenance and modification for commercial operators.
Employment: 251-438-8888 (Eventually, a phone number will be set up for Pensacola inquiries by CareerSource EscaRosa.)
Training: George Stone Technical Center at 850-941-6200. Or contact the Aircraft Maintenance Training Program in Mobile, Ala., at 251-370-2833 or 251-438-8648.
Note: VT Systems also owns in this region shipbuilder VT Halter Marine of Pascagoula, Miss.