DULUTH, Minn. — Like many small to midsize cities, Duluth was hit hard by the economic downturn, but folks in the Twin Ports are looking ahead to new economic prosperity. Some say it’s in the air. That’s because the Twin Ports is experiencing a job growth boom in its aviation sector.
While big ships and iconic bridges capture the attention of tourists, airplanes are a growing part of the Twin Ports’ storied transportation history. And over the last several months, that history has provided the perfect economic jolt for the Northland.
More than 200 airplane mechanics are now working at what was once the Northwest Airlines maintenance facility. They work for AAR Aircraft Services, a Chicago-based company that does maintenance on commercial airliners. Dozens more jobs need to be filled there.
Duluth-based small airplane manufacturer Cirrus Design is hiring again, another 100 people or so over the next year as it gets ready to launch its new jet project.
Startup airplane builder in Superior, Kestrel, will be hiring about 600 people over the next few years as it starts to manufacture its small airplane.
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“I have been doing this for 30 years so yah, I am an airplane guy,” says Danny Martinez who is Vice President of Technical Services with AAR.
After sitting almost empty since Northwest Airlines went bankrupt in 2005, AAR has brought life and jobs back to the old Northwest maintenance base. The city of Duluth owns the facility and when Northwest wasn’t using it anymore, had to pour about a hundred thousand dollars into it every year, just to keep up the building.
“One of the things the city did which was smart was to keep the building alive,” says Martinez.
The company worked out a deal with Duluth to lease the facility, hiring 230 people since last fall. And more new jobs are on the horizon. Many working there today are former Northwest mechanics who lost their jobs during hard times in the industry and a strike.
“Like a lot of us just went different ways but I am glad to be back up here,” says Lead Inspector Steve Klicka.
“This is home so for me so you really can’t beat it,” says Lead mechanic Dan Hamilton.
Duluth Mayor Don Ness helped bring AAR to Duluth at a time when other cities were vying for the business.
“We won the competition based on the quality of the facility as well as the availability of the quality workforce,” says Ness. “Duluth is becoming a premiere aviation town.”
AAR is now servicing Air Canada jets in the hangar, which is located at the Duluth International Airport. The building was originally built for $52 million to specifically service Northwest’s Airbus aircraft.
The maintenance base, combined with the rebounding of Duluth-based aircraft maker Cirrus and upstart airplane maker Kestrel in Superior are expected to account for 1,500 aviation-related jobs in the Twin Ports over the next five years.
Cirrus, known for its parachute planes, hit very tough times during the recession as demand dropped dramatically. Hundreds of people were laid off.
“Airplanes are very useful things. They’re very enjoyable things but they can tend to be one of the first things to go on the shopping list,” says Cirrus President Patrick Waddick.
Today, Cirrus is hiring again as it works on its next big project, a small jet airplane due out in 2015.
“Started building a first airplane while I was in college,” says Cirrus founder Alan Klapmeier, who left Cirrus after not seeing eye to eye with Cirrus’ new owners. Klapmeier is now leading a new venture designing another aircraft – the Kestrel turboprop, targeting corporate flyers.
The design is now undergoing the long FAA certification process. It will be manufactured in Superior with the first airplane delivery by 2016.
“The need for personal transportation is only going to grow and the technology has been matching that. We can do it better than we did in the past. Better performance, easier operation, safer,” says Klapmeier.
Along with those bigger aviation companies the industry is growing in other ways. Duluth’s new terminal building opened earlier this year and several other smaller aircraft service businesses as well as parts suppliers are also located in and around Duluth.
“We have the potential to really be nationally known as an aviation hub,” says Don Monaco who is president of the Duluth Economic Development Authority and is well-known in Minnesota’s aviation community. He is also a business owner and member of the Metropolitan Airports Commission. While turbulent times are always possible for the aviation industry, for now, the skies are clear, with new jobs arriving in the Twin Ports right on time.
“We have established some roots as an aviation industry hub because companies are here and once you have established those roots and established a reputation of having both businesses and jobs and having a nice place to live it starts building on itself and that’s what’s happening,” says Monaco.
This story was produced in collaboration with Minnesota Public Radio News. You can read more on Trisha Volpe’s blog at mprnews.org.