[Editor's Note: The headline on this story has been changed to reflect the total investment in the project.]
Bell Helicopter’s announcement that it is investing $11.4 million in equipment and tooling as part of a $46 million project at a Lafayette Regional Airport to build its new Short Light Single helicopters comes on the heels of the company’s composite parts and rotoblade repair facility already under construction at LEDA Industrial Park in Broussard.
Speaking at LEDA’s office Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Bobby Jindal and Bell Helicopter CEO John Garrison said Bell and the state have teamed up on the first modern-era aircraft assembly facility in Louisiana.
The project will create at least 115 new direct jobs averaging more than $55,000 per year, plus benefits. Louisiana Economic Development estimates the aerospace project will result in another 136 new, permanent indirect jobs, for a total of more than 250 new jobs in Acadiana.
Garrison, however, made it clear he expects the job numbers to rise. "If we only hire 115 people I'll be incredibly disappointed," he said at the press conference.
Lafayette was selected in a highly competitive, multi-state site-selection process, the Bell executive said, calling Lafayette the "A team" among others vying for the project. He cited the state’s established aerospace industry and workforce training programs as key factors in the decision to expand in Louisiana.
Bell Helicopter’s production of the five-seat, single-engine, turbine helicopter will unveil a contemporary version of the aircraft pioneered by the company more than 50 years ago as the JetRanger. The company produced 7,500 of these, and more than 4,400 are still operating with the average age 32 years, Garrison said.
Officials said the SLS focuses on safety, efficiency and reliability through the use of advanced technology.
Bell announced plans to re-enter the SLS market at the 2013 Paris Air Show in June. The SLS aircraft will feature a load capacity of 1,500 pounds, a speed of 144 mph, and a cruising range of more than 400 miles. The SLS is aimed heavily at the export market, Garrison noted. Target customer segments include utility, law enforcement, civilian flight training and other applications.
LED began discussions with Bell Helicopter about a potential assembly facility in July, following a May visit with company officials in Fort Worth, Texas. LEDA and the Lafayette Airport Commission also played key roles in landing the assembly facility.
To secure the project, the state offered a competitive incentive package that includes performance-based grants of $4 million for lease support, $3.8 million for infrastructure and equipment, and $200,000 to reimburse relocation expenses. Louisiana also will provide its LED FastStart workforce development program.
Bell Helicopter will lease space for its SLS assembly operation in a new, 82,300-square-foot, $26.3 million hangar facility at Lafayette Regional Airport funded by the state. The new hangar facility, constructed specifically for this project, will be owned by Lafayette Regional Airport and built on a 14.5-acre site adjacent to U.S. Highway 90. Construction will begin in the first half of 2014.
Bell will begin hiring employees for the new facility by 2015, and assembly operations will start by 2016 following certification of the facility and the aircraft.
Officials noted that Lafayette and the southwest region of the state anchor a helicopter industry that has served the offshore oil and gas, aerospace training and emergency services sectors for decades. PHI Inc. and RLC (both headquartered in Lafayette), ERA Helicopters LLC (Lake Charles) and Bristow Group Inc. provide extensive, state-of-the-art helicopter services throughout Louisiana, the Gulf of Mexico and other global regions. In addition, AvEx – Aviation Exteriors Inc. – is a global leader in aviation exterior painting services and is based at the Acadiana Regional Airport in New Iberia.
“LEDA has actively worked with various divisions of Bell since 2005,” LEDA President and CEO Gregg Gothreaux said in the prepared release. “Along with a new Bell facility currently under construction in LEDA Industrial Park, today’s announcement further demonstrates Bell’s confidence in Lafayette, Acadiana and Louisiana. The fact that this will be the first aircraft final assembly plant in Louisiana in many generations emphasizes Bell’s commitment and belief that our community’s workforce will deliver a world-class product in a world-class manner. Bell will be a valuable addition to Acadiana’s thriving specialty and advanced manufacturing sector — an area we are concentrating on as a significant part of LEDA’s targeted industry strategy. Most of all, we appreciate the quality employment opportunities Bell will provide for our region’s experienced manufacturing workforce.”
In addition to creating 115 new jobs at its SLS assembly facility, Bell will maintain 63 existing jobs in the Lafayette area associated with two existing facilities involved with helicopter components and service operations.
"It puts us on the global map of aviation," Gothreaux says of the new airport facility.