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Aircraft company looking at Berkeley County

March 20, 2001

Aircraft company looking at Berkeley County



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg


About 1,200 airplane-assembly jobs could come to Berkeley County if a New Hampshire-based company decides to build a commuter jet construction facility at the Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport, a company official said Monday.

A spokesman for Alliance Aircraft of Portsmouth, N.H., said the Martinsburg airport is the best site to build two "families" of commuter aircraft - one seating between 30-50 people and the other seating between 70-110 people. The smaller craft could be built in Berkeley County, said Jim Martin, a spokesman familiar with the project.

Alliance could also eventually build its larger models at the Martinsburg airport facility, Martin said - but only if the airport's runway were lengthened.

"Martinsburg is the option of choice to build the StarLiner 100" commuter aircraft, Martin said.

The 1,200 jobs would be based on building the small aircraft, said Bob Crawford, director of the Berkeley County Development Authority. If those jobs materialize, Alliance would become one of the biggest employers in the Eastern Panhandle. Many of the jobs would be above minimum wage, Martin said.

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If Alliance Aircraft does move here, the assembly would be done at the John D. Rockefeller IV Science and Technology Center at the airport. Alliance is also considering moving its administrative and engineering functions into a portion of the vacant Blue Ridge Outlet Center downtown, Crawford said.

Martin would not confirm or deny this week whether the company is looking at the Blue Ridge Center, but said "we are looking for temporary facilities while we build."

"We're still under negotiations" on that issue, Martin added.

The project is contingent on getting the money to build it, officials said. Crawford, who has been working on the project since May, said a number of potential investors are being sought, including some from China.

The planes would cost about $10.5 million to $15.5 million each to build, depending on their size, Martin said.

"We would be the only U.S. company building these planes," he said. "We believe there is a market for them."

The aircraft are not designed for long cross-country trips, such as New York to Los Angeles, but for shorter flights, such as Hagerstown to Pittsburgh.

Alliance originally considered Hagerstown as well, officials said, but decided against the city because Hagerstown's airport does not have a long enough runway.

The Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport has a 7,000-foot runway.

"Seven thousand feet will do it for us here for testing and other uses," Martin said. The company would need a longer runway to build the larger aircraft, however. Officials have recently discussed lengthening the runway at the Martinsburg airport. If the larger craft were built, more employees would be added, Crawford said.

The Berkeley County area has other factors working in its favor, Martin said. They include quality of life, proximity to Washington - where many decisions about aircraft are approved - and its aviation foundation. Airplane builders Tiger Aircraft and Sino Swearingen are located in the Rockefeller Science and Technology Center. The company also has received strong community support, he said.

"Our strength is our management and design team," Martin said. "We have great expertise, and by that I would say people with 15-35 years in the aircraft industry."

Financing is a key, both Martin and Crawford said. Because that part of the project is not yet in place, Martin could not say how long it would be until a decision is made about building here.

Once the company starts building, it would take about 39 months to complete the facility, he said. Crawford estimated "several hundred thousand" as the price to get the plant up and running. The company would hire local people as much as possible, Martin said.

"We would do a search in the local area first," he said.

The company already has begun designing the aircraft, "starting with a clean sheet of paper," he said. The planes will be reasonably priced and "very comfortable."

"We're quite a ways along" on the design, he said.

Crawford said he is hopeful the details will work out.

"The indication is if they can pull the financing together, they will do at least the smaller planes here," Crawford said. "If they do, I'd look at it not just (benefiting) Berkeley County, but the entire region - to get a project of this magnitude and good number of good paying, high-tech jobs."

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