With funding and logistics problems now solved, a three-year-long effort to bring hundreds of aerospace industry jobs to Pensacola could finally be coming in for a landing.
City council members met Thursday in a special session to approve several measures related to the city’s deal with VT Mobile Aerospace Engineering, first announced back in 2014. A subsidiary of Singapore-based ST Engineering, VT MAE has operated at Mobile’s Brookley Aeroplex for years, and now plans to expand its aircraft maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) business to a new facility at Pensacola International Airport, creating around 400 jobs in the process. Those jobs are expected to pay between $30,000 and $58,000 annually.
Project has faced several delays
Mayor Ashton Hayward first began discussions with the company in 2013, at one point even traveling to Singapore to meet with company leaders. His efforts seemed to pay off when VT officials joined him in February 2014 to announce the company’s Pensacola expansion. At the time, city officials said the facility would be operational by mid-2016, but when that date came and went, some began to question whether the project was still happening.
Critics have pointed to other high-profile economic development announcements made by Hayward’s administration which failed to materialize. In 2014, Hayward announced that DeepFlex, a subsea pipe company, would bring some 200 jobs to the Port of Pensacola. Not long after, the price of oil began to plummet, and DeepFlex halted construction at the port. City officials acknowledged earlier this month that the deal is dead.
Escambia County Commissioner Doug Underhill was among those who doubted that the promised VT MAE project would come to fruition. “VT MAE is probably not happening, though no one’s admitting it yet,” Underhill told NewsRadio 1620 earlier this month.
But city officials said this week that the delays were the result of design changes and the funding shortfall those changes caused. Under the terms of the deal, the city will build a $46 million facility on 18.66 acres at Pensacola International Airport — paid for with a combination of city, county, and state dollars — and then lease the building to VT MAE for a 30-year term. Originally priced at $37.3 million, the building had to be redesigned to accommodate larger aircraft, which pushed the cost up. Council members voted unanimously Thursday to approve final changes to the lease with VT MAE, as well as a $6.3 million loan from BBVA Compass Bank which will be repaid next year when additional state money comes in.
“This is a tremendous project,” said Hayward. “This has been a work in progress for a few years, but when you’re working with a multinational corporation there’s a lot of moving parts to this.”
Completion now set for 2018, officials say
Once completed, the 173,000 square foot hangar will be able to house two Boeing 757s or up to six smaller airliners. While a firm groundbreaking date hasn’t yet been set, city officials said earlier this month that they hoped to break ground on construction in October. Airport director Dan Flynn said Thursday that, once it begins, construction on the facility is expected to take approximately 16 months.
Several council members expressed a desire to see the 400 VT MAE jobs filled by locals rather than out-of-town imports. City officials said they can’t force the company to hire locally, but pointed to workforce development efforts at George Stone Technical Center and Pensacola State College specifically geared toward VT MAE.
“One of the main attractions for VT MAE being here was because they believed there was a solid workforce, a lot of military presence, people that have basic skills,” said Dave Penzone, a consultant for the city who helped put together the deal. “We understood from talking to [VT MAE president] Bill Hafner just this week that their intention is to build a Pensacola culture.”
“This is a big time company that’s very focused and that’s done their research on what a great city we are,” Hayward said Thursday. “This is just the kickoff of better things to come,” he added, referring to his hope that VT MAE’s arrival sparks the development of an “aviation cluster” in Northwest Florida.