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Bridge far enough helped seal deal for jet engine plant

Map shows site of the Pratt & Whitney jet engine plan. Map shows site of the Pratt & Whitney jet engine plan.

At the International Paris Air Show, aerospace companies that sell aircraft and the parts that go into them mingle with well-funded buyers.

Amid the throng of 140,000 trade exhibitors and shoppers at the show in the spring of 2019, a team of North Carolina industrial recruiters sought out Pratt & Whitney representatives and had a moment to chat. Word had gotten out that a major net engine maker was looking to site a major new plant, and the economic development team from the Tar Heel state knew that landing the company would be big.

 "It was more of a ‘fit and feel’ situation, as much art as science,” Chris Chung, president of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina and a leader of the recruiting team in Paris, said in an interview. “We seek out potential industries and meet with their executives. We didn’t know then exactly what they wanted.
“It’s a delicate situation,” he added. “You don’t want to be too aggressive but you want to showcase what the state has to offer.”
At this point no one outside an inner circle would utter the company’s name. The mission to recruit the plant to North Carolina became known by a code name: “Project Ranger.”

Back in Raleigh after the trip to Paris, Chung’s team sent out a request for proposals (RFP) that would alert the economic development offices across the state of a potential industry. Among the company’s minimum requirements was a 50-acre site.
“We read the RFP but unfortunately we had no suitable site,” said Brittany Brady, who heads Henderson County’s Partnership for Economic Development. “The 320-acre Tap Root Dairy property was off the table at the time.” Once marketed as “a developer’s dream site,” Tap Root is the farm on Butler Bridge Road that industrial recruiters had long touted for its flat terrain, proximity to I-26 and access to utilities. When no industry panned out, the family pivoted to market the land for residential development instead.

The marketing arm of the North Carolina Department of Commerce, the Economic Development Partnership (EDP) maintains a list of available sites, many of them are designated certified sites — “shovel ready” with industrial zoning, access roads and utilities in place. Had the company checked the EDP’s site list a month before Paris, they would not have seen the large vacant tract of land in Buncombe County that was eventually selected. Unbeknownst to the aerospace company at the time, Biltmore Farms LLC, the landowner, had notified the EDP on July 23, 2019, that it was ready to market 445 acres near I-26 available for manufacturing. Quietly, Buncombe County had joined the hunt.


Training workers

 

In the summer of 2019, the EDP team invited Pratt & Whitney officials to Raleigh. Such preliminary visits allow a company considering North Carolina to review potential sites. The industry recruiters share what incentives the state can offer. “The company kept adjusting the scale of the project,” said Austin Rouse, the EDP business recruitment manager, who helped steer the project from the outset. The site size had now doubled to 100 acres. “In addition to having the basics such as good access and available utilities, they were particularly concerned with training 500 production workers, so we brought in representatives from the community college system.”
By this time North Carolina players were asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement. The Connecticut-based company’s name was unspoken other than “Project Ranger.”

Once the list of North Carolina sites was reduced to 10, it was time for another visit. On Aug. 6, 2019, a helicopter flew company officials across the state for a whirlwind tour. Asheville was stop No. 2.

 

“We had only about 15 minutes to show our site and convey what we had to offer,” said Ben Teague, vice president of strategic development for the landowner, Biltmore Farms, LLC. As tour guide, Teague, who had come from the Asheville Chamber, pointed out landmarks from the air. Before the chopper lifted off, Biltmore Farms President Jack Cecil boarded and met with the company reps. “Jack told them that for the Biltmore Farms site to be considered, it needed to be a special and transformational project,” said Teague. The company was aware of the property’s 400-plus acre size and overall potential but concerned about the lack of a public access road.

In the weeks that followed, the company’s reps made more ground visits to speak with local officials. “We learned that the company wanted the site in a vibrant community,” Rouse said.
“Cost of living and quality of life were primary concerns,” Teague said. “As the process developed, we found that Biltmore Farms’ values meshed well with those of the company and fit with our long-term vision for what the property could do for the community.”

By late fall of 2019, the company had eliminated all North Carolina sites except the Buncombe site and a contender in Concord, in the Charlotte metro area.

 

“Our group at EDP was neutral on which was best,” Rouse said. “We were just trying to compete with the other states still in contention.” Those states were generally known to be South Carolina and Tennessee. “Things were changing in real time and the company had production deadlines of their own,” said Rouse. “They wanted assurances that the North Carolina sites could move ahead quickly.”


Competition heats up

As often happens in the recruitment of a prized manufacturer, a bidding war ensued. A major gap in the Biltmore Farms pitch was the lack of access, a challenge that a new bridge over the French Broad River would solve. Problem: Around that time it came to light that the North Carolina Department of Transportation had overspent its construction budget by $700 million. There would be no bridge money from the DOT. Enter state Sen. Chuck Edwards, who represents Henderson, Transylvania, and southern Buncombe County.
“I was the last cog in the wheel,” he said. “We were at an impasse until I got the call. We had to be creative to fill the gap and find millions and we were working against the clock.

The company had contracts that would expire in two years, so timing was critical to get the new plant up and running. “The General Assembly had little appetite for using state appropriations so we had to find other sources to make up the difference,” he said. “In October of 2019, we were battling the governor over the budget, the Legislature was scheduled to adjourn and there was little time to garner support.”

The bridge contribution was not cash up front but instead money the company would not have to spend. “Everything had to stay within the guardrails set by the state,” Edwards said. Some of the in-kind support came in the form of training from the community colleges. Some was in utility and highway infrastructure. Buncombe County would be asked to provide property tax incentives. Biltmore Farms was giving the land free but there was still a big chunk of money — the $15 million bridge. Edwards scrambled to work the phones.
“We went to the Golden LEAF Foundation and I went down the list of board members calling one after another,” Edwards recalled. “We had to prove that our multi-county ‘laborshed’ could benefit half of Western North Carolina. Eventually they came around and we were back in the game.”

Created 21 years ago to receive funds coming to North Carolina from the settlement in 1998 of a lawsuit against cigarette manufacturers, Golden LEAF makes grants to advance job growth and economic development across the state. Current director Scott Hamilton, who was the first chief executive of the Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development, was not officially on board with Golden LEAF until November of 2019 but was kept in consultation.
Golden LEAF offered $12 million of the $15 million needed for the bridge. Biltmore Farms chipped in the remaining $3 million.
“This project will move North Carolina’s economic needle,” he said.

 

Permitting accelerated

By December of 2019, the Concord site had fallen away and Buncombe County was left standing. One of the assurances the company wanted before signing off was that the bridge over the French Broad could be approved and built quickly.
“The company planned to make an official announcement in April of 2020 but then Covid-19 hit and everything was put on hold for six months,” Rouse said.
There was much to do in early 2020. Plans needed to be drawn to bring gas, water, power, and fiber optic cable to the site. NCDOT agreed to review the design for a 5-lane, 610-foot long bridge over the river and accept and maintain it as a state road. Since Biltmore Farms owned the land on either side of the river at Bent Creek, there was no need to acquire land.

Still, other permits were needed — on an accelerated timeline. In March the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality held a water quality permit hearing under the code name Project Ranger. The comments received were largely related to preserving stream banks and protecting endangered species. French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson asked that during bridge construction the river be kept open for seasonal paddlers. In July the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the stream crossing for the bridge.

On Oct. 22, the project that had been under wraps for more than a year was made public. Pratt & Whitney would build a 1 million-square-foot plant in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Parkway area that would employ 800 people and invest $650 million to make turbine airfoils. During the announcement at the Grove Park Inn, officials touted the investment as a milestone achievement that would expand career opportunities for hundreds of families across the southern mountains.

“North Carolina’s leadership in aerospace may have started with the Wright Brothers, but make no mistake, this industry is a vibrant part of our state’s modern economy, as today’s announcement proves,” North Carolina Commerce Secretary Anthony M. Copeland said. “We welcome Pratt & Whitney’s new investment in North Carolina.”

“Turbine airfoils are a critical component across our engine portfolio and demand will increase significantly as the market recovers over the next several years,” Pratt & Whitney President Chris Calio said. “We need to invest today to ensure that we have the infrastructure, production capabilities and workforce in place to meet future market demand and to provide the best products to our customers worldwide. We are grateful for the support provided by the State of North Carolina and the local community.”

The last piece in $62 million worth of local, state and private incentives fell into place when, 17 days after the plant was announced, the Buncombe County Commissioners approved $27 million in property tax rebates over a 10-year span.


A 100-acre site

The site for the plant is 100 acres of a larger 445-acre crescent-shaped tract that lies north of the Blue Ridge Parkway and is bordered by the French Broad River on the west and by I-26 on the east and north. The property is wooded except for what has been recently graded. Some of the land has an elevation gain of 230 feet, making the entire tract unsuitable for a massive build-out. Current tax value is exceedingly low as it is wooded and lacks access. That will soon change.
“The property could be valued at as much as $100,000 per acre,” said Robin Boylan, a commercial realtor with NAI Beverly-Hanks. “It’s an incredible site and some of the best land in the county.”

Because an electric transmission line crosses the site, expensive power line extensions were unnecessary. The city of Asheville will provide water to the site, drawing from its Mills River treatment plant. Engineer Chad Pierce with the Asheville Water Department said that a 24-inch line will most likely be attached to the new bridge, although there is concern the bridge will not be ready in time. Temporary water service may be needed to open the plant on schedule. Expensive sewer line extensions will be unnecessary as there is an existing outfall line close to the site. “When we lost (glass maker) Ball and (baby food maker) Gerber, two major industrial users, there was a large deficit in our system that has gradually been taken up by residential development,” said Kevin Johnson, planning director at the Metropolitan Sewer District.

 

There are some 1,000 acres available for Biltmore Park West, said Teague, of Biltmore Farms. The land can be industrial, although company officials have not ruled out multi-family residential. The land south of the Parkway can be accessed from the Biltmore Park Town Center.

Clark Duncan, who leads the economic development effort with the Asheville Chamber of Commerce, applauded the fact that Biltmore Farms didn’t jump into the industrial site market too early.
“Land is expensive in Western North Carolina,” he said. “And the property could easily have been developed for residential use, but Biltmore Farms had been patient.”

Biltmore Farms has discussed with state representatives the possibility of a second access point to the site – a new interchange on I-26 south of the French Broad River. That section of highway is under construction to widen to eight lanes. “That cake still needs to be baked in Raleigh,” Teague said.

Biltmore Farms LLC is led by Jack Cecil, the great-grandson of George W. Vanderbilt, who constructed the Biltmore Estate in 1895. Jack’s father, George Cecil, operated the Biltmore Dairy, a company that once delivered milk by wagon and later operated 400 trucks before it was sold to Pet in 1985. The elder Cecil passed away in October at the age of 95. In 2009, in the middle of a recession, the Cecil family developed Biltmore Park Town Center on Long Shoals Road. “We thought they were crazy when they built it,” said realtor Boylan, who knows the project well. “It now looks like they hit a home run.”


Regional economic impact


“The announcement is a game changer for Western North Carolina,” said Nathan Ramsey, executive director of the Land of Sky Regional Council and former director of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board. Ramsey cited a 10-county “laborshed” that can serve the plant. The average salary at the new plant is estimated to be $68,000 a year with 500 production workers plus 300 more who are engineers or work in administration, sales and support. Most employees will be hired locally and very few will relocate from company headquarters in Connecticut.
“This is the largest industrial economic development project in Western North Carolina that we are aware of,” said David Rhoades, communications director of the state Department of Commerce. “Due to the multiplier effect, our economists have projected that the project will grow to a $7.4 billion economic impact in 12 years.” The Commerce Department contributed $15.5 million toward Project Ranger.

Western North Carolina has enjoyed some large industrial payrolls since World War II, including those at the Ecusta Paper Mill, Champion Paper (now Evergreen Packaging), DuPont and General Electric. Yet Pratt & Whitney’s investment of $650 million — three times the investment Sierra Nevada made for its brewery and tasting room — is significant not only in terms of dollars but in the skill level of the jobs. The company plans to start production in 2022 but may not fill the last of the 800 jobs until 2027.

Industries often attract support manufacturers. Such was the case when American Coatings, later acquired by Prince Manufacturing, built a facility in Henderson County in 1999 next door to caliper brake maker Continental Teves on N.C. 280. “We were running four trucks a day back and forth doing zinc brake coatings,” said Bill Bryant, a business development agent for Prince. “Today the Prince plant is making the green metal cable pedestals – you know, the ones in your front yard that are always crooked.”

Based in East Hartford, Connecticut, Pratt & Whitney has been in the aircraft engine business for 95 years and employs 39,000 people at its many facilities worldwide. In April, the company was acquired by Raytheon Technologies Corp., a Fortune 500 company. The Hartford Courant reported in October that while Pratt & Whitney had lost sales during the pandemic the new more automated plant in Asheville would operate at a much lower cost. The report went on to say that Raytheon expects to save $175 million a year from the North Carolina plant. Also noted were payroll savings from non-union North Carolina workers and a lower cost of electric power.

Job training in the works

The part the Pratt & Whitney plant will produce is called a turbine airfoil. An “airfoil” is any curved surface that allows air to pass over it. The fan blades in the front of a jet engine are airfoils but those are made elsewhere. The blades to be made at the new plant are in the rear of the engine. These parts are not stamped out like beer cans. Instead, each blade will be refined by machinists. The skills to do that will be taught at A-B Tech in Asheville, according to the college’s workforce development director, Kevin Kimrey. “This project is so new that Pratt & Whitney does not have job descriptions for the production positions,” he said. “We do know that those skill sets are ‘machining centric’ and that the community colleges will offer short-term courses to help students with a pre-employment assessment which will guarantee an interview at Pratt & Whitney.”
The intense training effort will spread to Henderson County as well.
“I was contacted a year ago about Project Ranger because one institution alone could not handle all the training,” Blue Ridge Community College President Laura Leatherwood said. “Companies don’t care about county lines but they do care about skilled workers.”
BRCC is already in the ramp-up phase.
“We have been doing advanced manufacturing for years and have a strong history of successful workforce development,” Leatherwood said. The community college system is contributing $4.2 million for training. Hiring at the plant will begin in 2021.


Jet parts are critical

 

Jim Tyson, a retired Navy captain and Vietnam War veteran, knows jet engines. And when it comes to turbine airfoils, he believes in the Pratt & Whitney product.
“They are very reliable. I wouldn’t trade them for anything,” he said. “Jet engine technology is simple. It’s the same as in a propeller-driven plane where the curved surface of the blades (airfoils) changes the pressure and gives lift. In a jet engine the airfoils give the lift, or the thrust.
“They wanted to make jets go faster so they had to increase the engine heat. This is hard on the turbine sections so they had to make them more heat resistant which calls for casting each blade which can be 6 to 10 inches in length, drilling cooling holes and applying coatings. It’s a tough manufacturing process plus you need high quality materials.

Dr. Srinath Ekkad, who heads the Aerospace Engineering Department at N.C. State University, co-wrote the book on jet engines (Gas Turbine Heat Transfer and Cooling Technology). Ekkad, who was happy to talk about airfoils, said that the ones Pratt & Whitney will make can be for either high or low pressure turbines (jet engines have both). The high pressure parts are typically made of titanium or nickel alloy to withstand extreme high. Although durable, these blades may have a relatively short 3,000-hour life. Low pressure blades can be made of steel and can have a 10,000-hour life before they are replaced. “These parts are critical and must be approved by the FAA before they go into a jet engine,” said Ekkad. “Otherwise you are putting people’s lives in danger.”

“Jet engines are built to withstand foreign material but volcanic ash is particularly harmful to an engine,” he added. “Engines are tested to take in birds but not a flock of birds as was the case in the Hudson River emergency landing. Those are rare occurrences where two engines are lost.” The parts made at the Buncombe County plant will be used for the Airbus A220 among other commercial and military aircraft.

 

‘A total team effort’

Over 18 months — from the first overtures at the Paris Air Show to the vote by the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners authorizing property tax breaks — elected leaders in Buncombe and Henderson counties and beyond, the industry recruiting apparatus of the state and region and the community college system had scrambled to meet the needs of the prized aerospace catch. Besides accelerating environmental permitting and pledging to fast-track training for the proposed plant’s advanced manufacturing jobs, local and state industry recruiters and Cecil, one of the most prominent business leaders in Western North Carolina, cobbled together the funding for a new five-lane bridge over the French Broad River that will be as long as two football fields.

“This never could have been done unless a lot of people were pulling in the same direction – a total team effort,” said Clark Duncan, of the Asheville Chamber.

“From the moment our team met with Pratt & Whitney and learned of their plans for a world class manufacturing facility, we knew they would craft a brighter future for the people of Western North Carolina,” Cecil, the Biltmore Farms owner, said in October. “The vision for this facility to become a lighthouse location of innovation for the aerospace industry and for our region was inspiring, but ultimately it was our shared corporate values that helped us push forward with our collaboration and this project during these truly unprecedented times.”

State Rep. Brian Turner, whose district includes the Buncombe County site, sees the aerospace company as a pivotal boost for the region.
“Some years ago, BASF came to Enka and helped build a better life for mountain families,” said Turner, who had family members who worked at the rayon plant. “Jack Cecil’s vision was a ‘Research Triangle Park West’ here in the mountains and the Pratt & Whitney site is just the beginning. This can be transformative.”