Helicopters, UAV industry may help boost Bend Airport

Airport’s economic impact plummeted with loss of Cessna, state report shows

By Elon Glucklich / The Bulletin / @EGlucklich

Published Nov 24, 2013 at 12:01AM

Six years ago, no Oregon airport outside of Portland could claim a bigger economic impact than Bend Municipal Airport.

Bend airport and businesses on its property generated 5,315 direct and indirect jobs in 2007, according to an Oregon Department of Aviation study released this month. Those jobs generated $155 million in wages in 2007, more than airports in Eugene, Salem, Medford and Redmond.

City of Bend officials eyed a special taxing district in 2008 to finance the airport’s rapid growth — an effort Deschutes County nixed, citing the lack of a new, comprehensive master plan.

City councilors approved a new master plan last month. But Bend Municipal Airport is a far different place now.

Last year, the airport was responsible for 873 direct and indirect jobs, an 83-percent tumble that dropped Bend from first to eighth in employment impact among non-Portland airports in six years. Wages plummeted to $20 million last year.

Bend Municipal Airport’s biggest pre-recession player — Cessna Aircraft Co. — is long gone.

City leaders say there aren’t any new plans to establish the taxing district.

But airport officials see some bright spots from other businesses operating at the airport, including the availability of state transportation grants to finance an exclusive helicopter flight area and two landing pads at the northeast corner of the airport.

“Obviously, there was a significant business loss with Cessna,” said Bend Municipal Airport Manager Gary Judd. “But I think everybody else at the airport has weathered the recession pretty well.”

Much of the hope for an employment revival at Bend Municipal Airport hinges on a company that was filing for bankruptcy protection four years ago.

Epic Air, a kit-plane manufacturer, has slowly upped its workforce to more than 80 employees today, said CEO Doug King, who was part of a group that bought the company out of bankruptcy.

A Russian company bought Epic in early 2012. Since then, Epic has added 50 workers. King said orders for its flagship plane model, the Epic LT, have risen. Epic paid $3.1 million to buy Cessna’s 204,000-square-foot factory at the southeast edge of the airport late last year.

Epic’s priority now, King said, is certifying the Epic LT with the Federal Aviation Administration, a step that allows companies to make whole planes, not just kits.

“Certification will open up new markets for us both domestically and internationally,” King said, a step he expects in early 2015. Certification would almost certainly mean more hires at Epic.

Other companies are growing, too — though not without controversy.

Leading Edge Aviation, an airplane and helicopter training, sales and repair business at the airport, employed just four people in 2005, co-owner Travis Warthen said.

Today, Leading Edge employs 52 people. Central Oregon Community College’s growing aviation program has funneled hundreds of students to Leading Edge for helicopter flight training.

Last month, the company installed the first of two planned, 12,000-gallon fuel tanks near its business in the airport’s southwest corner.

The fuel tank project prompted another airport business, Professional Air, to file a lawsuit against Leading Edge and the city of Bend in February. Prior to Leading Edge’s proposal, Professional Air was the only fuel-selling business at the airport. The lawsuit is still active.

Warthen said Leading Edge is just focused on growing.

“We have quite a bit of diversity in what we do, so when one segment of our business falls off, another can kind of pick up,” Warthen said.

Bend airport officials see a growing helicopter presence over the next few years. Judd, the airport manager, said the helicopter area envisioned in the new airport master plan is probably two years away. Other changes in the master plan could extend the airport’s runway and open up more undeveloped land for aviation business and hangars.

Still, other businesses at the airport said they’re basically treading water.

Fuel sales have been flat at Professional Air over the last few years, said Gwil Evans, who owns the company and sued the city and Leading Edge over its fuel project. Evans owns another airport business that builds aircraft hangars. That business has been strong over the last year, Evans said, but Professional Air’s business hasn’t kept pace.

The same is true for X-Air, a lightweight aircraft maker that has only been able to sell a small handful of planes over the last five years.

“Things have drastically improved on the front of prospects contacting us for information, and even demo flights.” X-Air owner Michael Lemaire said. But that interest isn’t translating to sales.

Many of their struggles are beyond their control. Across the country, new orders for durable goods like airplanes and cars fell 26 percent between mid-2008 and 2009, U.S. Commerce Department data show. Orders have partly recovered, but are still off the pre-recession pace.

The impact of that drop-off can be found in employment numbers. Deschutes County had a monthly average of 1,178 jobs manufacturing planes, cars, trains and boats in 2006, but just 260 of those jobs in 2012.

Area economic development advocates say they’re eyeing an unmanned aerial testing site as a possible long-term fix for the decline. The FAA in February opened up an application period for six sites across the country to test unmanned vehicles, commonly called drones. Industry officials estimate UAVs could grow from a $44 billion industry in 2012 to a $69 billion industry by 2022.

Economic Development for Central Oregon joined Oregon State University in applying to bring one of those six sites to Oregon. A decision on the sites could come as early as next month.

Roger Lee, EDCO’s executive director, feels Central Oregon can play a role in the UAV boom.

“We’ve had a group meeting actively over the last four years” to discuss reviving the aviation industry, Lee said. “Out of that, we’ve developed a real UAV initiative, not as a replacement for our general aircraft manufacturing industry, but to add to it.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7820, eglucklich@bendbulletin.com