Kit plane builder Epic Aircraft is negotiating to buy Cessna Aircraft's vacant Bend manufacturing plant, possibly closing a deal by Dec. 14, according to city officials.
The Bend City Council met with Epic Aircraft CEO Doug King on Wednesday, where King discussed plans to add employees and ramp up production in hopes of securing Federal Aviation Administration approval to certify the Epic LT plane model.
The council then voted to transfer the active lease on more than 600,000 square feet of airport land from Cessna to Epic. Much of that land is open space that could be developed in the future.
The lease transfer has an effective date of Dec. 14. That's the date officials believe Epic and Cessna are eyeing to close a deal on the airport building, said Assistant City Manager Jon Skidmore.
King told The Bulletin on Friday that he has a nondisclosure agreement, preventing him from commenting about the building talks.
“What I can say is that Epic Aircraft is growing, both in kit sales, as well as our certification effort,” King wrote in an email. “We expect to hire 40 to 80 new staff in 2013. Our commitment to Bend continues.”
The city owns the Bend Municipal Airport land. Companies that buy property in the airport can own their building, but lease the land it sits on.
Epic has been growing since Engineering LLC, a Russian aviation company, purchased it in March for an undisclosed sum. Epic has increased its workforce from 27 at the time of the acquisition to 50 as recently as September.
Bend City Councilor Jim Clinton told The Bulletin that Epic wanted Cessna's 204,000-square-foot facility “to greatly expand production into (FAA) certified airplanes, which is a much bigger market” than kit planes.
FAA certification of the LT plane would let Epic workers manufacture and assemble the plane model's parts, instead of selling them to buyers in packaged kits.
Cessna, headquartered in Wichita, Kan., became a major Bend employer after buying Columbia Aircraft out of bankruptcy in 2006. As recently as November 2008, Cessna's Bend operation employed 478, according to The Bulletin's archives.
An operation that size would be Central Oregon's 11th largest employer today, according to estimates from Economic Development for Central Oregon.
Cessna left Bend in 2009, citing plans to consolidate operations in Kansas.
Cessna's Nelson Road building has been vacant since the company left. The building's initial $7 million price was lowered to $5.97 million in June 2010, and down again to $3.9 million earlier this year, according to The Bulletin's archives.
Messages left with Collier's International, the real estate company listing the Cessna plant, weren't immediately returned, nor was a message with Cessna officials.
A local tenant in the Bend Airport's largest building could help bring back some of the activity lost with Cessna's departure, said Gary Judd, the airport's manager — especially if Epic follows through on its pledge to keep hiring.
Epic also owns a 90,000-square-foot building on the easternmost part of the airport, which it had formerly been leasing.
“Assuming the deal goes through, it will have a big impact on the airport,” Judd said. “Cessna has been good keeping up with the lease payments, but there obviously hasn't been any activity in that building.”
Clinton noted that Central Oregon is still home to a large group of workers skilled in aircraft assembly, many of whom have been getting by with part-time work since the loss of Cessna.
In 2006, Deschutes County boasted a monthly average of nearly 1,178 jobs in transportation manufacturing — assembling parts for planes, cars, trains and boats — according to Oregon Employment Department data.
By 2010, the monthly average was 183 workers — a four-year decline of about 84 percent.
Some of those laid off workers could find new jobs if Epic can finalize a purchase and increase production with the Cessna building, Clinton said.
“We've got a reservoir of people who could be quality candidates for those good jobs,” he said.