Boeing could stretch NWI's ability to dream big

2013-12-16T19:00:00Z 2013-12-17T18:00:21Z Boeing could stretch NWI's ability to dream bigBy Keith Benman, (219) 933-3326

Northwest Indiana has the port, airport, highways and railroads Boeing Corp. says it needs to build an airline factory employing more than 9,000, but the region would need one more thing.

"We would also have to get everyone here pulling on the same end of the rope," said Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, chairman of the Indiana House Transportation Committee.

With Boeing fever among the states heating up to a Mega Millions-like pitch, local development officials Monday were welcoming the conversation that comes with it.

"Obviously, any time a major manufacture is looking, given the industrial character and infrastructure we have, that's something that will get our attention," Gary Redevelopment Director Joseph Van Dyk said. "Boeing, that's a big deal."

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said she thought of what Gary could offer Boeing immediately after the Machinist Union in Washington state voted down an offer from Boeing to produce the plane there last month.

"While Indiana may be one of 15 states now trying to attract Boeing, you would be hard pressed in any of those states to find a locale with both transportation attributes and a ready workforce like ours," Freeman-Wilson said.

The fact Boeing already houses it corporate jet fleet at Gary/Chicago International Airport is another plus, she said.

Gary has not yet taken any concrete steps toward landing the Boeing plant, as the company is working with state government as the lead agency in each state where it's exploring building its new aircraft plant, Freeman-Wilson said.

The Boeing buzz should lead local leaders to start asking the big questions when it comes to economic development, said Donald Babcock, a former chairman of the Northwest Indiana Forum and the current director of economic development at NIPSCO.

"What should be learned from Boeing, or from any number of businesses that have looked at Northwest Indiana but not landed here, is how best do we utilize are assets," Babcock said.

The Gary/Chicago International Airport, where the main runway is being expanded to 8,900 feet, is considering taking on a nationally recognized airport developer to market and build out 600 airport acres as well as property north of there. Boeing's corporate jet fleet is housed at the airport.

Although the landing of a Boeing plant to make the next generation 777 aircraft might seem like a flight of fancy to some, Northwest Indiana has been in competition for mega-projects before. That includes the CSX intermodal terminal that opened in North Baltimore, Ohio, in 2011.

Gov. Mike Pence elicited some excitement last week by saying Indiana's economic development team had spoken with leaders of Chicago-headquartered Boeing Corp. about building its 400-seat 777X jet in Indiana.

"We have had contact with them and discussions, but I won't comment further on those," Pence said. "I will tell you, every opportunity that we are given to tell Indiana's story and make the case for Indiana — we do."

By Monday, state officials appeared to be attempting to tamp down the speculation a bit, with Inside Indiana Businesses reporting unnamed officials said Indiana planned to remain competitive for economic development opportunities but the Boeing plant would be a "long shot."

Boeing wants to build a 4.2-million-square-foot factory on a 400-acre site that would build wings and assemble, paint and deliver the completed 777X. The work also could be split between two sites.

To land the plant, states will have to satisfy Boeing's long wish list of "desired incentives" that include a low- or no-cost site and facility, state-paid infrastructure improvements, low overall cost of business, a pro-business tax structure with incentives, and state assistance in recruiting employees

In addition, the site must be adjacent to an airport with a 9,000-foot runway, have highway and road access and a direct rail connection on a dedicated spur line. A nearby port capable of handling oversized containers also is "desired," according to the documents.

That last list is a can-do one for Northwest Indiana because it possesses all of the above infrastructure assets.

Communities around Northwest Indiana have to start making decisions on where they want development to occur and what kind of development they want, Babcock said. That would include the 400 acres requested by Boeing, which couldn't go just anywhere but could definitely go somewhere in the region, Babcock said.

"Our planning process should include not only smaller types of development, but also these mega-projects," Babcock said.

Indiana and the region both have other assets that would be attractive to Boeing, Soliday said, who was a commercial airline pilot and a United Airlines executive. Chief among them is Purdue University, with its world-class engineering and aeronautics programs.

It would take a team of high-powered financial types to put together a package Boeing would find attractive, as well as big state incentives that would almost certainly require action by the General Assembly, Soliday said.

But he believes it could be done.

"I'm focused on what do we have to do to close this deal," Soliday said. "I think we are competitive."

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