Monument jet company asks more of city

Oct. 11--Monument-based Excel-Jet Ltd. is asking Louisiana officials to ante up $1 million and build an aircraft hangar at the Chennault International Airport in Lake Charles, La., where the company says it will move its aircraft manufacturing operation and create up to 300 jobs.

It's the second time in two years that privately held Excel-Jet has attempted to move out of Monument based on economic incentives from another city.

The Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp. set up a meeting with Excel-Jet representatives and potential investors in 2005, but it was not able to provide incentives the company said it needed, said Mike Kazmierski, president of the EDC, which recruits companies and works with existing firms to keep them here.

"It's not unusual, especially in the aircraft arena, for companies to be wooed away by other communities. Their greatest need is financing, and this city does not fund startup companies that don't already have a product that's being produced and sold," he said.

The City Council in Lake Charles heard about Excel-Jet's job-creation commitment Tuesday from Rob Pruitt, executive director of Chennault International Airport Authority, a state-chartered industrial airport with about 18 aviation tenants, including Northrop Grumman Corp.

City officials and officials with Calcasieu Parish will vote on the proposal next week, Pruitt said.

Each entity would contribute $500,000 to pay for a new Excel-Jet headquarters, roads and utilities, he said. The company has also asked the airport authority to build a hangar for its use.

If the financial incentives are approved, Excel-Jet also would have access to $10 million in state bonds and additional money from the Louisiana economic development office, Pruitt said.

Excel-Jet initially would have 30 to 40 employees in Lake Charles, and in five years it would employ about 300, Pruitt said.

He estimates an annual economic impact of nearly $200 million.

Excel-Jet officials declined to discuss the issue on Wednesday.

"We have made no commitment to move anywhere, and we have no other comment," said a person who answered the company's phone.

A year ago, Excel-Jet had 15 employees in Monument and had completed a prototype of its Sport-Jet aircraft.

Excel-Jet was poised to relocate to Guthrie, Okla., in 2006, after the city's council loaned Excel-Jet $375,000 to buy engine parts and move into production of its aircraft.

In June 2006, the company's $1.1 million single-engine experimental aircraft crashed during a test flight at the Colorado Springs Airport.

Company President Bob Bornhofen said at the time that the crash delayed the move.

Though the company remains in Monument, it started making payments on the loan from Guthrie last year, then stopped in January, according to a report in The Oklahoman newspaper.

Pruitt said Lake Charles officials are aware of the company's loan obligation in Oklahoma.

"The loan is being repaid," he said. "A lot of people said Bob (Bornhofen) walked away and didn't pay, which is absolutely false. We would have probably ended our discussions at that point, if it were true."

Excel-Jet has considered several cities for its manufacturing operation, even though the Colorado Springs Airport would have been able to meet its aircraft development needs, said Mark Earle, the city's aviation director.

"We've helped them out on the operational side with their flight testing, and they've leased a small hangar from a tenant," he said. "They've been looking for a permanent site, based on economic incentives."

Colorado is one of a few states that charges a "flyaway" sales tax on planes manufactured in Colorado.

Gov. Bill Ritter announced on Sept. 25, as part of his economic development plan, that he wants the tax to be eliminated.

Pruitt said if approvals for the project to move Excel-Jet to Louisiana are given, the company could be working in a temporary building in Lake Charles within 30 days.

CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0235 or debbie.kelley@gazette.com

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