Honda Seeks $1.2 Million to Build Jet in Greensboro

Honda Aircraft Co. wants more than $1 million of taxpayer money to build small jets at Piedmont Triad International Airport, Guilford County commissioners said Friday.

The new company is seeking a total of $1.2 million in economic incentives from the county and the city of Greensboro, as well as $100,000 from the city of High Point and $100,000 from a group in Winston-Salem, commissioners said. Honda would employ 300 people at an average $72,000-a-year salary, commissioners said.

The company, whose corporate offices are based at Piedmont Triad International Airport, has not begun assembling its HondaJet, which is expected to begin delivery in 2010.

The HondaJet, which still needs federal approval, features a radical design with engines mounted above the wings and will be sold in the "very light jet" market. It would seat about six people and sell for about $3.65 million. The company estimates sales of 70 jets a year.

"Honda has identified the Greensboro, N.C., area as one of several locations in the United States being evaluated as a potential site for expanded operations of the Honda aircraft company," Jeffrey Smith, the assistant vice president for corporate affairs for Honda in the United States, said Friday. "While the process continues, it is our standard practice not to publicly discuss any details."

Analysts say Honda's first aircraft could open a big market but could be a great embarrassment if it fails to meet Honda's expectations.

Honda has inspected several 70- to 100-acre sites at PTI for a possible assembly site, said Ted Johnson, the airport's executive director.

Johnson and the commissioners said Greensboro is competing with other sites in North Carolina, as well as sites in two other states. Indiana could hold one of those sites, the Indiana Economic Digest reported in October.

Honda wants to start on the project in the spring, Johnson said, but Smith declined to say when the company would choose a location . Beyond that, Johnson said, Honda hasn't given specifics about what it would do on the site.

Would the airport donate land to Honda if it could seal the deal? Not likely, said Henry Isaacson, the chairman of the Piedmont Triad Airport Authority.

"We're not giving away any land," he said. "We haven't to FedEx or Timco or Cessna," other companies with major operations at the airport. "That would not be part of it."

Honda would most likely lease its land, Johnson said, because the airport prefers to keep its holdings intact.

Local officials were comparing the project to Dell, the computer giant that seduced local officials into offering record incentives packages before settling in Winston-Salem with local incentives worth $37 million.

Some Guilford commissioners suggested that this project surpasses Dell because the taxpayers' investment is so much smaller and the potential economic impact could be so much greater.

"Dell just assembles computers," said Democratic commissioner Kirk Perkins. "HondaJet would design and put together jets."

The Dell project was driven by $242 million in state incentives. The state Department of Commerce declined Friday to discuss Honda, saying it has a policy of not discussing whether deals are in the works for any company. Dan Lynch, president of the Greensboro Economic Development Alliance, also declined to comment.

Honda Aircraft announced last summer that it would open its headquarters at PTI, but the big prize - a manufacturing operation - was still to be determined.

Beginning in 2000, Honda quietly set up an engineering operation at PTI to design and build the jet. HondaJet's first test flight was in 2003 at PTI. The company employs scores of engineers next to the Atlantic Aero operations.

The company's CEO, Michimasa Fujino, has said he thinks this area has been ideal for the company, and he likes living here.

Even county commissioners who usually oppose incentives said Friday that they were delighted HondaJet is considering Guilford. Chairman Paul Gibson, a Democrat, said he was "giddy" about the project and called the potential effect on the county's economy overwhelming.

"I won't give 'em no resistance on this one," said Republican Commissioner Billy Yow, who often calls incentives corporate welfare and berates company executives who ask for them. "Because this is one that, if it comes here, will be a true asset to the county."

Commissioners will hear Honda's request Feb. 8. The Greensboro City Council will consider an economic development project Feb. 6, but officials declined to identify it.

Staff writer Donald W. Patterson contributed.

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