Feb. 1 -- Duluth is one of three finalist cities in the running for a new aircraft maintenance facility that Eagan-based Worthington Aviation Parts Inc. wants to build.
The operation probably would employ 32 mechanics and 12 support staff within 18 months of its opening and an additional 23 mechanics after two years, said Mike Mager, senior vice president of regional and commercial sales.
Besides Duluth, Mager said two other facility sites are still being considered: Sioux Falls, S.D., and Columbia, S.C.
Tom Cotruvo, Duluth's director of business development, said the city has been in discussions with Worthington since late last summer.
Mager said his company aims to pick a site by July 1 and have a new facility operational within four to five months.
Worthington's plans call for about a 55,000-square-foot maintenance hangar and a 25,000-square-foot painting facility.
The company plans to build a facility to service corporate jets, such as the IAI Westwind and Cessna Citation. But it also performs maintenance for larger commercial carriers operating re-gional jets, such as the Saab 340, the Embraer EMB120 and the Bombardier CRJ.
Brian Ryks, director of the Duluth Airport Authority, said the presence of Worthington in the community could potentially help attract additional commercial air service to Duluth. He ex-plained that carriers seeking services at a maintenance facility naturally prefer to fly fare-paying passengers to the destination rather than arrive and leave empty.
Among the amenities Duluth International has to offer are a 10,000-foot runway, a 24-hour traffic control tower, weather service, modern airport approach technology and a new on-site fire-and-rescue facility.
During visits to Duluth, Worthington representatives have toured not only the airport, but other aviation operations, such as Cirrus Design Corp., Northstar Aerospace, Monaco Air Duluth and the Air National Guard base.
"Duluth has a strong aviation community," Mager said, adding, "We were very impressed with the facilities we toured there."
Cotruvo said that Worthington probably could draw on the talent base that has sprung up around Duluth's growing aviation industry, including the now-shuttered Northwest Airlines main-tenance base -- a facility designed to handle much larger wide-body aircraft. Northwest employed about 200 people at the base, mostly mechanics, when it closed in the midst of a strike a couple years ago.
Mager said Duluth's work force is a draw for Worthington.
"We like the work ethic in northern Minnesota," he said.
Mager said Worthington also is considering the quality of life offered by the three finalist cities.
"We want the people we hire to be happy and stay on the job," he explained.
Economics will factor into Worthington's decision about where to locate as well, said Mager, noting that the company will need to carefully weigh the incentives offered to it by the prospective host cities.
Earlier this week, the Duluth City Council authorized city staff to seek a $1.2 million grant from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development to extend roads and utili-ties to an area just north of Duluth International Airport. The work could lay the groundwork for Worthington's arrival.
"The north side of our airfield has the space available for additional business development," said Ryks, adding, "The key is to get the necessary infrastructure in there to support it."
Lake Superior College also is considering plans to build an aviation training center to the north of the airfield, which would also benefit from the proposed improvements.
Make no mistake, however. Duluth still has its hopes pinned on Worthington.
"They would be a wonderful fit for this airport," Ryks said, adding, "Their activities would have a positive impact on everyone."
Worthington Aviation was founded in 1998. It employs 45 to 50 people directly, as well as a num-ber of contractors. Mager said the new facility would accommodate the growth of the business and won't represent a relocation from the Twin Cities.
Worthington is a subsidiary of the privately held Churchill Cos., a Minneapolis-based multi-billion-dollar financial services company. Worthington has field offices in Tulsa, Okla.; Wichita, Kan.; Grand Haven, Mich.; and Boynton Beach, Fla.
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