Washington State Pitches Plan for New Airbus Plant

WASHINGTON -- Washington state and three of its cities are considering putting a $600 million Airbus plant in Boeing's back yard.

State officials, along with representatives of Moses Lake and Spokane, will be in Washington, D.C., for a briefing on the proposed European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. plant. Everett and Snohomish County officials have yet to decide whether they will send someone.

EADS is the parent company of Airbus, Boeing's chief rival. The plant, if built, could employ up to 1,100 people to manufacture billions of dollars worth of aerial refueling tankers for the Pentagon. Boeing is also interested in building the tankers, and the competition between the companies is expected to be fierce.

"I know this is Boeing country, but if Airbus is going to build something in the U.S. anyway, why not Moses Lake?" said Albert Anderson, industrial development manager at the Port of Moses Lake.

Washington state has long been home to Boeing's commercial airplane division. The decision, at least on the state's part, to pursue the European plant was politically sensitive.

"Obviously there are some interesting anomalies with this one," said Michelle Zahrly, a spokeswoman for the Washington state Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development. "It's an interesting position for the state to be in. But we want to be a center for aerospace and that is more than Boeing."

Zahrly said the governor's office gave her agency authority to help local communities pursue the plant. "Boeing and Airbus are such competitors," she said. "Sure, it was tough."

Even so, members of the state's congressional delegation are cool to the idea.

"I encourage Washington state communities to explore new paths of economic development, but I'd hate to see them waste their time on a plane that will never be built in the United States," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Seattle).

Murray and other lawmakers believe EADS is just using the possibility of a U.S. plant as part of a "slick campaign" to drum up political support for its effort to land the tanker contract. The EADS tanker would use an Airbus A-330 airframe. The A-330s are currently built in Toulouse, France. If EADS won the tanker contract, the A-330s, at first, would still be built in France and converted for military use at the U.S. plant. Eventually, EADS officials have hinted the planes themselves could be built in the United States.

While the state took the lead in pushing for Boeing to locate its new plant for the 787 Dreamliner in Washington, it will offer just technical advice and support to the three communities that might actually submit proposals to EADS.

But the same $3.2 billion package of tax breaks and other incentives the state offered Boeing to attract the 787 plant will also be available to EADS if it locates in Washington.

The tax package was to be available for any aerospace company building commercial planes or military derivatives such as tankers in Washington, said Julie Sexton, economic development liaison for the state Department of Revenue.

"It was not targeted" at Boeing, said Sexton. "The purpose was to create an aerospace cluster in the state."

EADS officials have said their site requirements include a minimum 9,000-foot runway, space for a 1.5 million-square-foot building, an experienced work force and access to both a deepwater port and a university with a strong aerospace engineering program. Initially, EADS would build an engineering center that would employ 100 to 150 engineers. If the company won the contract, it would then build the manufacturing plant.

Moses Lake, Everett and Spokane all have ties to Boeing.

Boeing builds 747s and 767s in Everett, which will also be the site of the 787 plant. Boeing has a production facility in Spokane and uses the runway at the Port of Moses Lake for test flights and training.

All three communities have extra-long runways, with Moses Lake's the longest at 13,500 feet. Moses Lake's runway, which was built as part of Larson Air Force Base, is still certified as an alternate landing site for the space shuttle. Moses Lake was among finalists for the 787 plant.

Anderson, the Moses Lake port official, said the city also has access to a major barge facility in Pasco 70 miles away, its electric rates are among the cheapest in the nation, and with roughly 300 days of sunshine the flying weather is excellent. As for access to a college-level engineering center, Anderson said the local public utility district has wired the county for fiber optics.

"These companies want to get their costs down as low as possible," he said. "You can't do that downtown."

A Boeing spokeswoman, Amanda Landers, declined comment.

EADS sent invitations to the 50 states asking if they were interested in a new manufacturing plant. Guy Hicks, a company spokesman, said a majority of the states are expected to attend Tuesday's invitation-only meeting. Each of the states was asked to present no more than three sites that meet the criteria.

As for whether EADS would consider a new plant in Washington despite the state's connection to Boeing, Hicks said, "All 50 states were invited. We are looking for the right place to do business."

A decision where to locate the new plant is expected by the end of the year.