Millville and Boeing - perfect together The company needed space to work on helicopters. The city, struggling economically, had open hangars at the airport.

Posted: April 18, 2010

Boeing needed space to set up a new modification facility for its huge Chinook helicopters.

The Millville Airport had it: two massive, empty hangars not far from the company's Ridley Park site, where the Chinooks are made, or the Baltimore port, where many are loaded onto ships bound for the Middle East.

For the company, the move into Cumberland County, celebrated with a ribbon-cutting and praise from politicians this month, just made sense. For Millville, which has an unemployment rate among the highest in South Jersey, Boeing could be a game-changer.

The first of the CH-47F Chinooks - powerful tandem-rotor helicopters that can carry 25,000 pounds and weigh just as much - arrived in late January.

Local officials hope that the leading aircraft manufacturer will help draw other airport tenants and provide an anchor for the city's new 300-acre industrial park next door.

"We need that shot in the arm," Mayor Tim Shannon said.

Millville's unemployment rate was 14.3 percent in February, well above the state's 10.3 percent non-seasonally adjusted rate, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' most recent analysis.

The city's economy has been declining for decades as factories that long defined Millville as the largest glass manufacturer in the country have closed or downsized. The recession brought more losses and put a $500 million downtown riverfront redevelopment plan on hold.

Boat builder Silverton Marine, one of the largest employers, has dropped from more than 500 workers in 2006 to fewer than 100. Construction on nearly all of the 4,000 housing units that were before the planning board in 2007 has been canceled, economic-development director Don Ayers said. That aided the demise of three local building suppliers and left countless construction workers without jobs.

"We're trying to reinvent the economy," Ayers said.

The airport, which is operated by the Delaware River and Bay Authority and was used for Army pilot training during World War II, is one tool.

With the help of Urban Enterprise Zone money, the city is prepping and marketing the adjacent industrial park, which also abuts the New Jersey Motorsports Park.

Meanwhile, the authority is courting more airport tenants. News of Boeing's arrival has helped preliminary talks with other rotocraft-related businesses, though none has committed yet, said Frank Minor, the authority's deputy executive director.

Boeing began talks with the authority in October about 75,800 square feet of hangar space that became available after the eviction of a charter jet company.

Minor said he had pitched it as a place where Boeing could "walk in, turn the key, and get to work."

Three months later, after the Army selected the Millville property from three options, Boeing signed a four-year lease that starts at $549,500 with 2 percent yearly increases. The authority spent $312,000 on security improvements and the construction of concrete helicopter tie-downs, all but $21,000 of which Boeing will pay back.

Boeing's contract with the Army includes a one-year commitment to modify 34 aircraft in Millville for about $4 million. Raymond C. Haddad, director of Chinook Worldwide Programs, said he hoped to extend it for 105 more vehicles.

Boeing is upgrading the Army's fleet of Chinooks to the newest model, which, among other improvements, has improved flight control that allows pilots to maneuver more easily in adverse conditions.

Haddad wouldn't give specifics about the work being done in Millville but said it included 10 modifications related to communication, navigation, and durability in combat.

That work previously was done after the helicopters were delivered to their units. The goal in Millville is to cut costs by centralizing operations and to deliver the vehicles ready for use.

Six already have been completed and sent to a unit preparing for deployment at Fort Drum in New York, Haddad said. Electrical and sheet-metal mechanics were working on six more in Millville's hangars last week.

"In literally months, the aircraft that are being modified here will save lives," Haddad said.

Hiring staff in Millville was less expensive than expanding in Ridley Park, he said. The Pennsylvania site is a union shop, and Millville is not. The existing hangars saved on construction, too. "This was a good match for us," Haddad said.

About 20 people have been hired, and Haddad expects to more than double that by year's end.

Minor said he wasn't expecting an out-of-work construction worker to be hired doing specialized helicopter work. His hope is that other businesses will spring up because of Boeing's presence. "We've got our fingers crossed," he said.

The Boeing facility is a good get for Millville, but the city needs much more, resident Jim Maul said.

His family has owned the popular downtown restaurant Jim's Lunch for 87 years, but regular customers have become less regular as the city has lost jobs.

What kind of work does Millville need?

"Anything," Maul said as he scraped the griddle just before the noon rush Tuesday. "Something that will pay more than Wal-Mart."

So far, none of Boeing's hires is a resident, but Haddad said he hoped connections made at a recent job fair would turn into local hires as Boeing ramped up operations.

Contact staff writer Chelsea Conaboy at 856-779-3893 or cconaboy@phillynews.com.

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