Boeing official touts SC plant but is mum on 777X plans

jwilkinson@thestate.comDecember 19, 2013 

  • Boeing in SC

    In 2013, Boeing:

    •  Said it would invest an additional $1 billion in its North Charleston plant, creating 2,000 additional jobs

    •  Broke ground on a new Propulsion South Carolina facility, where engineers will design engine air inlets for Boeing’s 737 MAX. It is the first non-787 work that Boeing’s S.C. employees will do

    •  Expanded several buildings on the company’s campus to handle Boeing 787 work

— Boeing officials gave no hint at a media breakfast here Thursday whether South Carolina is in the running for the company’s new 777X assembly plant, which could add another 8,500 jobs to the state.

Jack Jones, Boeing’s vice president-general manager for South Carolina, didn’t even acknowledge if South Carolina is making a bid.

The Boeing plant, adjacent to the Charleston airport, has leased an additional 468 acres but has yet to announce plans for that site.

“I’ll let you guys speculate what it all means,” Jones said. “But I’m here to tell you – right now, right here – nothing. … But it gives us a lot of flexibility.”

Boeing put out a request for proposals for a site for the 777X plant to 12 to 15 states last month after negotiations between the aircraft maker and unionized machinists at the company’s traditional home in Washington state fell through, jeopardizing placement of the new plant in Seattle.

To aid a deal, Washington state lawmakers already had put together a $9 billion tax-break package for the 777X. But the machinists’ union refused Boeing’s demand to replace the aircraft maker’s pension plan with an employee contribution-based savings plan. Days later, Boeing called for bids from other states.

Media reports have mentioned South Carolina, site of a new Boeing 787 Dreamliner plant, as a possible bidder for the 777X project. But S.C. elected officials and the Commerce Department officially have remained mum on the subject, even after the Dec. 10 deadline for proposals to be made to Boeing.

“We are always in good talks with Boeing,” Gov. Nikki Haley said at the time.

Boeing’s Jones said Thursday he was not on the 777X selection committee and didn’t know which states had submitted bids.

“I don’t know if this state is even participating in that process,” Jones told S.C. journalists at a breakfast held to update the public on the company’s 2013 accomplishments.

The event was held in a mezzanine overlooking the cavernous final assembly plant for the company’s 787 Dreamliner. Jones said Boeing had fulfilled its goal of annually building 60 of the sleek 787s at its North Charleston and Everett, Wash., plants despite the plane’s four-month-long grounding because of battery problems. The company’s new goal is to build 120 787s a year.

But the 777X announcement was the elephant in the room, even though media handlers said ahead of time that Boeing S.C. officials would not have any information on the site selection.

Jones reiterated that Boeing chairman and chief executive James McNerney has said an announcement of the 777X site would be made by the end of January.

In addition to copious incentives, Boeing is seeking a long runway, land to build a 4.2 million-square-foot factory, a number of tax breaks and access to interstates, rail lines and possibly a deep-sea port, according to published reports.

Boeing says the 777X will be the “largest and most-efficient twin-engine jet in the world,” made from lightweight composite materials like the 787.

Published reports have said bids for the 777X plant were submitted for 54 sites from states including California, Georgia, North Carolina, Missouri, Alabama, Utah, Texas and Kansas.

Most of the bids are secret. But reports say Missouri is offering tax breaks worth as much as $1.7 billion over 23 years.

Boeing employs 6,600 workers in South Carolina, building the 787. The Lowcountry plant, which began rolling out Dreamliners in the spring of 2012, was the Boeing’s first passenger-jet assembly facility outside of Washington state.

This year, South Carolina gave Boeing another $120 million in incentives – on top of the state-record $450 million used initially to lure the company to the Lowcountry – to expand the North Charleston plant.

In exchange, the company promised to add another 2,000 workers. Six hundred already have been hired as operations expand in North Charleston. A new paint facility, fire station and autoclave currently are being built.

Jones said most of the state’s $120 million “is going to buy land.”

Jones said Boeing and other companies with S.C. plants, including BMW and Michelin, have been pushing for the state to invest more in math and science education.

While Boeing is getting the workers it needs now, “we want to make sure that pipeline is there,” he said. Without a pipeline, he said, the companies will have to go outside the state for their talent.

“You do not want to do that. The state does not want to do that,” he warned. “It’s really critical the state invest in science, technology, engineering and math. It’s the basis of everything we do.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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