Waco welcomes aerospace companies

 - October 18, 2006, 6:18 AM

In recent years the city of Waco–population 150,000–has quietly built a reputation as home to a number of prominent aviation and aerospace operations, and since the election of George W. Bush has been the Texas home to Air Force One.

Located on the Interstate 35 corridor midway between Dallas and Austin, Waco attracts workers with its smaller-town atmosphere and relatively low cost of living. The 30 aviation and aerospace-related companies in the Waco area employ nearly 5,000 people, and the city hopes to attract even more aerospace companies in the next several years.

To that end, in early September the companies formed the Greater Waco Aerospace Aviation Defense Industries Alliance to promote the industry and work together to foster business development.

Waco is already on its way to becoming a center for avionics manufacturers, with several major players, including FreeFlight Systems (formerly Trimble Navigation), L-3 Communications Integrated Systems (née Raytheon) and Aurora Avionics, locating their headquarters there.

In addition, the city’s three airports– McGregor Executive, Texas State Technical College Waco and Waco Regional–house aircraft maintenance, modification and manufacturing operations that include RAM Aircraft, Blackhawk Modifications, MarathonNorco Aerospace and Air Impressions. The Texas State Technical College offers avionics training courses.

Former NBAA president Jack Olcott and National Air Transportation Association president James Coyne were guest speakers at the Alliance meeting, which about 400 Texas business leaders attended.

The purpose of the alliance is to attract new aviation business to the city and to create synergy, explained Steve Williams, president of FreeFlight and chairman of the alliance’s economic development committee.

“For example, we added up all the subcontractors all of us here in Waco use and found that we were outsourcing $18 million per year, so we told the chamber of commerce to find someone who could set up the same services locally, and they did. They also attracted a local source for specialized avionics sheet metal for three separate manufacturers.”

City Plans To Add Another Airport

The city is definitely not lacking for aircraft-friendly space. In fact, it is considering a fourth airport to supplement the existing three.

Waco Regional has a 6,596-foot ILS runway and airline connecting service to Houston and Dallas Fort Worth. Texas State Technical College has an 8,600-foot ILS runway and serves as a landing site for Air Force One and other large aircraft. McGregor Executive has 5,700 feet of runway.

The fourth facility–now in the planning stages–would be an airpark near the Texas State Technical College facility on 1,500 acres available from the Economic Development commission.

The group is currently in discussions with 13 national and international corporations, including an airframe manufacturer, about relocation, and it expects as many as six to commit to a move to Waco by year-end.

“In 10 years, I expect that [aviation] employment will have grown to 10,000 with a payroll of half a billion dollars,” Waco Mayor Virginia DuPey told the gathering. “That’s what I call economic development,” she concluded.