Conference Addresses Expanding Aerospace Footprint

HUNTINGTON — Aerospace in West Virginia? 

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams says when he is asked that question, his answer is always the same. 

"I say hell yes," the mayor said. "We can get there from here. We can reach the world and change the world from right here in West Virginia." 

Williams' remarks opened the Next Generation Aerospace Conference in Huntington at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena on Thursday. The inaugural conference focused on developing and creating new business opportunities for the aerospace industry in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio. 

Williams says there is a formula that works for collaborative economic development. 

"Collaboration leads to partnerships, partnerships establish trust and through that we create hope," he said. "Hope is not a tactic; it's an outcome. Through sessions just like this we are able to start planning for not just the next 50 years, but the next 100 years." 

Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert said the conference is a great start. 

"Higher education, in my eyes, means jobs ... and that includes opportunities in the aerospace industry," he said. "This conference allows for forward-thinking dialogue about envisioning new avenues to develop the region economically. 

"Diversifying the economy and the available jobs is imperative in the economic growth in this region. We must embrace new technologies and use our resources to expand into the growing sectors of our economy, and that's one reason I am so excited about the possibilities we have before us with aerospace." 

Brad Hall, vice president of external affairs with Appalachian Power (AEP), said the company's economic and business development efforts are targeting aerospace. 

"In 2017, AEP and our regional economic development partners launched Appalachian Sky, an initiative that began in AEP's Kentucky territory and grew to encompass AEP territories in the Tri-State region that includes eastern Kentucky, southwestern Ohio and western West Virginia," Hall said. 

"The initiative's purpose is to aggressively attract aerospace and aviation industry to AEP's central Appalachia service region. Appalachian Sky was inspired by the intelligence and work ethic of the coal mining and steel working communities as captured in the movie 'October Sky' and chronicled in the memoir 'Rocket Boys' by West Virginia native Homer Hickam." 

Hall said Appalachian Sky was sparked by the completion of a comprehensive regional workforce analysis in AEP's Kentucky territory. 

"The research showed that coal miners, many of whom have lost their jobs due to recent mine closings, have the skills that aerospace and advanced manufacturing companies need," he said. 

"The study, which was funded in part with Kentucky Power economic development grants, concluded that the region had eight times the national average of skilled metalworkers, recognizing the potential of the aerospace industry to diversify the central Appalachian economy." 

Hall said AEP then commissioned a leading aerospace consultancy to determine the viability of aerospace in Appalachia's coal and steel country. 

"The consultancy certified 14 counties as 'AeroReady' in the Tri-State region, furthering the belief that aerospace can thrive in Appalachia," he said. "Five additional counties are working toward certification in 2018. We have also focused on preparing sites in the region through our AEP Quality Sites Program and other site development work." 

In the short time of the Appalachian Sky initiative, the region has already seen an uptick in prospective companies considering or committing to expansion in central Appalachia, Hall added. 

"For example, Kentucky Power has been able to actively market the region with state and local partners, resulting in six key manufacturing project announcements for the region in 2017 that include Braidy Industries, an aluminum rolling mill that will create 550 jobs, plus 1,000 construction jobs, in Ashland; Silver Liner, a tanker truck manufacturer that will create 300 jobs in Pikeville; AppHarvest, an agricultural grow operation that will create 140 jobs in Pikeville; EnerBlu, an advanced battery manufacturer that will create 875 jobs in Pikeville; Wright-Mix Materials, a liquid chemicals, grouts, cement products company that will create 130 jobs in Greenup County; and Thoroughbred Aviation, an aircraft maintenance, avionics painting company that will create 15 jobs in Martin County." 

Hall said three states having a conversation about how to work together to change the dynamics of the Tri-State region is a powerful thing. 

"If we work together, I think there is nothing that we can't accomplish, and we have proved that," he said. 

Hall says the Appalachian Sky initiative can be a "game-changer" and it recommends executive action from the Trump administration to designate central Appalachia as a preferred U.S. aerospace corridor. 

U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., attended the conference and said she, along with Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., recently sent a letter to President Donald Trump urging him to sign an executive order that would increase the incentive for aerospace companies to locate in central Appalachia. Qualifying counties in the region would benefit from federal incentives, both from a contracting perspective and tax incentives, according to Capito. 

"Now, thanks to pro-growth reforms coming out of Washington and a renewed optimism about growth and development here in the Mountain State, we are ready to start writing our next chapter," Capito said. "In fact, we've already started, and a major part of that will involve not only growing but diversifying our economy. I have no doubt that the aerospace industry will be an essential part of that ... an essential part of building a brighter future for West Virginia and the entire Appalachian region." 

The aerospace conference was hosted by the Robert C. Byrd Institute (RCBI), Marshall University, the West Virginia Development Office and the Huntington Area Development Council. The day-long conference included panel discussions with experts from across the country who delved into issues of supply chain development, new and emerging technologies, aerospace cybersecurity and workforce opportunities in an effort to establish a major aerospace cluster across the Tri-State.

By:  Fred Pace
Source: Huntington Herald-Dispatch