Wednesday, July 30, 2014
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Cirrus Design looks west
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Cirrus Design's SR-22 is the single biggest selling airplane in the world. The Duluth based manufacturer might surpass Cessna this year to become, by numbers of airplanes sold, the world's leading airplane manufacturer. (MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher)
A Duluth airplane manufacturer is quickly out-growing its current digs. Cirrus Design already builds the world's best-selling airplane. Demand is so strong the company is planning a major expansion. But the land they want in Duluth is polluted, and under lease to the military. If Cirrus can't break ground this fall, company officials say, new production and new jobs may have to go to another state.

Duluth, Minn. — Kate Dougherty remembers the old days - just 10 years ago. When Cirrus Design proposed a whole new kind of small airplane, people said it would never happen.

"'They'll never do it,'" Dougherty recalls the critics saying. "'Well, if they get it certified they'll never learn how to build it.' 'Well, if once they learn how to build it, people aren't going to buy plastic airplanes.' Well?"

Dougherty is Cirrus Design's director of public relations. Now, with 800 Duluth employees making three planes a day, Dougherty says there's not many doubters left.

"They're not laughing anymore," Dougherty says.

Cirrus redrew the design for general aviation aircraft: the first all-plastic body, the first full airplane parachute, standard equipment, and the first digitized cockpit, with video screen readouts like in advanced military and commercial aircraft.

Like a Cirrus SR-22 lifting off the runway, sales have taken off: nine airplanes sold in 1999; 1,000 by the summer of 2003; and now, two years later, another 1,000 airplanes sold.

Company co-founder Alan Klapmeier says Cirrus needs to expand, and to expand quickly - both in Duluth where the airplanes are assembled, and in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where the plastic body parts are made. The expansion's already under way in Grand Forks. Klapmeier says that puts even more pressure on getting a new building under way in Duluth.

"The expansion in Grand Forks will require some additional expansion some place else, and we hope it's here," says Klapmeier. "And the reason that sounds horrible is because everybody gets upset and they think that we're trying to force people into doing things. Obviously that's not our view. This is our preferred location. This is want we want to do. But we do have to have the space to build a building on."

But there are problems with the Duluth site. It's polluted, after 50 years as an aviation fuel storage location. And it's leased to the government. Cirrus Vice President Bill King says time is tight.

This is our preferred location. This is want we want to do. But we do have to have the space to build a building on.
- Alan Klapmeier, Cirrus president and CEO

"I'm scared to death about the timeline, to be honest with you," King says. "The pollution is one problem. The bad soil content, in terms of structural integrity is a second problem. And the third, and probably one of the more complex is that the property is currently under lease by the Army Corps of Engineers who has a sub-lease to the Air Force who further subleases it the to the Air National Guard."

That will take some time to unravel, and Cirrus doesn't have much time.

"What we're really looking for, is we're looking for the city, the state, and the airport authority to kind of team up together and make a space available for us to expand on so that we can expand," King says.

Duluth's City Business Director Tom Catruvo says it's important to help Cirrus with its plans - both for Duluth and for the state of Minnesota.

"Because now Cirrus is the number one manufacturer of single engine aircraft in the world," Catruvo says. "And they certainly have a lot of expansion plans on their horizon, so we want to be a part of those plans."

None of the problems, he says, are insurmountable.

"We will be ready for Cirrus's expansion," Catruvo says.

Cirrus outsold rival Cessna Aircraft for comparable airplanes in the first quarter this year. Already, the Cirrus SR-22 is the single best selling airplane in the world. Vice President Bill King says, by the numbers of airplanes sold, he thinks Cirrus is on track to be the world's largest airplane manufacturer this year.

With the expansions, Cirrus expects to cement its leading position for the foreseeable future. They hope their Duluth headquarters will be able to grow as fast as the company. But if that's not possible, it's Grand Forks North Dakota that will get the additional jobs.

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