AUBURN -- This King County city is embarking on an aggressive plan to build an aerospace enterprise zone centered around its general aviation airport.
"We're really trying to enhance the airport, and maximize the economy of the airport," said Bill Thomas, an economic development planner with the city.
Thomas said Auburn's airport is recognized by King County's Aerospace Alliance as "a gem in the rough." He said the airport currently supports 300 direct and indirect jobs with an economic impact of some $90-million a year -- a number Thomas said he hopes will double.
"We're third in the county in terms of aviation growth," he said.
The Auburn airport was built in the late 1960s as a general aviation airport dedicated to small aircraft. The planned changes would add another 500 feet to the runway and allow the construction of a new taxiway. The idea is to be able to bring in small jets and other corporate aircraft that the city expects will lead to more economic development. Thomas said the expansion will happen within the current fence lines of the airport.
Just this week, the City of Auburn passed legislation clearing the way for Orion Aerospace to build a 100,000 square foot facility that would employ up to 265 people before the end of 2013. Groundbreaking for the project is expected in December on three parcels of land assembled by the city from King County, King County Metro and a private owner.
"To be part of Auburn's aerospace cluster is a pretty big deal for us," said Tom Brosius, Orion's general manager.
The company started out in Renton in 1957, but has been headquartered in Federal Way for more than 20 years. Brosius said the company's current 46,000 square foot facility is "just flat out of room."
Orion makes parts for Boeing and was recently named Boeing's supplier of the year. Someone touring the company's Federal Way plant may not realize that its mission is a bit different than other companies that make airplane parts. Orion is a social enterprise: It's mission is to help train people for careers who otherwise have barriers to employment.
"I've upgraded my resume," said Tony Kilgore of Seattle, who started working at Orion in June. He said he hopes that his job with Orion will lead to a career working for Boeing. "Now that I've got the training. Now I can apply," he said.
Kilgore was laid off from a Seattle tour bus operator 18 months ago, after which he was referred by the state's vocational rehabilitation program.
John Dambacher, an Orion worker since August, was referred by the City of Federal Way after six years of chronic unemployment and underemployed that began in 2006 when lost his last steady job as a carpenter.
"I'm heading to become a journeyman machinist," said Dambacher, 51, who added that he had never considered the career path before his referral to Orion.
Orion employs more than 200 people now and will have an additional 40 openings by November 2013 when it expects to open the doors at its new Auburn plant. (The company said it will lease out the Federal Way facility it will vacate at that time.)
Auburn was attractive to Orion because there are more opportunities for people to take public transit to get to work, including Sounder commutter trains. The new location would also be closer to Boeing's large Auburn fabrication division where most of Orion's parts go. Orion also makes parts for the automotive, medical and marine industries.
"Their primary mnission is workforce development training, and that's where they fit in," said Thomas
Thomas said discussions are ongoing with Green River Technical College to set up an aviation training facility at the airport.