MCDERMOTT COLUMN: S.C Commerce aerospace task force looks to build off Boeing
Boeing Co. this week is rolling out its first North Charleston-assembled 787 jet. As if on cue, South Carolina last week rolled out a new plan to give its aerospace industry a lift.
Here's hoping for a successful takeoff.
Ahead of the eagerly awaited Dreamliner debut Friday off International Boulevard, Commerce Department chief Bobby Hitt has announced the creation of an aerospace task force. He appointed former Marine fighter pilot and businessman Charlie Farrell as his main wingman.
South Carolina isn't a big aviation hub, but it's squarely in the game nonetheless. The Palmetto State is home to more than 180 aerospace manufacturers and suppliers that cut paychecks to more than 20,000 workers. They include blue-chip names such as General Electric and Lockheed Martin, both in the Upstate, as well as lesser-known players, such as Venture Aerobearings in North Charleston.
Suddenly, it lands a certain Fortune 500 company based in Chicago and known historically for delivering shiny new jetliners from the Pacific Northwest.
Until now, that is.
Farrell called Boeing “our grand slam.”
“Boeing coming here gives us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we want to take advantage of that,” added state Deputy Commerce Secretary George Patrick, who's been working on an aerospace task force idea for about a year, starting weeks after his boss took office.
Patrick acknowledged that's too long for his taste, but he vowed the group will move rapidly, at least as government task forces go. Hitt has the legal authority to appoint up to nine experts “to advise him on specific matters of economic development, of which this is certainly one,” Patrick said.
The selection process is under way. The first meeting will likely be held within the next four to six weeks.
“The charge is that in 18 months and no more than two years ... we want to have in place with the advice and input of this group a strategic plan that is executable, not something to be put on the shelf, that will help us leverage Boeing and other industry and assets in the state to make aerospace a bigger deal than it already is in South Carolina,” Patrick said Thursday.
New suppliers that serve the Dreamliner campus directly are an obvious target. But the task force also plans to explore how South Carolina can capitalize on Boeing's use of high-strength, lightweight plastic composites throughout the 787 airframe.
“The composite industry has applications in aerospace, in defense-related activities, almost anything,” Patrick said.
Even the state's growing tire-making industry could be leveraged, he added.
Hitt is working off a playbook he knows well, as he seeks to replicate the so-called BMW effect with Boeing. Before he took on the role of state top industry hunter, the onetime newspaper editor was a longtime executive and spokesman for the German automaker's Upstate plant.
“BMW has grown from a one assembly line operation some 19 years ago to where we are today, not only with BMW itself but with all the suppliers that have come with it,” Patrick said.
The Greer auto plant has since expanded numerous times and does business with vendors in 14 counties. BMW's economic punch extends to the coast as a major customer of the Port of Charleston. “So if you use that as model for South Carolina, we think the Boeing presence has potential to drive the same sort of growth in the aerospace sector,” Patrick said.
The task force plan didn't come out of the clear blue.
Patrick said he and Hitt began talking about building up the aerospace business a year ago this past March. They sought out advice from retired Gen. Michael “Buzz” Moseley, a former F-15 fighter pilot and the 18th chief of staff of the Air Force.
Now a Sumter resident, Moseley previously had worked as a consultant on a similar aerospace strategy with the governor of Arizona.
Another early player was former Commerce staffer Hank Taylor, now a vice president at the Charleston Regional Development Alliance and a retired Air Force brigadier general.
Executives from the business world were called to Columbia for their input.
“Boeing was certainly at the table,” Patrick said.
As it should have been, and should be going forward. Boeing South Carolina's expertise is manufacturing world-class 787 airplanes. But in this instance, it's the locomotive that's pulling the train that is the state's aerospace business.
Patrick put it in retail terms.
“When you build a shopping mall, the first thing you want is an anchor tenant, and then a lot of other good things can happen with other anchor tenants,” he said. “Boeing is what I'd consider an anchor tenant in the aerospace industry.”
Reach John P. McDermott at 937-5572.