Boeing news won't make local waves

Boeing employees leave a companywide meeting Wednesday where it was announced that the company will relocate all its Wichita, Kan., operations by 2013, which will affect about 2,100 local employees.

Boeing's plans to close its Wichita plant by the end of next year won't mean much for the company's North Charleston campus, but the decision does highlight the stark differences between two aircraft manufacturing sites moving in opposite directions.

The sprawling Kansas maintenance and modification facility is an aging casualty of a shrinking national defense budget. Boeing South Carolina is a sparkling new plant building a prized new commercial jet at a time when global demand for air travel is soaring.

The company's Wichita site has long been unionized; the North Charleston campus is not. And on and on.

Frank Hefner, chairman of the economics and finance department at the College of Charleston, described Boeing's decision to exit Wichita as "part of the ebb and flow that happens with large companies."

"So I don't think this portends anything about the local plant in Charleston," Hefner said.

Founded in 1916, Boeing has grown beyond its Puget Sound roots over the last century, especially recently. In the last 15 years, it has merged with St. Louis-based McDonnell Douglas, moved its corporate headquarters to Chicago and then decided for the first time in 2009 to assemble wide-body passenger jets outside Washington with its massive investment at Charleston International Airport.

Such moves have kept Boeing's workers and its host cities on their toes.

It's not likely anytime soon, but some future shift in the business cycle -- like the one that brought Boeing to the Lowcountry -- could conceivably drive it away, too.

"Moses didn't come down from the mountain with the tablets and say, 'Boeing in North Charleston forever,' " Hefner said. "The world changes, and either companies adapt or locations adapt or circumstances change."

But everyone's in agreement that as Boeing's long run in Wichita is concluding, the Boeing era in South Carolina is just in its infancy.

"From what I understand, Boeing looks at things in the very long term," said Neil Whitman, president of Mount Pleasant-based Dunhill Staffing Services, which recruits skilled contractors for the aerospace giant from around the country. "If you believe everything you read and hear, they looked at this as a hundred-year commitment, and it's really just beginning."

Boeing South Carolina spokeswoman Candy Eslinger dismissed any questions about how long the company will be in South Carolina as "broadly speculative." Elected officials, from North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey to Gov. Nikki Haley, weren't interested in predicting how long Boeing will stick around, either.

"We have a great relationship with Boeing," Haley said. "We feel very confident with how we fit into their business plan."

Kansas politicians seemed to be under the same impression until recently. They supported Boeing's bid for a $4.9 billion Air Force refueling tanker contract, expecting that work would be the latest chapter of Boeing's 80-year history in Wichita.

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Stunned by this week's announcement, they didn't hold back their anger and frustration.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, a former Boeing employee, said in a statement Wednesday that state and local governments in Kansas "have invested far too many taxpayer dollars in the past development of the Boeing Company to take this announcement lightly."

The incentives package South Carolina offered to bring Boeing here is worth more than $900 million, according to a Post and Courier analysis two years ago.

None of the work being consolidated from Kansas is coming to South Carolina -- it's mostly going to Washington state, Oklahoma and Texas. But it's possible that some of the 2,160 Boeing workers in the so-called Air Capital of the World could arrange a transfer to the local Dreamliner campus, as Boeing employees from Florida, California and elsewhere already have. No one expects any mass influx from Wichita, though.

What's most exciting for the Charleston region is word of fresh orders for Boeing Dreamliners, said Hefner. More than 800 are on the books, and the company officially logged requests to build 25 additional 787s last week. Bloomberg News on Friday reported the customer is Air France.

"The more I see that, that's more confirmation that this plant's going to be around for a long time," Hefner said.