BOEING: The future

One of the first Boeing 787 jets is seen on an assembly line nearly surrounded by scaffolding on May 19, 2008, in Everett, Wash. Such a scene is to be mirrored in North Charleston once Boeing builds its plant on its site at Charleston International Airpor

Boeing Co.'s transformational influence on the Lowcountry will start with a mound of dirt today but have an immeasurable impact on generations to come.

The sheer scope of the aviation giant's future $750 million plant, the largest private investment ever announced in the Charleston area, could change the economic and cultural fabric of the region.

Boeing's plant will stand as the region's largest building, a steel-sided fortress on the Charleston airport's campus. With the footprint of 12 football fields, it could be seen through trees along Interstate 526.

Drivers will be able to peer into the fenced-in facility over neat landscaping and guarded entrances. The entire area around the plant will be redesigned for traffic flow with fresh turn lanes that will guide traffic into a black asphalt sea of parking lots.

Boeing's influence likely will reach beyond the plant itself. Planes with foreign logos will be lined up on the airport's tarmac. Students in schools will study the aerospace industry within direct sight of their future profession. Aviation suppliers will hum with orders to support Boeing's operation. International workers and visitors will bring a cosmopolitan flair and flock to cafes and restaurants that will spring up to serve the plant.

These are just a few of the visions local leaders have as they prepare to turn over the first shovels of dirt at the plant site today and usher in a new era ripe with thousands of jobs and the prospect of the region becoming a thriving aerospace hub.

Many leaders still haven't grasped just how dramatic this transformation could be. As Mary Graham of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce put it, "How do we grasp how big this is and how much it's going to change us?"

Growing forward

Urban planners say Boeing's move places the region at a pivotal point. The plant could be the nexus of a movement to revitalize blighted areas and build interconnected neighborhoods in which homes are mixed with shops, and transportation such as light railways. Or, they said, the plant could encourage the region to go further down the path of sprawl and congested commutes.

"It is rare for a region to get such a gift as a Boeing plant," said Terry Shook, a Charlotte-based urban planning expert. "The question that hangs in the balance is how community leaders and, by extension, real estate developers, respond to this incredible opportunity."

Lowcountry Housing Trust Director Tammie Hoy, who co-chairs a regional planning committee plotting the area's future, said area leaders need to look at Boeing's expansion from a regional perspective and work together to make sure change is accomplished in a careful, smart manner.

"This will take leadership from all three counties to see how this can benefit not just one community, but the tri-county as a whole," she said.

Inside the plant, cranes will drop down from the ceiling and scaffolding will be built up around familiar airplane parts as workers connect the pieces. On nearby tables, power tools will mingle with laptop computers.

Workers will cluster in teams to connect together the tube of the airplane's body, later adding the wings. Then comes the landing gear. When the jet is complete, workers will run a battery of tests, taxiing it around the runway and taking the plane for a spin.

All this will require training of the local workforce, something that is already under way through a state program held at Trident Technical College. Local educators also are mulling how to change curriculum at the high-school level to prepare students to one day work at the facility.

"We need to start building a pipeline for the future," Graham said. "We want our children to grow up and be able to work for Boeing."

International flair

Commercial airplanes from the Charleston airport will have to share their tarmac space with exotically labeled planes ordered by airlines such as Uzbekistan Airways, Russia-based Aeroflot and Air Niugini in Papua New Guinea. The company has received 840 orders from airlines worldwide.

Hundreds of representatives from those foreign airlines will come to the plant to escort their 787 Dreamliner home. Charleston's assembly line, when fully operational, could produce three Dreamliners a month. Everett's assembly facility, a three-shift operation, will produce seven.

Pieces of the Dreamliners also will be flown in from all over the world: wing tips from Korea, passenger entry doors from France and the wing's movable back edges from Australia. Suppliers will accompany their parts to Charleston.

Those visitors could make their way down to King Street, filling the air with casual banter in various languages.

The Starbucks on International Boulevard already has built a base of Italian clients who are connected with the Global Aeronautica operation, which is shared jointly between Boeing and Italy-based Alenia. Some customers visit the cafe several times a day and, as one barista put it, "chug espresso like it's water."

That influx of foreigners will be a return, in some respects, to Charleston's worldly past.

Charleston was founded as a commercial colony that needed outside merchants to set up their enterprises, creating a thriving business hub. In the early 1800s, which some consider the city's historical heyday, the Holy City was open to travelers, businessmen and sailors who docked at the port and reveled in city streets.

"We've always been a port city -- a place that's welcomed and benefitted from people from other places in the country and around the world -- so this makes it a continuation of the role that Charleston has proudly played," Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said.

A company as big as Boeing could make residents who aren't even directly connected to the facility feel linked into its pulse. Boeing, which will become the region's largest private employer with roughly 5,000 workers, could build itself into the fabric of the Charleston community as the Navy base and shipyard did for generations.

"There were Navy uniforms all over town, and as a resident you were aware of it," Graham said. "I think that's probably what we'll have with Boeing. They'll just be an integrated part of the fabric of our community."