BENT CREEK - Work is moving full steam ahead at the new $650 million Pratt & Whitney manufacturing facility under construction in southern Buncombe County, and a company official said production should begin there in the second half of 2022.
Meanwhile, another $5 million in potential funding, this time from the state, will help Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College build a training center nearby. Buncombe County previously committed $5 million to the training building.
Dan Field, Asheville site leader for Pratt & Whitney, gave an update June 23 to the Land of Sky Regional Council, a local government planning and development organization that covers Buncombe, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties.
“I’ve gone through and hired my initial project team, so we have a diverse group of 18 individuals that are working with all aspects of this project to construct this facility,” Field said during his virtual appearance. “And then in the later part of this year we’ll start recruiting, and into the early part of 2022 we’ll start our main workforce recruiting and hiring."
Construction cranes are visible from I-26, Field noted, and a new bridge across the French Broad River from Brevard Road is also emerging. The plant will employ 800 workers who will produce high-tech airfoils, which help power jet aircraft engines.
“You’ll begin to see our equipment being installed in the early 2022 time frame, and our target is to begin production in the second half,” Field said.
The 1 million square foot plant will create "at least 800 jobs at a good average wage that’s higher than the county average," Field said.
Previously, Pratt & Whitney has said those local jobs will average $68,000 a year, but that figure includes management and engineering jobs.
Floor workers at the new facility likely won't be making that much, Kevin Kimrey, director of Economic and Workforce Development at A-B Tech, said last fall. The wages are still solid, though, and Kimrey expects machinists and other skilled floor labor to be earning salaries in the ballpark of $40,000-$50,000 range.
That's well above the average per capita wage of $32,426, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, using data from 2015-19.
Asked specifically about salaries for production workers on the floor, Field said at the Land of Sky meeting, “I don’t have the specifics on a breakdown at my fingertips in a setting, but I can certainly circle back in future when that information becomes available."
More funding in pipeline for A-B Tech training center
Field did say the company will partner with A-B Tech and the North Carolina Community College System "to work with training that workforce and also help us with recruiting and hiring.”
In May, Buncombe County's Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to allocate $5 million in funding for a new training facility to prepare hundreds of workers for work at the Pratt & Whitney plant. The vote came despite protests by some local residents who said the company, a subsidiary of Raytheon, is a war profiteer.
Pratt & Whitney airfoils help power a wide range of civilian aircraft, as well as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter plane.
A sales tax designated for the capital needs of A-B Tech, called "Article 46" funding, will pay for the training center project, college President John Gossett said.
At the state level, Senate Bill 105, a state budget bill, is working its way through the General Assembly, and it includes more potential funding for A-B Tech and the training center. Gossett said he and other community college officials received a legislative update on the bill June 24.
"The Senate is proposing $5 million to supplement our Article 46 funding the county has already obligated for our Biltmore Park West building,” Gossett said, noting that would bring total potential funding for the building to $10 million. "We still haven’t gotten the architectural drawing, so we still don’t know what the estimated cost is going to be, but yes, $10 million ought to provide us plenty of space for our original vision of a 20,000 square foot building.”
A-B Tech plans to build a training center near the Pratt & Whitney plant in Biltmore Park West, which is envisioned to accommodate other companies as well. The Biltmore Farms Co. sold Pratt & Whitney a 100-acre parcel in Biltmore Park West for $1, part of public and private enticements to bring the company to Western North Carolina.
Escalating construction costs have necessitated more funding for the A-B Tech project, Gossett said.
"A year ago, we thought $5 million would build about 20,000 square feet," Gossett said in an interview. "With construction costs going up, I doubt that’s going to happen. I’ve been on the phone the last few weeks, looking for additional support for that building.”
The Senate bill still has a few hurdles to cross. It could be August before the bill makes it to Gov. Roy Cooper's desk for his signature, Gossett said.
Two of Western North Carolina's state senators, Chuck Edwards, R-Hendersonville; and Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine, are among the bill's sponsors. Edwards said in his negotiations with Pratt & Whitney two years ago, he "committed that our region would do everything possible to help them recruit and train the workforce they needed to achieve their economic goals.
"These appropriations to our community college system are part of that commitment, as is the $30 million additional funding I obtained to construct an interchange off I-26 to service their industrial center," Edwards said via email. "This brings us 850 jobs where single incomes can buy homes, where families might choose to return to a time where one parent might stay at home to tend to their children's education, where college educations can be afforded, and where more people can enjoy a slice of the traditional American way of life."
The A-B Tech training center probably will not open when the Pratt & Whitney plant comes online. The building will go up on a 5-acre site that Pratt & Whitney has deeded over to the county, Gossett said, explaining that the "county cannot build a building on land they don’t own."
"Even though we’re probably not going to have our building done by the time Pratt & Whitney is open, we will still do their training here on our main campus until such time as our building is complete,” Gossett said.
Local officials, A-B Tech and Pratt & Whitney have said previously they expect most of the 800 workers to come from the Asheville region.
Lots of incentives
In total, Buncombe County commissioners approved $27 million in incentives to Pratt & Whitney, part of $40 million in combined state and county incentives, plus the 100 acres Biltmore Farms donated.
The training center will be a shared building.
“The understanding is that some level of that structure will be used for training as Pratt & Whitney brings their employment up to full speed, which I think their plan is somewhere between five and seven years," Gossett said. "Once that’s complete, we’ll be able to use that space then for all the training we want to do in that part of the county. Basically, it’s going to be a machine shop, but I think they do have some proprietary technology they want to use in that space as well."
The "gentleman’s agreement" is that about half of the square footage will be used to train Pratt & Whitney employees, Gossett said.
“When they’re not using it, we’ll be able to use if for other uses,” Gossett said. “The other half of the building will be classroom space that we’ll be able to offer any of our programs in.”
Pratt & Whitney is constructing its own building.
Biltmore Farms Co. is responsible for constructing the bridge across the French Broad River and roads inside Biltmore Park West.
"As you drive by the site you can clearly see the roadway taking shape and the bents for the bridge have been installed," said Biltmore Farms Vice President Ben Teague, referring to bridge supports. "The bridge is slated for completion in the first part of 2022.”
‘Why do we need such a big building?'
The bridge and building are being built for the long haul.
Field explained that the Pratt & Whitney facility annually will make tens of thousands of airfoils, a small blade deep in a turbine engine that helps propel combusted gases out the back, generating aircraft propulsion. The airfoils, the largest of which is about the size of a cell phone, will be made here in Asheville.
“You might think, ‘Why do we need such a big building?'” Field said in his presentation. "Well, there are very, very large volumes of these airfoils. A typical airfoil count in a high-pressure turbine section is going to be on the order of 200-300 parts per engine. And we’re delivering thousands of engines, so the numbers add up quickly.”
Airfoils are a key product for Pratt & Whitney because of the company's business model.
“You’ve got to think of it as like shaving razors or printer ink, right?” Field said. “We’ll sell you the engine at a break-even or at cost — a small profit margin — but, you have to buy the spare parts from us for the life of that product, and the life of an engine is typically measured in decades.”
“So, what we’re creating in Asheville is going to be there for decades to come, and it’s really an exciting piece,” Field continued. “This is also the technology that allows us to differentiate ourselves from our competitors because we can run our turbine hotter and we can run our turbine faster, which creates a more efficient product.”
The company says its airfoils improve fuel efficiency 16%, reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by 50% and reduce noise by 75%. The noise element is important because louder planes are restricted from some populated areas, meaning they have to take longer routes to make their destinations.
Currently, Pratt & Whitney's airfoil production model involves transporting parts 2,500 miles before they're delivered. The idea with the Asheville plant is to have all the manufacturing done here, in one place.
Based in East Hartford, Connecticut, Pratt & Whitney makes "all types of gas turbine propulsion engines for various aircraft and helicopters, and we work with air framers from around the globe,” Field said.
“We have turbo-shaft engines for helicopters, large turbofan engines for commercial jetliners, turboprops that service both the private and regional aircraft industries, as well as turbojet engines for military products," Field said.
The Asheville plant will incorporate "all levels of automation, full modernization and (will take) advantage of the ability for us to create a lighthouse example of how we should be producing airfoils,” Field said.