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Helicopter repair firm Sikorsky plans to vacate Craig

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on February 22, 2007.

Sikorsky Support Services Inc. is likely to shut down its Jacksonville operation and move the 75 workers there to a facility in Beeville, Texas, employees were told this week.

The company - which handles maintenance and repair service on Sikorsky products like Black Hawk and Seahawk aircraft - now operates out of leased space at Craig Municipal Airport, but was looking to double its workforce and move into its own hangar.

Two years ago, the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission agreed to give the company a $5,000-per-employee tax refund if it doubled its 62-member workforce, an incentive the firm said it needed to avoid moving operations to Alabama. The jobs never materialized and the tax rebate was not issued.

The plan in 2005 was for the company to spend $1.5 million renovating a former Army National Guard hangar at Craig airport that it would get to use rent-free for five years before having to pay the Jacksonville Aviation Authority about $100,000 monthly rent.

But negotiations with the Aviation Authority broke down when the two parties couldn't agree on who would pay for the renovations, said JAA spokesman Michael Stewart.

"We never could get to a point where both parties didn't feel it was too much of a financial burden," Stewart said. "We both agreed to walk away from the deal."

That led the company to decide to move to former Chase Field Naval Air Station, a base located between Corpus Christi and San Antonio that was shuttered by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission in 1993, according to two employees who said the final decision simply awaited the chief executive officer's signature.

"In January, after the holiday shutdown, they told us it was a 50-50 shot," said one of the employees. "Three weeks ago, they said it looks like 95 percent. Then the site manager came back from Beeville and said it was imminent, as soon as the CEO signs the paperwork."

The shutdown of the local facility would come about six weeks after corporate approval, both employees said. The employees asked to remain anonymous, as all employees were told not to speak to the media, saying they feared losing their jobs.

Site manager Rich Finch said Wednesday that the decision was "in the balance" and "hadn't yet been finalized," before saying he wanted to check with corporate public relations staff before commenting.

He did not return messages left following that conversation Wednesday afternoon. Several messages left seeking comment from two executives of parent company United Technologies Corp. in Hartford, Conn., over the past 10 days were also not returned.

Sikorsky has had problems with the work done at the Beeville facility. The U.S. Army said last month it would not renew a $19.3 million contract with Sikorsky to repair Black Hawks, citing problems with the quality of work.

Nevertheless, the company was enamored of the cheap rent available at the former base and decided it made sense to move operations there, said the two employees.

The move might end up with the company hiring new workers, though, rather than relocating existing ones.

"There's not a lot of people willing to go, to pack up and move," said one of the workers, adding that a survey of employees only turned up 16 volunteers to move.



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This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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