Aviation is poised to take off as the next Upstate industry powerhouse

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Two Lockheed Martin T-50A trainer jets fly above Greenville. Photo provided by Lockheed Martin.

From the sky, the Upstate is a quilt of greens, browns, and patches of blue.

Lightly colored rectangular shapes dot the landscape. They are, for the most part, castles belonging to the monarchs of the region’s economic might — its automotive manufacturers.

But a new source of investment, job growth, and international notoriety has appeared on the horizon.

Since 2009, the aviation industry has been making a comeback in the Upstate after eight years of decline following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Coincidentally, or maybe not, the positive trend began the year aerospace giant Boeing acquired Vought Aircraft Industries’ North Charleston plant and announced it would be the second final assembly site for its 787 Dreamliner program.

As of the fourth quarter of 2017, labor market data provided by Upstate SC Alliance showed the number of jobs related to aerospace and defense in the region increased more than 27 percent from 2013 to 2017.

The national rate declined more than 3 percent during that period.

Upstate SC Alliance, which is an economic development organization founded in 2000 to position the 10-county region of the Upstate for global success, showed that the average wage for these jobs was more than $103,000 per year, compared with about $127,000 nationally.

John Lummus, president and CEO of Upstate SC Alliance, said there are currently 400 aviation-related companies in South Carolina. He said 150 of them, almost 38 percent, are located in this region.

There are aviation-related companies in each of the 10 counties of the Upstate, Lummus said.

“I think it’s a natural fit for us,” Lummus said. “Of course, having Lockheed Martin and GE [in Greenville] and Boeing in Charleston is a positive, but [the Upstate] is really at the center of a pretty good aerospace cluster.”

Lummus mentioned Airbus in Alabama, Honda Aircraft Co. in North Carolina, Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. in Georgia, and several other original equipment manufacturers of aircraft within a couple hours drive of the Upstate.

“This is really a good area for aviation-related suppliers,” he said. “I think our base of manufacturing knowledge matches up well. There are a lot of synergies.”

Lummus explained that the nature of aircraft manufacturing is different than automotive manufacturing.

For example, Spartanburg County-based BMW Manufacturing Co. produces about 1,500 cars per day. Boeing produces about a dozen 787s per month.

“With aviation, it’s not so much of a just-in-time situation,” Lummus said. “That means suppliers don’t have to be located right there around the plant. It allows suppliers here to serve aircraft manufacturers in Charleston and other areas.”

In addition to manufacturing expertise and a growing cluster of aviation-related companies, officials said the Upstate has a few other advantages they believe will provide for future growth.

The Upstate is home to Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport (GSP), Donaldson Field, and Greenville Downtown Airport, which are three of the state’s top 10 airports in terms of employment, payroll, spending, economic activity, and tax revenue.

S.C. Aeronautics Commission data showed those three airports account for more than $1.8 billion in economic activity annually. That’s more than 11 percent of the nearly $16 billion of total annual economic activity generated by South Carolina’s top 10 airports.

GSP, Donaldson Field, and Greenville Downtown Airport employ a combined 12,736 people, or nearly 11 percent of the jobs provided by that group of airports.

In terms of tax revenue, those three Upstate airports create nearly $70 million annually, which is about 11 percent of the more than $6.4 billion generated by the state’s top 10 airports.

“Statewide, there is a big push in aviation,” Lummus said. “We have been working to get the buzz out that [the Upstate] is an aviation hub.”

Another positive for the region’s aviation industry is the shift of Lockheed Martin’s F-16 fighter and T-50A trainer jets production to its Greenville Operations Center at the S.C. Technology and Aviation Center, or SCTAC, beside Donaldson Field.

“These are two developments that have changed the landscape of Lockheed’s Upstate operations,” said Jody Bryson, president and CEO of SCTAC. “They will create jobs and investment.”

In addition to Lockheed Martin, SCTAC is home to 110 other “technologically advanced companies,” according to its website.

Bryson said Greenville Technical College’s Aircraft Maintenance Technology program, which is housed at SCTAC, will have a critical role to play in the development of the region’s workforce.

The S.C. Army National Guard, in partnership with Greenville Tech, is increasing its investment in facilities at SCTAC that will increase training capabilities and student capacity.

Mark Farris, president and CEO of the Greenville Area Development Corp., said he believes Greenville Tech’s Center for Manufacturing Innovation (CMI) next to Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research will eventually contribute to the region’s aviation industry growth.

“When I first heard about [CMI], I was immediately excited,” Farris said. “The workforce requirement is the No. 1 concern for companies [seeking to expand or relocate]. … It will put us in a position to compete for advanced manufacturing jobs.”

Leaders said there are efforts being made across the region to land manufacturing companies that are more advanced. Generally speaking, this means attracting jobs that demand higher skills but pay higher wages.

“It makes perfect sense for us to look at aviation as an evolving option for us,” Farris said. “A lot of this has to do with our manufacturing history and expertise. Textiles evolved into automotive manufacturing. Auto could evolve into something even greater.”

For example, when Japan-based Toray broke ground on its $1.4 billion plant in Spartanburg County, a company official said the facility would supply carbon fiber for Boeing’s operation in North Charleston.

And Teijin Ltd., another Japanese carbon fiber manufacturer, said its new $600 million plant in Greenwood County will supply several industries, including aerospace.

“When BMW came to South Carolina, we didn’t really know what kind of impact it would have on our region,” Farris said. “I think it’s the same thing with Boeing. … We’re creating a conglomeration of companies that support [the aviation] industry — an economy of scale.”

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