Purdue lands Saab fighter jet plant in West Lafayette, part of $1B west campus plan
Dave Bangert Lafayette Journal & Courier Published 5:46 PM EDT May 8, 2019
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – The promise of aerospace-related jobs that Purdue President Mitch Daniels for years has insisted the university was ripe to get finally landed Wednesday, as Saab laid out plans for a manufacturing plant in West Lafayette, just west of campus.
Saab will invest $37 million and employ up to 300 people at a facility expected to make fuselages for the Boeing T-X, advertised as the U.S. Air Force’s next-generation jet trainer, company and state leaders – including Gov. Eric Holcomb – said Wednesday morning at Purdue Airport.
The Stockholm-based company’s plant would be the second manufacturer – and the sixth project overall – announced for Purdue’s Discovery Park District, a $1 billion plan to create what Daniels has touted as “live-work-play” concept over the next 30 years just west of campus. Daniels has hoped to capitalize on Purdue’s strength aerospace engineering research and its airport — one of the few attached to a university — to recruit businesses to West Lafayette.
The exact location in the Discovery Park District’s 176-acre aerospace portion was still up in the air, but it will be in the area between the airport and Newman Road, in the vicinity of Zucrow Labs, home of Purdue’s jet propulsion laboratories and other aerospace research.
On a day that Holcomb was calling “a proud, patriotic day” for Indiana and its place in advanced manufacturing in the name of cutting-edge national defense, Daniels and Håkan Buskhe, Saab president and CEO, were already talking about how establishing Saab’s footprint in West Lafayette now could lead to more in the future.
“I think I’m on safe ground, literally every state I can think of would have loved to have this plant,” Daniels said. “I’d like to think Purdue was a tie-breaker. The possibility for laying on top of a first-rate manufacturing facility a research partnership that may wind up in areas very far removed from the immediate purpose of this plant, in our many conversations, the company indicated that that gave us a dimension that many other contestants didn’t have.
“Now, it’s our job to come through.”
Buskhe said that given the company’s varied interests – “We do everything at Saab from private aircraft to submarines to radars to field hospitals to everything,” he said – the promised connections with Purdue researchers beyond those in aerospace were key in coming to West Lafayette. Wednesday’s announcement included a partnership with Purdue to expand Saab’s U.S.-based research and development work.
“There are huge opportunities when it comes to future sensors, communication, 5G technology and command and control systems, and in aviation in total,” Buskhe said. “So, I think with the skills Purdue has, it fits into the plans we have for the future and the plans we have for activities in the United States. … Because we are looking not just five, 10 years ahead. We’re looking a hundred years ahead. … We will be around.”
In the short term, Buskhe said Saab is on a tight timeline to produce its part of the new jet.
In September, a Boeing-Saab partnership won a $9.2 billion contract with the U.S. Air Force to produce the Boeing T-X, a jet designed to train fighter and bomber pilots. According to media reports, the Air Force intends to buy 351 of the Boeing T-X jets in the program’s first phase, with the first aircraft expected by 2024 and a full fleet coming by 2034.
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According to Purdue, Saab’s West Lafayette facility – expected to be under construction in 2020 – would produce “major aero structures for the T-X.” Saab’s 300 jobs are among the 17,000 across a handful of companies – including Triumph Group, General Electric, Collins Aerospace and L3 Technologies – collaborating on the T-X project, according to Purdue.
Buskhe said Saab more than two years ago committed to finding a spot in the United States for the T-X production. The search began in earnest in September, Buskhe said. Daniels said Purdue joined the talks late in 2018. Scott Walker – the Greater Lafayette Commerce president and CEO, who wore a bow tie in the blue-and-gold colors of the Swedish flag – gave a similar time frame.
Buskhe said Saab looked at its U.S. operations in New York, North Carolina and Florida, as well as other potential new sites in the United States. Buskhe talked about working with Holcomb, the Indiana Economic Development Corp. and community leaders, who showed Saab a level of cooperation and how the company would fit in West Lafayette. He said Saab found a sense “of home” in West Lafayette.
“These folks work fast,” said Daniels, who was in his share of on economic development announcements during his eight years as governor. “I’ve been in some of these that took years and years. This was not one of them.”
Construction and hiring are expected to begin in 2020, according to Saab. Jobs will include airplane mechanics, engineers and those on the assembly line. Buskhe did not commit to salary ranges on Wednesday.
“We are known to take care of our people,” Buskhe said. “We will expect a lot, of course. … It’s also important for us to be part of the community. And I think that’s connected to how you pay your people working for you.”
Saab has been promised incentives to come to West Lafayette.
The Indiana Economic Development Corp. will offer Saab up to $3.9 million in tax credits and up to $1.15 million in training grants, conditional on the company coming through on its promise of jobs, according to Purdue. The state also will offer up to $200,000 in conditional tax credits from the Hoosier Business Investment program.
Other local tax abatements and incentives – some of which were still in the works as of Wednesday morning – have been offered by West Lafayette, Lafayette, Tippecanoe County, Greater Lafayette Commerce and the Purdue Research Foundation, according to Purdue.
Lafayette Mayor Tony Roswarski said his city was ready to commit $350,000 in training funds. The West Lafayette City Council will consider five years in real estate tax abatements and 10 years of breaks for personal property, Erik Carlson, West Lafayette development director, said.
Roswarski said Lafayette had plenty to gain from the Saab plant and that he was comfortable with the city’s investment in it, even if the facility would be across the Wabash River. The mayor was part of tours to show what both cities had to offer, even stopping by the giant water slides expected to be ready this season at Columbian Park’s Tropicanoe Cove. (“Hey,” Roswarski said, “these guys are going to have kids who want to swim, too.”) Dinner with officials from Saab, Purdue and the cities the night before the announcement was a Teays River Brewing, a year-old public house in Lafayette.
Purdue University announced Wednesday, May 8, 2019, that Saab will build a $37 million plant just west of the West Lafayette campus to do work related to the Boeing T-X, the U.S. Air Force’s next generation training jet. The Saab plant is expected to bring 300 jobs. Eric Shindelbower/Saab
“It was important that we sold the whole region, not just one city over the other or just Purdue,” Roswarski said. “This was a whole community effort, and I think it showed.”
The Saab news comes on the heels for a flurry of announcements in the past week for the Discovery Park District, which Daniels has been pushing since 2016 and where planning started in earnest in 2017.
Last week, PRF announced two Discovery Park District projects on back-to-back days.
The first, from Indianapolis-based Browning Investments and J.C. Hart Co. of Carmel, included 250 apartments and 15,000-square-feet of street level retail space along State Street, near McCutcheon Drive, expected to be ready in 2021.
The other was what Carmel-based Old Town Design Group was calling Provenance, a subdivision along Airport Road, south of State Street, that eventually could have 130 single-family homes, 100 to 150 townhomes, apartments and light retail, along with ground carved out for a school or library.
Those follow construction, already underway, of Aspire, an 835-bed apartment complex at State Street and MacArthur Drive; and a 145,000-square-foot, five-story office building, called Convergence, just off State Street and near Aspire. The Purdue Technology Center Aerospace – often referred to as the Rolls Royce building – was finished nearly three years ago at the corner of Indiana 26 and U.S. 231 before Discovery Park District was announced two years ago.
In April 2018, when Purdue alum Edmund Schweitzer III announced that Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, his Pullman, Washington, electric power research company, would build a 100,000-square-foot facility – expected to bring 300 jobs – Daniels called it a “breakthrough moment” for the Discovery Park District. Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, near the corner of U.S. 231 and Indiana 26, was the first job-creator in the district – the “work” in the district’s live-work-play concept.
On Wednesday, Daniels was talking in similar terms about Saab.
“We took a risk,” Daniels said about the west campus plan. “I don’t know another university or town-and-gown partnership like it. Today, I think, gives us a lot of confidence that that was a thoughtfully and properly calculated risk.”
Daniels added: “I’m greedy. I want more. It makes us eager to find the next big step.”
As for the business at hand Wednesday at Purdue Airport’s Hangar No. 8, Daniels spoke directly to Buskhe: “We’re determined to do what we can do at Purdue to make this the wisest business decision Saab’s ever made.”
Reach Dave Bangert at 765-420-5258 or at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @davebangert. Published 5:46 PM EDT May 8, 2019