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A potential $200 million expansion by an aircraft maintenance company at Pensacola International Airport could bring as many as 2,000 jobs to the area, five times the company’s original commitment.

VT Mobile Aerospace Engineering, or VT MAE, is a Mobile, Ala.-based subsidiary of Singaporean conglomerate ST Engineering. The company performs aircraft maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) for passenger and freight airlines.

VT MAE’s hangar at Pensacola International Airport, currently under construction. (City of Pensacola/Special to The Pulse)

City officials say the proposed expansion could be “transformational” and would establish Northwest Florida as a leader in the global MRO industry. A job count of 2,000 would place VT MAE among the area’s top private employers, behind only Baptist Health Care, Navy Federal Credit Union, and Sacred Heart Health System. In addition to the direct jobs, as many as 3,600 indirect jobs could be created as a result of the expansion, producing more than $400 million in annual personal income, according to an analysis by the University of West Florida’s Haas Center. Florida’s gross domestic product would rise by an estimated $600 million per year.

Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward first travelled to Singapore in 2013 in a bid to convince VT MAE to expand its operations to Pensacola; company officials joined him in Pensacola in February 2014 to announce a deal. The first phase of the company’s facilities at Pensacola International Airport — a 173,000 square foot hangar — is currently under construction. City officials expect to turn the hangar over to VT MAE in March, and once operational, it’s expected to support some 400 jobs paying between $30,000 and $58,000 annually.

Pensacola mayor Ashton Hayward with VT Systems CEO John Coburn in 2014. (City of Pensacola/Special to The Pulse)

“One of the big goals that we set out to do as an administration seven years ago was to create the right environment for companies like VT MAE to come to Pensacola and know that we are focused on jobs,” Hayward said Wednesday. “To get a company like VT MAE, that’s such a big win for our community.”

As work has continued on VT MAE’s first hangar, though, Hayward and other officials have quietly been discussing with the company the possibility of significantly expanding their initial commitment to Pensacola. Those talks have resulted in a tentative new agreement that could see the construction of at least three additional MRO hangars, as well as administrative offices and other support buildings, creating an estimated 1,600 new jobs.

But that expansion is contingent upon the project receiving some $130 million over five years from Triumph Gulf Coast, the organization which will decide how to spend the bulk of Florida’s settlement with BP following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Established specifically to fund economic recovery and enhancement projects, Triumph currently controls around $300 million and will receive an additional $80 million to disburse each year from 2019 through 2033.

It’s not yet clear how much of its own money VT MAE would bring to the table. The company’s memorandum of understanding with the city is exempted from disclosure under Florida’s public record laws. With potential Triumph dollars accounting for 65 percent of the project’s total cost of $200 million, the remaining 35 percent — about $70 million — would likely be some mix of VT MAE investment along with state and local government dollars.

Local officials and VT MAE representatives broke ground on the company’s facilities at Pensacola International Airport in 2016. (Drew Buchanan/The Pulse)

“It takes money to make money,” Hayward said. “We have to be willing to invest in our community. When’s the last time Pensacola invested in itself?”

Diversifying Pensacola’s economy is critical to the city’s future, Hayward said.

“Pensacola can’t afford for this company not to be here,” he said. “For a long time we’ve been known as a retirement community, but we’ve had a cultural change going on in Pensacola. Young people want to stay in Pensacola now, and more people are migrating to the South than ever before. We can’t just survive on the tourism and hospitality industries.”

Conceptual rendering of the planned VT MAE facility at Pensacola International Airport. (City of Pensacola/Special to The Pulse)

Once fully completed, the proposed MRO campus would occupy more than 775,000 square feet adjacent to Pensacola International Airport. The project would use much of the so-called “Airport Commerce Park” property, an area of about 65 acres on the airport’s northwest side, which the airport has been slowly acquiring over the past 13 years.

While there’s no definitive timeline, the Triumph Gulf Coast board could make a decision on funding for the expansion as early as next spring. If all goes as planned, the four-hangar MRO campus could be fully operational as soon as mid-2022.

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