Bell Helicopter to open plant in Louisiana

Fort Worth-based Bell Helicopter will build a new line of small helicopters at Lafayette Regional Airport in Louisiana, saying the site was picked after a highly competitive selection process.

Several states were considered for the project, which is expected to create 115 jobs, the company said. Engineering and program support for the helicopters will take place at its Fort Worth headquarters complex, Bell spokeswoman Sara Monger said.

The company declined to name the states, but Monger said Bell’s Amarillo plant was considered. Bell builds its V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft in Amarillo and will build the 525 Relentless helicopter there. It also builds helicopters in Mirabel, Canada.

Bell Helicopter, a unit of Textron, has its corporate offices in Fort Worth, where it does product development, engineering and sub-assembly work. But no aircraft are assembled here.

The complex along Texas 10 in east Fort Worth is undergoing a $235 million renovation, including a $50 million headquarters and administration building now under construction.

In Louisiana, Bell will lease space for the Lafayette operation in a $26.3 million, 82,300-square-foot hangar funded by the state that will be owned by Lafayette Regional Airport. Bell said it will invest $11.4 million in equipment and tooling.

To secure the project, Louisiana offered an $8 million incentive package for lease support and infrastructure and equipment expenses.

Construction is expected to start in the first half of 2014. Bell said that it will begin hiring employees for the new facility by 2015 and that assembly operations will start by 2016.

Bell Helicopter will produce a five-seat, single-engine turbine helicopter, a contemporary version of the JetRanger, built by the company more than 50 years ago. Bell announced plans to re-enter the SLS market — short light single — at the Paris Air Show in June.

The SLS is a commercial aircraft that is designed to support a variety of operations and is aimed heavily at the export market, the company said. Target customers include utilities, law enforcement, civilian flight training and other applications, the company said.

“Bell Helicopter defined the short light single market nearly 50 years ago with the JetRanger, and our customers are again asking for a high-performance, high-value Bell product in this category,” Bell Helicopter CEO John Garrison said in a statement.

“We considered several sites for this new facility, and Louisiana’s proposal demonstrated the state’s commitment to economic development,” Garrison said. “The state’s established aerospace industry and exceptional workforce training programs were also key factors in our decision to make Louisiana a partner in expanding our manufacturing footprint.”

Bell began talks with key Louisiana officials in July. The company employs 60 workers in the area at a composite-panel plant in Lafayette and a blade-repair plant in Broussard.

“Bell Helicopter ranks among the most well-known aerospace companies, and we are proud that Louisiana’s world-class workforce, outstanding business climate and incomparable infrastructure combined to attract this exciting project to our state,” Gov. Bobby Jindal said in a statement.

Steve Andrews, president of United Auto Workers Local 218 in Fort Worth, declined to comment on the announcement.

In 2011, the Fort Worth City Council approved a 20-year, $13.5 million tax abatement for Bell Helicopter’s $235 million project in Fort Worth. The incentive requires Bell to keep at least 3,900 employees here through Dec. 31, 2028.

Bell said it has 6,200 employees in North Texas. In September, it laid off 290 employees, citing reductions in federal defense spending.

This report includes material from The Associated Press

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