Fewer celebrity sightings in Duluth? Cirrus plans to send plane deliveries south

Your odds of bumping into a rich and famous aviator on the streets of Duluth may be greatly diminished in the future, assuming Cirrus Aircraft follows through with its development plans.

Dierks Bentley
Country music star Dierks Bentley (center, in front of plane) poses with Cirrus Aircraft employees as he picks up his new Cirrus plane in Duluth in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Cirrus Aircraft)

Your odds of bumping into a rich and famous aviator on the streets of Duluth may be greatly diminished in the future, assuming Cirrus Aircraft follows through with its development plans.

For years, some of the biggest names in entertainment, sports and other industries have streamed to Duluth to take delivery of new Cirrus planes - celebrity pilots the likes of Tim McGraw, Angelina Jolie, Ken Griffey Jr., Dierks Bentley and others, or their representatives.

But strapped for space at its Duluth facilities, Cirrus is looking to relocate its delivery operations to another, warmer locale with fewer weather challenges, said Bill King, the company's vice president of business administration. He explained the move will free up badly needed room for research and development operations.

He also said many would-be customers don't relish the idea of a trip to Duluth between December and March. People training out of a more southerly delivery center rarely would need to worry about icing or some of the other challenging conditions that sometimes confront pilots in Duluth.

Cirrus aims to begin production of its first jet aircraft, the Vision SF50, perhaps by year's end, effectively upping the ante for customer delivery operations.


Instead of the two to three days of training a person typically receives as the new owner of a Cirrus piston-engine airplane, a first-time pilot of the new $2 million jet will generally need 10 to 15 days to get up to speed, King said.

King said Cirrus has not yet settled on a location for its new aircraft delivery center, but has developed a short list of candidate sites.

Any move to a new delivery facility probably will be placed on hold until Cirrus' other building needs are addressed. King said the company's top priority involves the construction of a new 50,000- to 60,000-square-foot finishing center. Duluth is seeking $4 million from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development to assist with the $8 million building project. The city hopes to cover the remaining cost of the endeavor by issuing general obligation bonds and paying them off with a combination of lease payments it would charge Cirrus, plus new taxes that would be generated and captured with the help of tax-increment financing.

Additionally, Cirrus would invest more than $2.5 million to equip the new facility.

If the funding comes together, construction of the new building will begin this summer. The proposed building would be constructed using precast concrete panels, and Chris Eng, executive director of the Duluth Economic Development Authority, said it should go up fairly quickly. Assuming all the financial pieces fall into place, Cirrus could be operating out of the new space by the first quarter of 2016.

"There are no guarantees, but we're optimistic and hopeful about the grant prospects. It's an important component of the funding package for the project," Eng said.

Any delays could open the door for Cirrus to consider moving some of its production elsewhere, said Eng, noting that there are no shortage of cities that would eagerly set the table with other financial incentives for the company.

King said that if Duluth can build the proposed new finishing facility in short order, it would free up needed production space. The simultaneous relocation of delivery operations to another city also would provide room for the company's now-cramped research and development functions in Duluth.


When a new delivery center opens, it could lead to the transfer of 35 to 40 jobs out of Duluth - but King said the city still stands to see a sizeable overall employment gain.

Cirrus has pledged that the size of its Duluth workforce will grow by no less than 150 jobs, but King said: "I think it will probably be a lot more than that." The company already employs about 600 people locally.

While Cirrus hopes to move quickly, the changes it proposes won't occur overnight.

"Assuming this all gets funded, we first have to build a completion center, then that starts the process of all the musical chairs internally - the shifting of different internal activities - and that will require months of work" King said.

The expansion of research and development operations in Duluth bodes well for Cirrus' future commitment to Duluth, King said.

Generally speaking, he said: "Wherever you do R & D, that's where your production will be."

He explained that each team of people that develops and builds future generations of aircraft will possess unique and valuable insight that can guide future mass production.

"In a way, it's mixed news," said Eng, reflecting on the possible relocation of delivery staff to accommodate research and development operations in Duluth.


"We hate to see any jobs leave Duluth," he said.

But all in all, Eng considers Cirrus' increased investments in research and development operations a positive development, calling it "a very good trade-off."

All-Star baseball player Ken Griffey Jr. flies a Cirrus airplane and is slated to take delivery of the 48th Vision SF50 jet that rolls off the line at Cirrus Aircraft. (Photo courtesy Cirrus Aircraft)

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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