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'A game-changer'

Staff Writer | August 18, 2023 1:09 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — When Linda Coppess first heard a proposal to establish the American Aerospace Materials Manufacturing Center in the region, she was all in.

“I got chills. There’s no other way to describe it,” the president and CEO of the Coeur d’Alene Regional Chamber said Thursday.

Not only is she convinced it could create thousands of skilled, high-paying jobs, but the area could become a key player in the growing aerospace industry.

“I think this could be a game-changer for our region,” she said.

About 50 local and regional workforce training, venture capital, economic development, labor, education, tribal and government groups have formed a consortium to support establishing the American Aerospace Materials Manufacturing Center.

“With the region’s world-class aerospace workforce, this innovative Center is designed to meet immediate and next-generation development and production of advanced aerospace materials and reduce American reliance on foreign-produced composites,” a press release said.

The center would combine applied education research, workforce training and advanced production, principally located in a 386,000-square-foot repurposed manufacturing facility near Spokane International Airport with room to grow over 50 acres.

“The future of aviation and aerospace is the development of advanced composite materials to create aircraft that are lighter and more fuel efficient at reduced cost,” according to a press release.

The consortium is described as "like-minded organizations committed to creating the world’s most advanced Tech Hub, situated in the Inland Northwest."

North Idaho member agencies include the cities of Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls, North Idaho College, the Coeur d’Alene Regional Chamber, the Coeur d’Alene Economic Development Corp., Coeur d’Alene public schools and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.

“This is a big deal for NIC to participate alongside nine other regional higher-ed institutions in partnership with leaders in industry, research, and workforce,” said Nick Swayne, president of North Idaho College. “It represents NIC’s forward-thinking and our dynamic presence in collaborating with key partners to further opportunities for our students and have an impact on our region’s economic development.”

Gonzaga University is the lead higher education institution for the consortium, which has filed applications with the Economic Development Administration for federal designation and Phase 1 funding to create the center. The University of Idaho, Washington State University and Eastern Washington University are among the other higher education partners involved.

The EDA will designate 20 Tech Hubs in the nation in Phase 1, awarding about $500,000 per grant.

Phase 1 awards are expected in late fall.

If funded, NIC will receive a portion of the funding to develop supportive programming for the Tech Hub in Phase 1 and participate on the consortium team to compete for the larger, Phase 2 grant.

Only those awarded the Tech Hub designation in Phase 1 will compete for Phase 2 grant, each about $65 million.

Consortium members will create a governing body to oversee the development and selection of Phase 2 implementation activities.

Some keys about the proposed American Aerospace Materials Manufacturing Center:

Establish a testbed facility for large thermoplastic composite aerospace materials.

Advance a market disrupting, high-rate production solution that maintains the same performance of most advanced composite aerostructures flying today at low-production rates.

Expedite net-zero carbon emission goals by 2050 for NASA and the aerospace industry.

Upskill the current workforce, coordinate with tribal nations and workforce leaders, and utilize the best-practices for supporting underrepresented communities, in both Washington and Idaho, to model the next generation of aerospace jobs.

Center the Inland Northwest as a destination for aerospace suppliers and private investment to support new products and companies within the U.S. aerospace supply chain.

Coeur d'Alene Mayor Jim Hammond supported the plan.

"This effort is an excellent opportunity to enhance the economy of the Inland Northwest by creating greater synergy among various regional companies and also an opportunity to create more jobs that will provide excellent compensation for the residents and newcomers," he said.

John Hemmingson, CEO of consortium member Lakeside Companies, said the industry goals for proving new production capabilities of thermoplastic composites for aerospace at the American Aerospace Materials Manufacturing Center will lead to a new domestic supply chain and begin to reverse U.S. reliance on foreign-made materials.

“Global demand for advanced aerospace composites is growing exponentially and this industry collaboration with our area education and workforce partners will build those capabilities again, right here in the Inland Northwest,” he said.

Hemmingson said there is no better location for the Tech Hub than the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene area.

“We are at the center of the I-90 aerospace corridor, and we have so many great resources including a concentration of existing composites suppliers and leading research universities,” he said. “We also have some of the fastest growing cities in both Washington and Idaho between Spokane, West Plains, Spokane Valley, Post Falls and Coeur d’Alene.”

Coppess said, when she graduated from the University of Washington in the 1980s, she had hoped to find work that would allow her to return to North Idaho.

But, because the area lacked the job opportunities and compensation she sought, she accepted a role with Microsoft and stayed in Seattle until an opening in Coeur d'Alene finally brought her home.

"I sometimes wonder what my life would have have looked like if high-paying job options were here, versus having to stay away," she said.

Coppess said employment at the center would give locals the income necessary to stay home.

“It just gives us choices. It gives our kids choices,” she said.