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'Flywheel of energy'

Staff Writer | October 11, 2023 1:00 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — A local effort to create an aerospace tech hub in the region is facing strong competition.

The proposal for the American Aerospace Materials Manufacturing Center is among more than 100 applications. A decision on whether it advances to the second phase is expected within the next few months.

“Idaho is a great state for this, because Idaho’s technology readiness is lower than others,” said Nick Roach, marketing manager with Lakeside Companies, consortium member trying to bring the center home. “They need to pick states like Idaho.”

Roach spoke to about 125 people at the Coeur d’Alene Regional Chamber’s Upbeat Breakfast at The Coeur d’Alene Resort on Tuesday.

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.

It would be designed “to meet immediate and next-generation development and production of advanced aerospace materials," considered key to the future of aviation for being high strength, lightweight, cost-effective and durable, which improves a plane's fuel efficiency.

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.

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.

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.

According to the EDA, the funding "requires that consortia bring together a wide array of stakeholders."

"Successful applicants will pursue impactful diversity and inclusion strategies that accelerate innovation and growth, and that increase the equity, accessibility, and diversity of the innovation economy, including through accessible good jobs," according to the EDA website.

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.

Only those awarded the Tech Hub designation in Phase 1 will compete for Phase 2 grants of about $65 million.

"We encourage regions to think big and make bold plans," according to the EDA's website. "To execute, Tech Hubs consortia members and others in their regions will have to work together in ways they might not have done so previously."

Such a center, would create a “flywheel of energy,” Roach said, and attract talent to the area.

The higher-paying jobs would also help locals keep up with the rising cost of housing.

“Options for kids and adults,” said Linda Coppess, chamber president and CEO. “The sky’s your limit.”

Roach said there are about 900 aerospace manufacturing companies within 300 miles of Spokane, from Seattle to Central Montana.

“We’re a hub of aerospace manufacturing,” Roach said, adding, “We happen to have a high IQ around thermoplastic composites.”

He said thermoplastic composite aerospace materials were introduced on planes in the 1980s. They are used today in about 2% of plane construction, but the goal is closer to 50%.

“Europe happens to be ahead of us on this. They're very good at the thermoplastic composites side," Roach said. "We want to be competitive with Europe so we’re not dependent on foreign markets.”

He cited nationwide improvements in security, intellectual property and economics as benefits of American Aerospace Materials Manufacturing Center in the Northwest.

“There’s an opportunity to bring a hub of intelligence around aerospace to this area, grow that hub and become an international powerhouse,” he said.

Roached addressed a student in the audience.

"Maybe there is something here that can fit your interests and be meaningful to you,” he said. "It could be a gamechanger.”