Jan 11, 2012
New NASA program, amenities build New Orleans-based Michoud’s tenant roster
New Orleans CityBusiness
By Jennifer Larino
Charles Easterling, CEO of Crescent Unmanned Systems, would have ended up in the desert if he didn’t hop into a golf cart and drive around the 842-acre NASA Michoud Assembly Facility in eastern New Orleans earlier this year.
Easterling and fellow founders, who started Crescent in April, had narrowed prospects for the company’s future manufacturing hub to locations in Louisiana and New Mexico.
Both states offered tax incentives the company could use to develop and manufacture its unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles.
The tipping factor was Building 103, the 43-acre site that housed space shuttle external tanks that were built there for 38 years until this summer. Easterling found ample space, material testing labs and high-tech manufacturing equipment for rent. It didn’t hurt that names such as NASA, Boeing and Lockheed Martin were established on the Michoud campus.
“Anyone can go out and rent a warehouse,” Easterling said. “It’s more about having the types of the companies that are currently at Michoud around you.”
A little more than a year ago, concern over how many of those companies would still be at the Michoud Assembly Facility reached a boiling point. The space shuttle program, which employed 2,500 people at its peak, was winding down and the Obama administration killed the costly Constellation rocket program expected to follow it.
State and regional leaders rallied behind Blade Dynamics, a wind turbine blade manufacturer based in the United Kingdom, which decided in August 2010 to locate its manufacturing operations at Michoud. Blade Dynamics promised 600 jobs by 2015.
Today, cries for commercial tenants have faded and attention has shifted to the number of jobs a new NASA rocket program will bring to the facility.
Over the summer, Lockheed Martin kept 200 people to work on the Orion project, which is expected to carry astronauts beyond low earth orbit in 2016. Congress also approved an $18 billion plan in September to build the Space Launch System (SLS). Michoud will build the core of the rocket and its upper stage for a December 2017 launch date.
“There was a sense of ‘problem solved,’” said Michael Hecht, CEO of the regional economic development organization Greater New Orleans Inc., when Blade Dynamics moved into Michoud and NASA announced its next program.
When Crescent Unmanned Systems moves into the Michoud Assembly Facility in January, it will join Blade Dynamics and B-K Manufacturing, an Alabama aerospace company, as one of the facility’s few small commercial tenants.
Hecht said the priority with Michoud is better conveying what resources it offers, a deep draft port and high-tech equipment for rent, for example.
“You have to have people understand that it’s not this empty warehouse,” Hecht said.
Steve Doering, Michoud Assembly Facility director, said it’s not time to celebrate yet. He estimates NASA will only use half of the main facility.
“(The SLS program) doesn’t mean that we have stopped looking for commercial companies to move in,” Doering said. “We’re not done here.”
Doering said the obstacle in attracting private firms is cost. The facility has to recoup its total operating cost and that reflects in rent.
“I don’t have the ability to discount my rates,” Doering said. “The best I can do is reduce my costs to reduce my price.”
The facility upgraded its power system and stopped some groundskeeping to cut costs over the past two years. Extra space goes to any firm that needs it.
On Monday, activity clustered around a tall building where Paramount Studios built a set for an upcoming “G.I. Joe” sequel, one of several movie sets built there this year. The U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Agriculture also have a presence.
Another lingering uncertainty is how long the massive work force that left with the space program will wait around for new jobs.
Blade Dynamics CEO Theo Botha said the company “walked into what was essentially an unfolding human resource tragedy” but has successfully hired from the pool of former Michoud workers as well as new employees.
Blade Dynamics completed its first New Orleans-made turbine blade Dec. 1 and has about 40 full-time employees. The company is set to double its work force in the next six months as production activity increases.
Easterling with Crescent isn’t worried about hiring. The company plans to add about 100 employees, including engineers and manufacturing workers, in the next five years.
He said more could be done to make smaller firms aware not only of the equipment Michoud Assembly Facility offers but the potential for partnership with neighboring tenants.
“Any businessperson would see the invaluable potential to bring a company especially somebody involved in light or heavy industry to a facility like that,” Easterling said. “It’s not an incubator per se, but it affords a small business the opportunity for expansion.”
Originally published by Jennifer Larino.
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