Backers work to get aviation cluster off ground

LOVELAND – Northern Colorado could become a center for aviation manufacturing and research if a new group of businesses, academics and local governments has its way.

Companies such as Fort Collins-based Blue Ocean Enterprises Inc. and Loveland’s Scion UAS are taking steps to form a new industry cluster, which locals say will boost aviation-related economic development along the Northern Front Range. Representatives from the city of Fort Collins and Colorado State University also are participating in the effort.

The new entity would add to the region’s multiple industry clusters, including the Colorado Clean Energy Cluster, Northern Colorado Bioscience Cluster and Colorado Water Innovation Cluster. Such clusters typically seek to generate industry-specific economic activity by joining forces to recruit new businesses and suppliers, and to develop worker training programs and research initiatives.

The idea was hatched early this year by a study committee charged with finding ways to improve Fort Collins-Loveland Municipal Airport, which saw the departure of its sole commercial carrier in 2012.

Wade Troxell, a Fort Collins City Council member and a faculty member in CSU’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, said the group is looking at whether a regional aviation cluster could eventually encompass the entire state, which already is home to numerous aerospace companies. About 20 people are behind the effort.

“The aviation space is ripe with opportunity,” Troxell said.

Formation of a cluster comes on the heels of a recent decision by the Federal Aviation Administration to leave Colorado off its list of drone test states. The federal agency instead chose institutions in Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia to develop drone test and research sites.

The federal agency’s decision was considered a major loss for Colorado’s aviation industry. Economic impact was predicted to reach $1 billion and create thousands of jobs. Congress has authorized the test sites to operate through 2017.

Scion UAS, an unmanned aircraft company in Loveland, is an example of the kinds of businesses organizers of the aviation cluster would like to attract to Northern Colorado.
“We can help cultivate that through some of our relationships that we’ve developed and put together over the years,” Scion UAS founder Jim Sampson said. “Our customers are good candidates to attract to the area.”

Scion UAS makes an unmanned helicopter and another helicopter that can fly with or without a pilot. Uses of Scion UAS’ aircraft ranges from monitoring cropland for pests to detecting threats against U.S. Navy warships.

A greater concentration of businesses such as Scion could encourage CSU to develop curricula to train students to work at firms such as Scion, Sampson said.

“Right now, there’s not a lot of aerospace professionals in Northern Colorado,” he said. “We have to generally import expertise from outside of the state.”

Developing an increased aviation presence is important because the industry has greater stability than other manufacturing sectors, he said. Aviation work for defense-related purposes, for example, must take place in the United States, keeping good-paying jobs here.
Besides improving the local aviation industry, the cluster also would boost the profile of the Fort Collins-Loveland airport, supporters said. An aviation cluster could look at improvements for the airport, Troxell said, including economic development in the surrounding property and developing an aircraft maintenance hub.

Rich Shannon, a member of the airport study committee, looks at the airport as a “blank canvas” in terms of how a cluster could invigorate the airport.

“There seems to be an awful lot of possibilities and opportunities,” he said, “in terms of a new focus for Northern Colorado around an aviation cluster.”

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