Cirrus to open new R&D facility in former Northwest Airlines maintenance base in Duluth

A new research and development center called the “Innovation Center of Excellence” would be built at the site of the old Northwest Airlines maintenance facility, according to plans revealed by Cirrus Aircraft on Monday.

The 189,000 square foot structure on 39 acres will be sold to Cirrus by the Duluth Economic Development Authority for $1. Cirrus promised to make significant investments in the plant as part of the sales deal and to increase the number of employees in Duluth.

According to the terms of that contract, the corporation must invest at least $7 million in the building.

Zean Nielsen, CEO of Cirrus Aircraft, said in a press release that investing in this facility “aligns with our vision of extending our presence in Duluth, benefiting our local community, and building a world-class innovation hub.” The Innovation Center is positioned to become the global hub for personal aviation engineering and attract the best talent.

By September, Cirrus Aircraft hopes to start improvements. Previously, AAR and Northwest were situated in the maintenance, repair, and operations building, which is now the location of the Innovation Center. Nielsen noted that this equipment would be removed to make the hangar more suited for Cirrus operations since it is designed to serve much bigger aircraft.

By the end of December, he added, the extra office space, innovation laboratories, experimental space, and structures should be ready for the company’s 300 engineers, scientists, and technicians to move into the bigger site. 70,000 square feet will be made available for future expansion thanks to the extra room.

Because they are all present together in the same space, such as a building or a roof, “implementation becomes considerably shorter and much tighter from concept to idea,” according to Nielsen. “This investment reaffirms our dedication to keeping up with advancements. For all of our engineers, this is clearly a very enormous structure. The fact that we’re investing more in Duluth only goes to show how much we like this place and its people. We aim to keep expanding our footprint and the atmosphere we provide for this fantastic personnel.

With more than 1,200 employees, Cirrus is already the biggest manufacturing employer in Duluth. It has pledged to keep the local workforce at the same size and add at least another 80 engineering positions to the city over the following three years.

Cirrus places an emphasis on the financial, physical, and emotional well-being of existing and prospective workers in order to attract and retain talent, according to Nielsen. In recent years, salaries have increased, the firm now sponsors many fitness centers, and Cirrus is once again hosting corporate parties. Additionally, the business collaborates with Lake Superior College and the University of Minnesota-Duluth to provide workers tuition assistance and credits for continuing education.

“Duluth’s unemployment rate is under 3%. In Duluth, it might be difficult to locate workers for all the different jobs. A minor labor market exists here. We need to consider many places given the speed at which we are growing. In Duluth, the bulk of our employees work in production. In other parts of the nation, we have established engineering and service centres, Nielsen said.

Although Cirrus has operations in five other states, Duluth continues to be the location with the most employees.

Some have questioned Duluth’s choice to support a company controlled by Chinese government interests after China Aviation Industry General Aviation Co., a part of the state-owned Aviation Industry Corp. of China, acquired Cirrus in 2011. At a recent meeting, Gary Anderson of the 1st District City Council questioned if the city should reconsider its choice to sell the air station at such a reduced price due to worries about corporation ownership.

Asserting that Cirrus is “a corporation with decades of history in the city of Duluth, and it employs a considerable number of people in the community,” Duluth’s top administrative officer Noah Schuchman justified the purchase. What I can tell you is that this deal will result in a multi-million dollar investment in a facility owned by the city that is now vacant.

“American sub-suppliers provide ninety-five percent of all the components for the aircraft. Taxes are paid here. In Wisconsin’s Baraboo, we were established. We are as American as apple pie, in my opinion,” added Nielsen.

Since May 2020, when its final tenant, AAR Corp., stopped doing aircraft maintenance, repair, and overhaul because of general volatility in the airline business, the old air base at the Duluth International Airport has been mostly unoccupied.

According to Chris Fleege, head of Duluth’s planning and economic development division, the idle facility has been a financial burden on the Duluth Economic Development Authority, which owned the building, with bills equal to nearly $57,000 per month.

The company’s continuous investment in brand-new neighborhood facilities, in Fleege’s opinion, portends well for the future and “truly helps reinforce Duluth as their corporate home.”

“We appreciate Duluth and everything it has to offer. From the standpoint of a testing facility, you will be able to handle the hard conditions of the Duluth winter when you test an aircraft. You’ll undoubtedly produce an aircraft that can manage pretty much any environment in which our clients desire to store or fly their aircraft. It’s just one of many things,” added Nielsen.

The purchase of the old air base by Cirrus was approved by the Duluth City Council in a unanimous vote on September 12.

The deal approving the sale of the old Northwest Airlines property with a 60-year ground lease was authorized by the Duluth Economic Development Authority on August 24, relieving the DEDA from ownership of the site and the continuing financial burden. According to a statement, the transaction would result in yearly maintenance, operating, and tax savings for the city of more than $600,000.

“Duluth and Cirrus Aircraft have a long and vital history of being excellent to, and for, one another, and the location of the Innovation Center is no different,” said Duluth Mayor Emily Larson in a statement.

For us, it means the world that Cirrus Aircraft is expanding in Duluth, since it raises the city’s profile in the aviation industry, according to Larson. We are delighted to promote innovation while reusing this resource.

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