CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Boeing said Thursday that it plans to open a manufacturing facility to work on its defense programs late this year or in early 2011 at a long-troubled southwestern Illinois airport.
The Chicago-based company said the facility at the MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah, its first manufacturing site in Illinois, will create 75 new jobs and potentially more down the road.
Longtime observers of the airport, about 25 miles southeast of St. Louis, said the announcement was a rare bit of good news for the airport, which lost its last passenger service in 2008 and has been a money loser.
Boeing officials said they haven't decided the specific roles of the new workers, but they will be building components for the company's St. Louis-based defense business in a leased building at MidAmerica.
"This facility's proximity to (Boeing defense) headquarters, the presence of an established, skilled work force and the infrastructure at MidAmerica Airport make it an ideal choice as Boeing looks for opportunities to expand our core business and ensure our St. Louis site remains competitive as we meet the high-value, low-cost needs of our customers," said Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing's CEO of defense, space and security.
Among other things, Boeing works on its F/A-18, F-15 and C-17 aircraft in the St. Louis area.
Boeing spokesman Dan Beck said the company doesn't have concrete plans to expand in Mascoutah but could develop some if business warrants it.
Boeing announced its plans at a ceremony at the airport, where Gov. Pat Quinn, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and other politicians praised the company. Some stressed how they hope Boeing commits to more jobs at the airport.
"Today marks the beginning of what I expect will be a long-term relationship with Boeing, and I expect we will be back here to announce more good news and more jobs in the future," said U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, a Belleville Democrat whose district includes the airport.
The state of Illinois is giving Boeing $2.3 million to help cover the cost of the company's plan, with more than $2 million of it in tax credits to be parsed out over 10 years, said Marcelyn Love, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
Boeing's plans are a good start toward building up the airport as a home for aviation-related manufacturing, air cargo and other non-passenger business, said David NewMyer, who is chairman of Aviation Management and Flight Department at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
"Now I think the question is how can MidAmerica Airport build upon this," he said.
Airport officials referred requests for comment to Boeing.
The two-runway airport was carved out of a piece of Scott Air Force Base in 1998 for both passenger and air cargo use.
But MidAmerica has struggled, losing the last of its passenger service in 2008. The airport lost $5.3 million in 2008, $5.2 million in 2007 and $5.1 million the year before that.
"The fundamental problem is that MidAmerica couldn't serve as a passenger terminal because in some ways it was just too far from St. Louis," said David Ault, an emeritus professor of economics at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.
He added that the lack of a U.S. Customs location at the airport inhibited cargo business, too.
There's no way to predict whether Boeing will add more jobs, Ault said. That will depend on the contracts the company wins in the next few years. But any good news about MidAmerica, even what he called a relatively small batch of 75 jobs, is welcome.
"Any use of that facility is a plus," Ault said. "And anything that looks more permanent is a good thing."