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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Mission to Paris more than a flight of fancy

Bert Caldwell The Spokesman-Review

Although Spokane did not make the short list of cities where Airbus might locate its first U.S. assem- bly plant, local officials turned up something surprising when preparing their bid for the facility: As many as 20 local companies may be contractors or subcontractors to the European aerospace consortium, as well as Washington-grown Boeing Co.

So they cheered an unusually strong Spokane presence at last week’s Paris Air Show, where the commercial aerospace industry may have put on its best show in years.

A trade mission led by Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire included Spokane Area Economic Development Council Executive Vice President Theresa Sanders; Todd Woodard, marketing director for Spokane International Airport; and Sen. Lisa Brown, leader of the Democratic majority in the Washington State Senate. More than 20 other state government or business officials went along on a trip that began in Paris, and continued on to Frankfurt and Mainz, Germany, before ending in London.

Promotion of Washington biotechnology and tourism are other mission objectives.

Spokane officials have made trade missions before — Ireland, Japan and South Korea last year, for example — but neither EDC President Jon Eliassen or Rich Hadley, president of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce, could recall a mission that included the Paris Air Show.

Quel mistake.

Brown said almost everyone with a stake in the aerospace industry, from Boeing on down to the smallest subcontractors, attends the show. (The official total is more than 1,700 exhibitors from 42 countries.) The state delegation not only visited with representatives of Spokane-area companies that already do significant aerospace business, such as Kaiser Aluminum, they also met with officials from other U.S. companies that want to be closer to Boeing’s Washington assembly plants. Also, European companies are looking for U.S. footholds, she said, with the strength of the euro vs. the dollar making an investment now particularly timely.

Brown said a meeting with one company she could not identify could be an opportunity for Spokane.

Benefits of the incentives put in place two years ago to keep production of Boeing’s 787 in Washington are trickling down to smaller aerospace contractors, Brown said. Again, the legislation could not have come at a better time.

“It’s pretty clear we’re in the boom phase for aerospace,” Brown said.

But problems remain. Brown said she was “flabbergasted” by the complaints about a shortage of skilled labor from almost everyone she spoke with. There just are not enough engineers and trained workers who can manage the constant changes in aircraft design and manufacture, she said.

Brown plans to meet with Washington State University, Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University officials when she returns to see how their engineering programs can respond to the demand.

Brown spoke Wednesday from Mainz, halfway through the trip and before day-long meetings with officials from Germany’s biotechnology industry. Biotech research and production already employs 33,000 in Washington. A Gregoire-backed $350 million incentive package will give the industry another boost. Brown said Europeans would be more comfortable investing in the state if the Legislature passes ethical guidelines regarding stem cell research. Lawmakers rejected that measure this year.

Eliassen, of the EDC, said Sanders had been too busy to communicate except by voice mail. She, like Brown, was overwhelmed by the air show’s anthill frenzy. A meeting with Airbus representatives was one among many at Le Bourget, site of the air show.

“Spokane is definitely on the radar screen in Paris,” Eliassen said.

Gregoire, he said, has made a huge commitment to economic development in Washington, including the sometimes forgotten eastern half of the state.

“I thought it was a key mission for us just to build on the relationship,” Eliassen said. Prior trade missions, as well as regular trips to Olympia and Washington, D.C., have proved the value of working together, he said. “It’s incredibly important for us to be there as part of a team.”

Washington’s was the only state delegation to the air show led by a governor.

Eliassen said aerospace remains Washington’s main economic engine, and Spokane must capture more of that activity.

Sometimes the direct benefits of all this traveling are difficult to measure. But remember that trip to South Korea? The payback will be a 50-member strong delegation from that nation alone to the Sister Cities International Conference scheduled for July in Spokane.

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