A consortium of influential political and industry leaders plan to establish a research and development institute in southeast Mesa to advance Arizona's aerospace industry.
A 19-member advisory board, chaired by Robert Johnson, former chairman of Honeywell Aerospace, has been formed to spearhead the Arizona Aerospace Institute initiative, aimed at harnessing the state's strength in this industry to make Arizona synonymous with aviation research and to attract more aviation-related industries.
The public-private venture would be located at the Mesa Proving Grounds southeast of Elliot and Ellsworth roads in east Mesa, currently home to the General Motors vehicle testing facility. A 3,200-acre parcel of that site is owned by real estate developer DMB Associates of Scottsdale, which last year, along with Science Foundation Arizona, commissioned a feasibility study through Arizona State University on the merits of placing such an institute.
The purpose of the advisory board is to develop a report in six months to lay out a road map on how to develop the institute, how much it would cost and from where to get funding.
The center would focus mainly on aerospace research and development and advanced education, specifically aimed at helping create technologies and products and providing knowledgeable workers that could be employed by the aviation industry.
Leading industry and political heads are part of the advisory board, including former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters, former U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff T. Michael Moseley and Raytheon Missile Systems CEO Taylor Lawrence.
House Speaker Kirk Adams of Mesa, who's spearheaded the initiative from the outset, said Friday the early seeds for the institute were sown 18 months ago. Adams met Valley leaders including Arizona State University president Michael Crow, DMB Associates CEO Drew Brown, Science Foundation Arizona president William Harris and representatives from the Boeing Co., which has a major presence in Mesa.
"The purpose was to discuss Gateway and the role it could play in diversifying Arizona's economy, and the idea of the institute came from that meeting," Adams said.
Adams said he believes it's best to be proactive about diversifying the state's economic base for Arizona to remain competitive by stimulating economic development.
"My interest is to diversify Arizona's economy and to attract fresh capital into the state, a qualified work force, researchers, scientists, and move us away from our old reliance on real estate and construction," Adams said.
Following the feasibility study, which came out in October, Harris said it became clear that the state has "enormous capabilities in the aerospace sector, and it seemed like in talking to Boeing and Raytheon and Mesa people that we have a big opportunity here to start something cutting edge."
The idea has since been met with considerable interest nationally, said Adams, ever since he traveled in May to the Pentagon to meet Moseley to discuss the institute. The feedback: There's a need for something like this to break through technological barriers in the industry. For things like alternative sources of jet fuel for the Air Force, which relies too heavily on carbon-based jet fuel "not only from a cost factor but its impact on national security as well," Adams said. He added that there's a need to build stronger yet lighter aircraft using less fuel and a need to move away from an analog system to more high-tech systems to track flight patterns, among many others.
"The institute could be well-positioned to tackle those problems, solve them and bring knowledge workers," Adams said.
Another area of synergy identified is in the field of aerospace medicine, an emerging field that's added Mayo Clinic representatives to the table.
Referring to the Translational Genomics Research Institute, which spearheads bioscience research in Arizona, Harris added:
"The idea is to replicate a TGen and what it did for bioscience, on the aviation side, something that can deliver solutions for aerospace companies."
The feasibility study, titled "An Initial Assessment: Creating an Arizona Aerospace Institute," notes that Arizona is ranked eighth in the country in aviation and aerospace-related employment and fourth in the country in employment per 1,000 workers.
Proponents say Mesa is a prime location because of a large footprint and natural assets in aerospace, with Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport as an anchor, surrounded by the likes of Boeing, Cessna and Embraer Air, and Arizona State University's polytechnic campus, as well as close freeway access.
"In our judgment, locating the institute in Mesa would be tantamount to placing infrastructure around, capitalizing on and leveraging strong aerospace assets already on the ground," the feasibility report states. Arizona's aerospace industry generates $3.8 billion in wages, according to a report prepared for the Arizona Aerospace & Defense Commission in 2008.
Mesa Mayor Scott Smith underscored the opportunity for growth this institute presents for Mesa and for Arizona.
"The significance of this aerospace institute cannot be overstated," Smith said. "This has the opportunity to be a world-class facility and can bring many other opportunities."
Smith gave the example of Motorola, and how west Mesa has struggled ever since the company moved out about six years ago. Retaining companies and economic development is a critical role for a city's health, said both Smith and Mesa's economic development director, Bill Jabjiniak.
"Aerospace is one of our key growth sectors. The value of having this institute here is that it helps us tremendously in our company attraction and retention efforts," Jabjiniak said.
In fact, Expansion Solutions magazine, a trade publication referred to by consultants and corporate real estate brokers on where companies can locate, ranked Mesa third in 2008 for excellence in aerospace industry vitality.
Mesa has added Embraer Air, Cessna, Hawker Beechcraft and Crownair Aviation to its aviation industry base. The city hosts about one-fifth of aerospace-related jobs in the Phoenix metropolitan area.
Brown, whose company also owns land that could, in the next few years, be home to a prominent Gaylord Entertainment Co. hotel and convention center, said he's keen on facilitating a "vibrant destination," with both recreational and educational opportunities, a la Silicon Valley.
Johnson, the former head of Honeywell Aerospace, said an institute like this is a great way to facilitate economic recovery. The industry does not have enough graduates or enough training resources, he said, so one of the issues is providing education in this field and the ability to retain graduating students in the state.
"We have an opportunity here to involve the industry and military services and involve foundations in creating a different learning institution, which will be good for the industry, for Phoenix and for Mesa," Johnson said.
Report author Peter A. Gold also told the Tribune that Mesa would be a "fantastic" location because of the existing resources that could support the institute and because it's centrally located between Tucson and Prescott, both of which have strong ties to the aerospace industries and could be a part of this planned membership organization.
It isn't clear how the institute would function, but it could have a physical presence on the Mesa Proving Grounds site, along with a strong virtual presence, for organization members, "so an aerospace company in Israel, for instance, could easily collaborate with a company in the U.S," Gold said.
Harris pointed out that the Air Force Research Laboratory, based at Gateway airport, is being relocated. The proposed institute, which would also do simulation and modeling experiments, even more advanced than what's done at the Air Force laboratory, could tap on the huge talent pool left behind.
"The AFRL lab has 300 smart people whom we could retain to seed and create an institute that distinguishes Arizona and leapfrog us nationally," Harris said.
ARIZONA AEROSPACE INSTITUTE ADVISORY BOARD
Kirk Adams, speaker, Arizona House of Representatives
Barry Broome, president and CEO, GPEC
Drew Brown, CEO, DMB Associates
Barbara Barrett, former U.S. ambassador to Finland
William Harris, president & CEO, Science Foundation Arizona
Robert Johnson, former chairman and CEO of Honeywell and CEO of Dubai Aerospace Enterprise
T. Michael Moseley, general (retired), chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force
Mark Ogren, vice president business development, Orbital Sciences Corporation
Mary Peters, former U.S. secretary of Transportation
Michael Crow, president, Arizona State University
Scott Smith, mayor, city of Mesa
Dr. Jan Stepanek, director of the Mayo Clinic aerospace medicine program
Karrin Taylor, vice president, DMB Associates
Taylor Lawrence, CEO, Raytheon Missile Systems
Thayer Verschoor, senator, Arizona Senate
Steve Zylstra, CEO, Arizona Technology Council
Scott Somers, District 6 councilman, city of Mesa
Jay Heiler, senior counselor to APCO Worldwide
Tom Browning, brigadier general (retired), U.S. Air Force