With attendance from Gov. Roy Cooper, numerous company officials and a slew of local politicians and business leaders, the mammoth 1.2 million-square-foot Pratt & Whitney plant held an opening ceremony Nov. 16 in South Asheville.
The $650 million plant, billed as “transformative” for the region, eventually will employ 800 people with an average annual salary of $68,400, company officials said. Cooper noted the plant is “the largest economic development project for western North Carolina in its history.”
Cooper also referenced North Carolina’s groundbreaking aviation history with the Wright brothers and its status of “First in Flight,” which came 119 years ago on the Outer Banks.
“Today we celebrate our growing and thriving aerospace and aviation industry with this western North Carolina ribbon cutting for Pratt & Whitney,” Cooper said. “And on top of being First in Flight, North Carolina is the most military-friendly state in the country, and we are proud of that.”
Cooper referenced the active duty military members in North Carolina, as well as 800,000 veterans who call the Tar Heel state home.
The plant will manufacture high-tech jet engine airfoils, a component that goes deep inside a jet engine. Pratt & Whitney airfoils and engines provide power to a wide array of civilian and military aircraft, including the F-35 fighter jet.
A group of about a dozen protesters carried signs on the road entering the plant that were critical of Pratt & Whitney and parent company Raytheon, because of their ties to the military. One placard read, “Windmills not war machines,” another “Pratt & Whitney fans the flames of climate emergency.”
The company noted during the ceremony that its airfoils help improve jet engine efficiency by up to 50 percent.
Cooper focused on the creation of jobs and Pratt & Whitney’s ties to the nation’s military.
“What is done here will make our nation safer and stronger,” Cooper said.
Dan Field, who heads up the Asheville operation, said production will begin in the middle of the second quarter of 2023.
Full production at the Asheville Pratt & Whitney plant will begin in the second quarter of 2023. It will produce airfoils for jet engines.
“Right now we’re just over 170 employees,” Field said after the ceremony. “We’ll have just over 200 by the end of the year. Approximately, 85 percent of the people we’ve hired are from the western North Carolina region.”
Full investment and staffing at the plant will continue into 2027.
“We committed to hiring here in western North Carolina,” Field said, “and we are delivering on that commitment.”
Could Pratt & Whitney be WNC’s BMW?
State Rep. Brian Turner (D-Buncombe) said after the ceremony that Pratt & Whitney locating here could well stimulate more economic development nearby.
“I think it only makes sense for suppliers and the supply chain to come here,” Turner said. “I think for many of us, we sort of envisioned this as, for lack of a better term, our BMW, where once BMW situated (in upstate South Carolina) it was sort of the mothership, and I think that’s what we’re going to see here — you’re going to have all these suppliers who want to relocate.”
The BMW automobile plant opened in South Carolina in the mid-1990s, spawning an economic boom for that region.
Biltmore Farms, the development company based in South Asheville, donated the 100–acre Pratt & Whitney site for the project. The company owns another 900 acres, and it’s all served by a new road and bridge across the French Broad River. The North Carolina Department of Transportation has a new I-26 interchange planned that will also serve the site.
“You drive down the (new) road, and you see curb cuts for other driveways,” Turner said. “I would expect to see more businesses coming.”
Jack Cecil, president and CEO of Biltmore Farms, declined to speculate on more manufacturers or commercial enterprises coming in, saying after the ceremony that for now he’s concentrating on “the dog having caught the tractor-trailer.”
While the mountain region has seen some resurgence in manufacturing, Cecil said in a speech during the ceremony that he had pestered Gov. Cooper for years, telling him, “We need to recruit a transformative project to western North Carolina.”
Cecil said he feels strongly that Pratt & Whitney will be that project, as it will spur the economy and help create a workforce of highly trained locals. He said the efforts to land Pratt & Whitney go back three and a half years and involved scores of economic development officials, local business leaders, politicians and others.
“You know that saying, ‘It takes a village’?” Cecil asked the crowd. “This took an enormous village.”
Clarke Duncan, executive director of the Economic Development Coalition for Asheville & Buncombe County, said he’s “very hopeful” Pratt & Whitney’s location here will serve as a catalyst for other companies to locate here. He noted that economic development comprises two main components.
“There’s talented people, and you have to have sites to attract the quality of job you want,” Duncan said. “So yeah, when I look at 900 acres, I get very excited about what the economic impact and the use of those acres could be.”
Strong market for the Asheville product
Field noted that more than 85,000 Pratt & Whitney engines are in service around the globe, and “our engines power nearly every type of aircraft that you can think of, from commercial and military jets to turboprops taking us from place to place.”
Shane Eddy, president of Pratt & Whitney, told the audience the company builds engines that “defend freedom and connect families and, quite honestly, that’s a purpose that we hold dear — and I think that’s a purpose that’s never been more important than it is today.”
The Asheville plant will allow airfoils to be built from start to finish in one facility, while traveling less than one mile. Currently, Pratt & Whitney airfoils require some 2,500 miles of shuttling between company plants.
Eddy mentioned that airfoils do power Pratt & Whitney’s F-135 engine, the power plant for the American F-35 Lightning fighter jet. Demand remains strong for that engine, and others that Pratt & Whitney produces, and that bodes well for the Asheville facility.
“Turbine airfoils are one of the highest volume parts in the gas turbine engine, and we see demand for our engines and for our turbine airfoils that we’re going to produce here growing by over 50 percent in the next few years,” Eddy said. “That’s why this facility is so critical.”
Manufacturing remains strong in NC
N.C. Commerce Secretary Machelle Baker Sanders said the new Pratt & Whitney plant in South Asheville is another indication that manufacturing is alive and well in North Carolina.
“Manufacturing is the heartbeat of our economy, and this plant surely has that heartbeat,” Sanders said. “As it comes online, we will add even more strength to the heartbeat of our state in the manufacturing sector.”
Manufacturing, Sanders said, represents almost 20 percent of North Carolina’s economic output. “That’s $122 billion into our economy,” she said.
North Carolina is the fifth-largest manufacturing state in the nation and number one in the Southeast, Sanders said, noting that nearly 46,000 people in North Carolina work in manufacturing.
“Over the past five years this number has been growing, and we are expecting it will continue to grow,” she said.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle is an award-winning reporter who has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.