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The Steuben Courier Advocate
  • Sikorsky closure: What’s next for workers, buildings?

  • Local and state labor agencies are already planning ways to help the 575 employees expected to lose their jobs as Sikorsky shuts down its Big Flats helicopter manufacturing facilities by the end of the year.

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  • Local and state labor agencies are already planning ways to help the 575 employees expected to lose their jobs as Sikorsky shuts down its Big Flats helicopter manufacturing facilities by the end of the year.
    Meanwhile, staggering numbers are emerging about Sikorsky’s financial stake in this area, and Chemung County Executive Tom Santulli says the company has promised to honor its commitments even after it leaves.
    The most pressing concern, in the short term, is reaching out to Sikorsky’s affected workers.
    The state Department of Labor announced Tuesday that it will send representatives to the area who will team up with Chemung-Schuyler-Steuben Workforce New York to help the workers.
    The team will arrange meetings with groups of Sikorsky workers as soon as possible.
    First, they’ll brief the workers on how to file for unemployment insurance, so they can keep up with the bills while they figure out their next move, explained Dan Porter, executive director of Workforce New York.
    “Then we begin the process of helping them transition,” Porter said.
    The workers will be briefed on what services are available at Workforce New York’s career centers, such as help with resumes, interviewing skills and searching job listings. Counselors are also available for those considering a career change, and Workforce New York can help the workers apply for federal retraining grants.
    That’s money they can use to take classes at places such as Corning Community College or  Greater Southern Tier BOCES, Porter said.
    Sikorsky pays out about $30 million annually to the 575 workers at its Big Flats facilities, officials say. They are good-paying jobs with good benefits, and it will be tough to replace that income, Porter said.
    But the “silver lining in a very dark cloud,” Porter said, is that the area’s economy is fairly diversified, and there are employers looking to hire.
    The long-term concern for Chemung County officials is figuring out what will happen to Sikorsky’s facilities at the Elmira-Corning Regional Airport after production shuts down.
    The Chemung County Industrial Development Agency owns Sikorsky’s 97,000-square-foot, $15 million HawkWorks plant on the west side of the airport, built in 2007.
    The IDA also secured the financing for a $13 million renovation of the county-owned former Wings of Eagles Discovery Center on the north side of the airport grounds into a 120,000-square-foot new facility for Sikorsky. That project began last year. All the financing is through Five Star Bank.
    It’s a complicated arrangement, but in a nutshell, here’s how it works, according to Santulli and the IDA’s George Miner:
    Both facilities, as well as the land they sit on, are leased to Sikorsky through 2023, and “that obligation does not go away with their departure from the premises,” Santulli said.
    Page 2 of 2 - In all, Sikorsky owes $238,000 per month in “rent,” which covers the mortgage on the HawkWorks plant, the lease and major renovations at the new facility (the former Wings of Eagles), and the leasing of land.
    Sikorsky is currently still responsible for $24.2 million in principal on the loans.
    Sikorsky is also responsible for $815,000 in property taxes annually, including $465,000 to the Horseheads Central School District, $200,000 to the county and $100,000 to the Town of Big Flats.
    When the leases are up in 2023, Sikorsky has an option to acquire the two facilities for a total of $7.2 million. That represents the equity the county and the IDA have in the buildings.
    Santulli says the county, the IDA and Five Star Bank will hold Sikorsky to its commitments, and that the company is legally bound to the agreements.
    Santulli also said he he has received initial assurances from Sikorsky that it won’t be an issue, and more in-depth meetings are ahead.
    County officials are hoping Sikorsky will sublease to another company, hopefully replacing some of jobs that are being lost.
    “We’ve got very modern buildings that have been retrofitted for the aviation industry, and they sit on an airport, and on an interstate,” Santulli said.
    The county will help with efforts to attract potential tenants.
    “Obviously, the IDA is interested in jobs, that’s why we did the project to begin with,” Miner said. “So it would be our objective that rather than the buildings simply going dark for the next 12 years, or used for aircraft storage, that should the facilities be re-utilized, that they be utilized in a manner that provides jobs for residents of the region.”
    Sikorsky had previously given the old Schweizer Aircraft plant on the east side of the airport back to the county, and it’s being marketed for redevelopment as well. That was the original Sikorsky facility in Big Flats; Sikorsky acquired Schweizer in 2004 and began expanding.
    At one point, Sikorsky employed more than 1,300 locally. There had already been about 800 layoffs in several waves over the past several years.
    Big Flats was used to customize Black Hawk and Naval Hawk helicopters for foreign militaries. Those operations will be shifted to a Sikorsky plant in West Palm Beach, Fla.
    The shutdown of the Big Flats facilities comes in the midst of a company-wide downsizing.
    Sikorsky is based in Connecticut and also has facilities in Florida, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin, as well as Poland. The company makes both military and commercial aircraft.
    Sikorsky’s biggest customer is the U.S. military, which uses a lot of Black Hawks, and the company says it has been hit hard by federal defense spending cuts, as well as the poor economy.

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