Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport approves $20 million company expansion

Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport officials on Monday approved plans for a $20 million expansion by a company that works on private aircraft and expects to add about 100 more jobs.

The Airport Authority agreed to spend about $3 million to prepare the expansion site for Illinois-based West Star Aviation, which opened an aircraft repair and maintenance facility at Lovell Field in 2015.

Terry Hart, the airport's chief executive, said West Star will triple its footprint at the airport by adding 80,000 square feet of hangar space. West Star, which now employs 55 people, also will have 32,000 square feet of support space, he said.

"We're excited about the opportunity for them to grow," said Hart, adding that West Star is targeting mid-2018 to have its expansion up and running.

Debi Cunningham, West Star's vice president of marketing, said the company wants to continue to grow in Chattanooga and build its facilities to the size of similar operations in East Alton, Ill., and Grand Junction, Colo.

The company employs 380 people in Colorado and 300 in Illinois, she said.

"We'll keep putting our support behind Chattanooga and that location," Cunningham said. "Once we get established and the customer base moving and growing, we like to think the sky is the limit."

The Airport Authority approved a 20-year ground lease with two, 10-year renewals for a nearly 300,000-square-foot site on the east side of the main runway for West Star. That location near the air-traffic control tower has held unused air cargo buildings in recent years.

Hart said West Star also will continue to operate in an existing 40,000-square-foot hangar on the west side of the airport.

Dan Jacobson, the authority's chairman, said the expansion will create direct and indirect growth at the airport and in the Chattanooga area.

"The airport and the community are irrevocably linked," he said.

Authority member Mike Mallen said West Star told officials when they recruited the company several years ago that they'd expand.

"They're keeping their word," he said.

Hart said the airport will see more revenue not just from West Star rent but an increase in boardings on commercial aircraft by its customers. That will drive increases in federal funding and fees charged to travelers, the airport CEO said.

Also, concessions and car rental revenues are expected to go up as well as fuel sales, he said. In addition, West Star's payroll will be $5.2 million a year, Hart said.

In all, the Chattanooga area is expected to see an $8.7 million economic impact annually, he said.

"It's a good financial decision," said authority member Farzana Khaleel.

Hart said there's the potential that West Star could attract new airport tenants that want to be close to the maintenance company.

The former Air National Guard property nearby the new West Star location is available for future use, he said.

Robert Rasberry, the company's chief executive, said when West Star announced it was coming to Chattanooga that pay was expected to average about $26 to $27 an hour for employees.

Rasberry said then he expected to see $5 million to $10 million in revenue from Chattanooga in year one, with that going to $25 million to $45 million at the end of five years.

West Star specializes in the repair and maintenance of air frames, windows and engines, as well as major modifications for private aircraft. The company also handles avionics installation and repair, interior refurbishment, surplus avionics sales, and paint and parts.

One of the new facilities will hold a 40,000-square-foot paint center, officials said.