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Wednesday, Sep 05 2012 10:47 AM

Airplane innovator asks: Should I stay or should I go?

BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

ICON Aircraft Chief Executive Kirk Hawkins is a never-say-never kind of guy.

The developer of the ICON A5, an innovative lightweight two-seat sport plane designed to take off from both land and water, says his company is growing -- and hiring -- at its facility at Tehachapi Airport. And it will stay there -- at least for now.

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For more information about ICON Aircraft and its A5 sport plane, go to Iconaircraft.com.

But whether ICON will remain in Tehachapi for the long haul remains an open question.

"I'm not saying there's no conceivable way" ICON can stay in Tehachapi, Hawkins said. "But it's difficult to imagine us building our large-scale production facility there."

ICON, which has about 50 employees, announced earlier this month that Cirrus Aircraft will produce a significant portion of the A5's composite airframe components at its Grand Forks, N.D., factory. But design, system integration, final assembly, finishing and testing will be performed at the Tehachapi facility.

The company projects component production will begin at the end of this year and the first production aircraft will be completed in summer 2013.

Despite that upbeat news, Hawkins said ICON has for some time been scouting other areas for an ideal location for a planned production facility. And he could have an announcement regarding that site within a matter of months, he said.

The selection process has been narrowed down to the Phoenix area, Austin, Texas and two locations in California, one in the north and one in the south.

Hawkins declined to provide specifics about the California locations, except to say they are not in Kern County.

As the head of a startup whose mission is to "reinvent flying" in the way that Apple reinvented computing, Hawkins is understandably reluctant to say too much about the company's plans.

But here's the basic calculation:

* The large-scale production facility will likely be built in one of the four locations now under consideration.

* It's entirely possible a component of the company will remain in Tehachapi, even after the production facility is completed. But Hawkins said maintaining a presence in Tehachapi is more likely if the production facility is also located in the Golden State.

Hawkins said the company is looking for a business-friendly community and climate, a region with an adequate pool of creative, innovative talent, and the kind of "livability" that will satisfy that talent pool. Local incentives are also a factor.

"I wish California was more business-friendly," he said.

The former Air Force fighter pilot is a Stanford University alumnus with strong ties to California. The company could quickly grow to 1,000 employees or more, he said, and he'd like to keep the business in his home state.

But Hawkins noted that he received personal calls from both Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Gov. Rick Scott of Florida -- and he was impressed by their willingness to reach out.

"Both of those guys looked me in the eye and said, 'We want your business,'" Hawkins recalled.

Despite those efforts, Florida appears to have been eliminated from ICON's narrowing list of prospective sites, while California remains.

But for how long?

Tehachapi City Manager Greg Garrett said he would love to keep ICON in the fold.

"We adore ICON just as we adore all of our businesses," he said. "But how does Tehachapi compete with states in desperation mode that are willing to give companies empty buildings? They give money away. They give buildings away."

Kern County has both the "brain power and the labor force," Garrett said.

But Garrett also said California needs to do more to create a business-friendly environment.

"The state of California is certainly not our friend where business is concerned," he said. "It's constantly working against local government."

Mel Layne, president of the Lancaster-based Greater Antelope Valley Economic Development Alliance, echoed Garrett's concerns that the state, especially in a tough economy, needs to do more to help its resident businesses thrive.

He criticized former governors Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger for cutting economic development efforts and phasing out enterprise zones.

But Layne said the facts don't appear to support anecdotal evidence suggesting businesses are making an exodus from California.

He pointed to a September 2010 study from the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank. The study reconfirmed that between 1992 and 2006, business relocation -- the movement of business establishments from one state to another -- accounted for a very small share of California's employment fluctuations. In fact, the author of the study found that relocation accounts for a smaller share of job gains and losses in California than in most other states, in part because most California businesses lie far from the border of neighboring states.

Despite those assurances, Layne said California must rethink its attitude and approach to business.

"Generally in Sacramento, there's been kind of a no-growth attitude," he said.

For his part, Hawkins said he's just not feeling the love in California. The state is still in the running, he said, but he had plenty of good things to say about Texas and Arizona.

Whether incentives offered by other states are really valid examples of free market values may be worthy of debate. But Hawkins said ultimately the state benefits when hundreds of jobs are created.

"I live in California ... I'm a huge California fan," Hawkins said.

But he may -- or may not -- be able to stay here.

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