Want to buy a business jet?
How about a six-seater that can fly above the weather at 41,000 feet, cruise at 370 knots (430 mph), and is equipped with hyper-sophisticated avionics?
It costs about half as much as its competitors ($1.4 million vs. $3 million) and, thanks to its easy-fly design, can be flown by a single pilot.
Less than 30 feet long, it weighs about half as much as a Chevy Suburban — thanks to composite construction. And because of that light weight, it’s substantially cheaper to operate than its competitors ($370 per hour vs. $680). It’s also quieter and produces fewer emissions.
It’s cheap. It’s fast. It’s green — and if you want to visit the factory, you don’t even have to fly. No, it’s not out at the Colorado Springs Municipal Airport, it’s half a day’s drive away, in Albuquerque.
The company is, as any plane buff knows, Eclipse Aviation, and the plane is the Eclipse 500. Final FAA certification is due any day now, and the production lines are ready to roll.
Eclipse employs 600 people, but might have to hire a few more. The company says it has orders for more than 2,500 aircraft, each one accompanied by a $125,000 deposit.
That’s astonishing, given that the entire annual market for business jets in the United States amounts to 750 units (Eclipse says it will have to build at least 750 planes annually to stay in business).
As the Buffalo Springfield song goes, “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear …”
What it is, according to company founder Vern Raburn, an early Microsoft executive, is a disruptive technology that will open private jet travel to a vast new market.
The 500 is a so-called VLJ — a very light jet. With a stall speed of 69 knots, and the ability to land on a 2,500 foot runway, it promises to be as forgiving to fly as the simplest single-engine piston aircraft, but safer and faster. It may create a whole new market — easily affordable air taxi services to and from small airports, avoiding the sluggish nastiness of commercial air travel.
Is this company just the product of a smooth-talking con artist, an Enron in the making?
Probably not — smart, serious people, led by a certain Bill Gates, have invested half a billion dollars to get to this point, and plane deliveries will start as soon as the aircraft receives final certification.
So why Albuquerque? Why did Raburn choose to locate his firm, a prize beyond compare in the economic development sweepstakes, in that sweltering, dusty little city beneath the Sandia Mountains? Why not Colorado Springs?
Look at our city — home of the Air Force Academy, to Schriever Air Force Base, to NORAD, to SpaceCom, to hundreds — thousands — of private pilots. Wouldn’t we be a great, welcoming home for Eclipse?
And don’t forget our wonderful quality of life, our skilled work force, our business-friendly city government, our efficient, cooperative municipal utility. What’s not to like?
Sounds good, doesn’t it? That, plus a few relatively insignificant incentives, is what folks like Jerry Heimlicher and Mike Kazmierski have in their toolboxes to attract new or relocating businesses.
And it’s not enough — in fact, compared to what Albuquerque can offer, it’s chump change.
By locating the company’s operations in Albuquerque, Eclipse got free land for its factory, a host of small incentives and $20 million in cash, courtesy of the state of New Mexico.
For a startup company — or almost any company — that’s more than soothing words, more than a slap on the back and much more than an insincere grin from the mayor. That’s serious money.
And that’s what we’re competing against. The era of easy, effortless growth has probably come to an end. From now on, we’re going to have to fight for our right, not to party, but to prosper.
And unless we overcome our prim distaste for competing in this cutthroat marketplace, we’ll be at a severe disadvantage.
I asked Mark Earle, CEO of our municipal airport, whether Eclipse might have located in Colorado Springs had we been able to match Albuquerque’s incentives.
“I think absolutely — look at our work force, our quality of life,” he said. “But to make that kind of investment, there are a lot of communities that don’t want to take that risk.”
Somehow, my thoughts drifted to my friend, the ruthless developer. Let’s call him Max.
Max loves risk — he’s built his career, and his not inconsiderable fortune, on his willingness to take business risks, albeit carefully calculated ones. During the last 25 years, he’s been a millionaire, been broke, and a millionaire once again.
You probably know him, or someone just like him. He, and his peers, built Colorado Springs.
Whether in high-tech, or real estate or construction, successful businesspeople in this city have never been timid. So, why are we as a city so afraid to compete, so wedded to the past, so reluctant to face reality?
We fought off Albuquerque when they made a run at the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association/Hall of Fame — but that was just the opening shot in a war with no foreseeable end.
What will we do if another city — San Diego, Sacramento, San Antonio, Kansas City, just to name a few — makes a serious run at the Olympic Training Center?
Suppose they offer the Olympic folks tens of millions of dollars, free facilities and guaranteed jobs for resident athletes? Do you think the OTC will stay put? Board members are fiduciaries, after all, so they’d have to do what was best for the organization, not what was best for Colorado Springs.
Just as, 140 years ago, Atlanta lay defenseless against Sherman’s Union Army, we have no way of countering hostile raids on our business base, and no way of competing effectively with other cities to expand that base.
And here’s a worst-case scenario: Suppose a certain wealthy city looking for compatible businesses cast its covetous eyes upon the OTC? This city, a world center for athletes of all description, might be able to put together a credible offer, given its newly crafted business incentive package.
And if it did, imagine the agonized wailing, the gnashing of teeth and the rending of garments, because this small city is … Boulder!
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 634-3223, ext. 241.