COEUR d'ALENE — Garry Hojan is amazed how the region's aerospace industry has taken off — with not much turbulence expected ahead.
"Five years ago there wasn't much out there," said Hojan, CEO of Aerocet, a Priest River company that manufactures composite aircraft floats and cargo belly pods. "We were clandestine, under the radar."
Hojan was a speaker at Wednesday's I-90 Corridor Aerospace Expo Spring Conference at The Coeur d'Alene Resort that attracted about 200 attendees from throughout the Northwest.
He said the aerospace industry in the Inland Northwest is flying high with the economic recovery, the need to upgrade or restore aircraft fleets, increased air travel in foreign markets and recognition from giants such as Boeing.
Hojan, who is also president of the Idaho Aerospace Alliance (IAA), said there are now 240 aerospace-specific companies in the state and 111 more that are associated with the industry.
He said the conference is an opportunity to showcase the aerospace sector in this area.
"It is important to show the larger regional aspect, that we're in close proximity to Boeing and Washington state," he said. "With these matchmaking opportunities, we're not only seeing interest not only from companies nationally but internationally all while showing the progression we've made in this short time.
"We're finding our voice in Idaho aerospace."
Bob Didocha, managing director of the American Manufacturer Network (AMN), said there's a "growing aerospace manufacturing cluster" not only in Idaho but in eastern Washington and western Montana.
"It's getting more visibility and becoming recognized by large folks and that's why Boeing is a (conference) sponsor," Didocha said.
Area aerospace businesses report robust growth.
Hojan said Aerocet had 33 employees at the start of last year and it now employs 67 with more hiring ahead. He said the domestic market dominated the company's business in previous years, but a strong Asian market has now made it so about half of its business is overseas.
Greg Konkol, chairman of the Inland Northwest Aerospace Consortium (INAC) and president of the Liberty Lake precision sheet metal fabricator Accra-Fab, said his company was down to 135 employees at the start of the recession eight years ago. It now employs 165 and is on target for 185 within a year, he said.
"Our highest growth segment is the aerospace industry," he said. "We have only pursued the aerospace industry in the past three years."
Konkol said as many airplanes approach the end of their life and companies improve fuel efficiency, companies like his benefit.
"The highest growth areas are in Africa and Asia as demand for air travel is increasing dramatically," Konkol said.
Konkol said he believes there are multiple factors that are making the Inland Northwest aerospace industry thrive.
"We believe we have a lower business cost environment over here and a very high quality of life that makes it attractive to companies," he said.
Hojan said collaboration between conference hosts — the IAA, AMN and INAC — is an indication of positive things to come for the industry.
"We're driving aerospace to an even better future," he said. "We're not just letting it happen; we're making things happen. I believe that we've just scratched the surface."
Greg Delavan, director of the Coeur d'Alene Airport, said he attended the conference to spread the word that the airport is open for business.
"We've got a jobs and light industrial interest," he said. "One of our focuses is to create an environment to bring good jobs to the community. We are an airport, but we're also a real estate development tool. We're always working on new projects, whether it's building a hangar to put airplanes in or attracting light industrial businesses. If we don't tell them about the opportunities, they won't know that they are there."
Delavan said there are about 200 acres around the airport that could be developed.
"There are market niches not served yet in our area," he said, citing an aircraft paint shop as an example.
All different types of gadgets used for assemblies are seen here on the Titan Spring table. Titan Spring's manufacturing is done in Hayden.