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GE Aviation project highlights company-community partnership

GE Aviation's Learning Center in Evendale. Photos Ben French
GE Aviation's Learning Center in Evendale. Photos Ben French

Decades after Orville Wright helped dedicate a facility that grew to become GE Aviation's headquarters in Evendale, the complex is poised for a transformation that will bring its work environment in line with the today's globally competitive landscape.

It's a project many point to as a symbol of the long-term partnership that continues to exist between the company, the community and the state.

The current demands of design and manufacturing are straining the half-century-old facilities to the max. After years of Band-Aid fix-ups, the company has decided to completely renovate its 400-acre campus in Evendale, making a $100-million plus commitment to the community and the state of Ohio.

"You have a 21st century workforce doing the most sophisticated design as it relates to propulsion in a 1950s building infrastructure," says Chet Fuller, president of GE Aviation Systems Civil Business.

The city of Evendale and the state have pledged tax credits valued at about $120 million over the next 15 years as long as GE Aviation maintains at least 5,000 employees at the facility. The more than 7,000 jobs that GE provides in the region generate a $600- million payroll, a significant boost to the local economy.

GE Aviation is also one of Ohio's leading exporters, with more than 50 percent of its $19 billion in revenues coming from international business.

The renovated facilities, which should be largely in place within three years, will be leaner and more energy efficient and will enable the installation of new equipment that the antiquated infrastructure was not able to handle, helping the company to keep a competitive edge well into the future, says Bob McEwan, general manager of airfoils and manufacturing.

Long History

The history of the GE campus is storied - Orville Wright of the Wright Brothers attended the ribbon cutting ceremony to open the original government owned factory buildings that made piston engines for Wright Aeronautical in World War II.

During the height of the war, as many as 27,000 employees worked for Wright in a 1.4-million-square-foot factory, the largest of its kind in the U.S. at the time.

GE took over the site after WWII and moved its Gas Turbine Division from Lynn, Mass., to the former Wright factory.

The Korean War mushroomed GE's employment levels to as many as 12,000 to turn out J-47 jet engines for the bombers and fighters used in the conflict. The company added new factory and testing space to the campus, which now stands at 6 million square feet, to accommodate its strong business.

Today, much of that space is redundant with a smaller workforce. GE plans to reduce the amount of square footage by at least one million, taking out one of the original Wright buildings and making its operations more efficient, says McEwan.

The remaining buildings will be completely renovated to bring them up to speed with current manufacturing or office space standards.

Efficiency will, in fact, be a big benefit of the renovation process. Energy savings was not a priority 50 or 60 years ago when the majority of the facilities were constructed, but it is today.

"We think we may be able to cut our energy consumption by nearly 30 percent," says McEwan, adding that the company spends nearly $1 million per month on utilities.

Water savings will also be significant, he says. The company uses roughly four million gallons per day, but the details of this plan are not able to be made pubic yet.

GE Interconnected with Cincinnati

GE's long legacy in Cincinnati is a big part of the reason the company wanted to continue its commitment to doing business here, says Fuller. Day-to-day operations are completely interconnected with the community.

The network of sub-contractors, suppliers and university resources is so essential to the company's operations that re-locating would be a mind-boggling undertaking.

"It's not just one or two things that are important. It's a dozen that are absolutely critical," says Fuller, noting that more than 600 small businesses in Ohio are suppliers for GE.

George Vredeveld, director for the Economics Center for Education & Research at the University of Cincinnati, says that the boost a company such as GE provides for the aviation and engineering industries in the region is tremendous.

"Like businesses will tend to locate near one another," he says. "Knowledge that is important to one is important to another. So (GE) is really important for our area."

In turn, Fuller says GE depends on support from higher education.

"We can't do what we do here without close collaboration with local universities," says Fuller. "They are fundamental to what we do."

In fact, as part of the upgrades, the University of Cincinnati and GE are discussing a possible joint research facility at or near the GE campus.

Many GE engineers are former UC students, says Fuller, and thousands of UC co-op students have received on-the-job training at GE. In addition to UC, GE works closely with Ohio State University, Purdue University, and many other Midwestern schools.

Cincinnati also offers GE a strong business community to be a part of, he says. With corporate neighbors like Procter & Gamble, Kroger, Fifth-Third Bank, and Duke Energy, the local community has tremendous resources such as arts and entertainment facilities plus strong volunteer commitments that make the area a better place to live and work.

GE has donated at least $12 million and more than 200,000 annual volunteer hours to causes such as education, health and human services and community development. The company has also made a five-year, $20-million investment in the public schools to enhance math and science education.

"If you have good corporate citizens you have a good city," says Fuller. "We believe it's in our best interests to support the city, and because of that it's a better place."


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