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2014 Piper job numbers remain high

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of February 19, 2015)

The 2014 numbers are in: Piper Aircraft Inc. exceeded the employment and salary figures required in an agreement with Indian River County, which paid the company $4 million in economic development incentives.

According to the December 2012 amendment to the original $12 million incentive package, Piper needed to keep at least 650 full-time positions at its Vero headquarters with an average annual salary of $46,500.

County budget director Jason Brown said the 2014 figures submitted by Piper last month surpassed both minimums with 1,058 full-time employees earning an average annual salary of $53,298.

“They’re in compliance with the agreement,” Brown said, “and except for the two years when we hit the pause button because of the recession, they’ve met their numbers every year.”

Piper, the largest private employer of full-time workers in the county, in 2008 was considering manufacturing a new single-engine jet aircraft at several sites outside Vero when the county and state stepped up with incentive packages.

The initial agreement with the county was scheduled to run through 2013 and pay Piper $12 million in three $4 million installments, as long as the company built the jet in Vero Beach and met  annual employment, salary and capital investment requirements.

Piper also was to receive up to $20 million in state incentives through 2016, if it met similar employment and wage stipulations.

The company reached the necessary thresholds in 2008 and received the first installments – $4 million from the county and $6.6 million from the state. But Piper subsequently abandoned plans for the jet, and with aircraft sales slumping during the recession, the company’s employee total fell shy of those required by the agreement.
At the end of 2011, Piper was was down to only 730 full-time workers.

Brown said the agreement was “put on hold” for two years and amended in December 2012, allowing Piper to avoid repayment clauses and keep the $4 million if it met revamped numbers for the size of its Vero workforce through 2015. The new deal also voided the second and third phases of the incentive package, returning the unspent $8 million to the county’s coffers.

Jackie Carlon, Piper’s director of marketing and communications, credited the company’s resurgence to new programs, projects and avionics designed to overcome a pilot shortage and increase demand for its products – especially flight-training aircraft.

“It’s certainly not just the (improving) economy,” Carlon said, adding that although the market has rebounded from the depths of the recession, roughly 40 percent of Piper’s sales are now coming from outside the United States.

“It’s still a tough market for aircraft sales and we’re still not at the level we want to be at, but we have the potential to get there,” she continued. “We got validated in the Chinese market last March, and that’s a market with long-term potential. We’re also seeing some healthy activity in the Pacific Rim and Middle East.”

Last month, Piper introduced the Meridian M500, which it describes as a top-of-the-line, single-engine turbine business aircraft equipped with the latest in Garmin avionics and enhanced safety features. The six-seat airplane lists for $2.26 million.

“The more projects you have,” Carlon said, “the larger the staff you need to work on them.”