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Composite Deposit

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  • | 6:00 p.m. July 14, 2008
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Composite Deposit

An ambitious Gulf Coast entrepreneur had a

surprisingly tough time securing a headquarters for his high-tech, high salary startup aerospace company.

by Mark Gordon | Managing Editor

The contrarian entrepreneurial concept of starting a business during lean economic times has a big fan in Chuck Bushman.

That's the best and the quickest explanation for why Bushman, an accomplished electrical and robotic engineer, is spending his days - and some of his nights - in a super-sized hangar in the middle of the sparsely populated Charlotte County Airport in Punta Gorda. Bushman recently founded Arcadia Aerospace Industries, a company he hopes to build into a market leader in testing airplane parts made out of composites, an alternative to steel or aluminum that's gaining popularity in the airplane industry.

"It's a matter of filling a need," says Bushman, who began forming the company in January. "I don't think the economic times will hurt us because there is a great need for this type of service. We are using the slowdown to prepare and get our requirements taken care off."

The company, which has yet to land any sales, has nine employees so far. And the startup costs, which Bushman is covering through savings and personal loans, have already passed $2.5 million, most of which has been used on equipment and materials.

But Bushman is projecting the company will be at 28 employees and $8 million in annual revenues within three years. And even better, the jobs are exactly what Gulf Coast economic development agencies and county governments claim to covet: High-paying and high-tech. Bushman says his company's salaries are between $70,000 and $100,000 a year, more than double Charlotte County's median annual salary of about $35,000.

The clarity of Bushman's risk-laden entrepreneurial ambitions, however, stands in direct opposition to the travails he went through in trying to find a home for Arcadia Aerospace. Indeed, that venture turned out to be a tale of woe, stretching from Tampa to the Fort Myers before ending happily in Punta Gorda. The saga included dozens of in-person site scouting trips, the assistance of two commercial real estate brokers and a healthy amount of frustrating rejection.

"Not all counties were as interested or diligent" in recruiting the company, says Valentina Pippin, a commercial real estate broker for Sarasota-based Sky Sotheby's International Realty. She and longtime commercial broker David Jennings assisted Bushman on the search for a business home. "These guys could have gone to Georgia or South Carolina."

An 'anchor tenant'

But Kay Tracy wasn't going to let that happen. Tracy, a business development specialist with the Economic Development Office of Charlotte County, zeroed in on Arcadia Aerospace after meeting with Jennings and Bushman. She showed Bushman a variety of sites, from ones on airport property to private commercial parks to undeveloped land where he could buy-and-build. She also explained the state incentive and tax-break process to Bushman.

Tracy's efforts proved to be well timed: The Charlotte County Airport lost a large tenant when Columbus, Ohio-based Skybus Airlines filed for bankruptcy and left the airport in April. That made courting Arcadia Aerospace even more crucial says Don Root, the director of the Economic Development Office of Charlotte County.

"It's almost like getting the anchor tenant for a mall," Root says. "We think they can trigger a lot of other folks coming to our airport."

In fact, Root says he has already taken a few phone calls from businesses that might want to relocate to the airport, specifically to be near Arcadia Aerospace. Root's office projected Arcadia Aerospace's presence will be worth $28 million in economic impact over the next five years.

Despite the obvious industry connections, Bushman didn't initially seek out space on or near an airport for the company. Instead, Jennings and Pippin, following Bushman's instructions, sought a 20,000-square-foot combination of office and manufacturing space near a major highway. The commercial real estate brokers say they spoke with county and economic development officials as far north as the Tampa International Airport, as far south as Fort Myers and as far east as Lake Suzy in DeSoto County.

Manatee County Economic Development Council Executive Director Nancy Engel says the agency has no record of working with Arcadia Aerospace, although it did have contact earlier this year with Pippin about finding a building for an unnamed company.

Kathy Baylis, president of the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County, says her agency also has no record of being contacted by Arcadia Aerospace, nor does it have any record of speaking with the commercial real estate brokers about finding a site.

Clearly though, Charlotte County left the best impression on Bushman and his company.

"We looked at numerous sites that just didn't fit our criteria," says John Arsenault, Arcadia Aerospace's chief financial officer. "The Charlotte County authorities bent over backwards to get us here."

Pippin, who worked for economic development agencies in Baltimore before moving to Sarasota, says she was surprised more agencies weren't as aggressive in luring Arcadia Aerospace. And she was also surprised, pleasantly, at the ease in dealing with Charlotte County.

"For us dealing with public entities, this was exceptionally easy," she says. "These things can be complicated."

The current space for Arcadia Aerospace is decidedly uncomplicated. It's about 24,000 square feet, split between the hangar and a back office. The company is leasing the space from the Charlotte County Airport Authority for about $15,000 a month. Its lease includes four five-year renewal options.

Expensive machinery

With the business location settled, Bushman has spent the past six months tinkering and toiling away on the company. A Boston native with a degree in electric engineering, Bushman previously worked as a contractor with Boeing before moving to the Gulf Coast about five years ago.

Bushman's assignments at Boeing focused on composite parts, which were becoming popular in the industry because they were lighter and more versatile than steel. Composite parts are now used in just about every part of plane construction, from floorboard plates to cockpit switches.

But Bushman quickly noticed the versatility of the composite parts required more specific testing than what the industry was currently doing.

So Bushman started out literally on a napkin, designing prototypes for machines he could build to test the parts. The machine's structure revolved around using ultrasonic systems and lasers, so it could reach the most precise results possible. Says Bushman, of his self-built machines: "It can show any defect in any part that a manufacturer might not even know is there."

These machines aren't cheap. The pair Bushman already built, which are currently in the testing stage, cost about $1.5 million.

Bushman envisions Arcadia Aerospace strictly as an outsourcing shop. The plan is to have companies such as Boeing and other airplane manufacturers ship in parts for testing, either by truck or plane. After the tests, Bushman's staff will ship the parts back. "We are an outside house," Bushman says, "but we want to be as seamless as possible."


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