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Aircraft paint shop at Grissom a boon for economy

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Two things about Dean Baldwin LP's new facility at Grissom Aeroplex: it's huge, as expected, and it doesn't smell like there's aircraft painting going on.

The giant aircraft parked inside, with paper and tape masking material draped all over, say otherwise, as do the 150 people already hard at work.

One would probably have to go back to the late 1990s to find a private sector company bringing so many jobs to Miami County, about 70 miles north of Indianapolis. And the 200 or so dignitaries gathered Thursday for a ribbon cutting were a testimony to the company's importance.

"It has been a dream to have a paint shop like this," Dean Baldwin CEO Barbara Baldwin told the Kokomo Tribune. "The airlines were waiting for a facility like this."

The $13.8-million project expanded one of Grissom's old hangars, a structure built in the late 1950s, by 50,000 feet on the east and west sides so large airplanes could fit inside. There is 155,000 square feet inside, enough room to paint four of the largest airliners at once.

Baldwin was asked if there were any aircraft too large for the Grissom facility.

"Probably a (Lockheed) C-5 (Galaxy). That's about it," she replied.

Teams of painters were lined up in front of aircraft as Baldwin led a tour Thursday. With massive ventilation systems and 1,400 separate filter panels in place, paint fumes clear out in a matter of a few minutes, she explained. The floors are washed frequently; no paint is allowed to build up.

"This facility is one-in-a-million," Baldwin said in March. "It's really state-of-the-art."

Thursday, she said the company plans to paint and service more than 200 airplanes a year out of the new facility, which could attract other aviation businesses to the area.

The expansion nearly doubles the size of Dean Baldwin, which currently employs 240 people at its facilities in New Mexico, Texas and Arizona.

It's a godsend for Miami County, which lost a larger percentage of its residents between 1990 and 2000 than any other Indiana county. In the subsequent decade, only the addition of several thousand Miami Correctional Facility prisoners in 2010 stanched the downward trend.

Peru Mayor Jim Walker said Grissom's transition from an active duty Air Force base to a reserve base cost 4,500 jobs and $105 million in economic activity.

Returning from that blow hasn't been easy.

"In all honesty, when you're handed a former Air Force base, the first question is, what are we going to do with it?" Walker said. "From the shock in 1994 to a celebration in 2013, this really is a success story."

Baldwin called the hangar, which was gutted, retrofitted and painted bright blue, "the ugly duckling which turned into a swan," and said the facility's painting bays are already booked into next year.

They've hired 150, she said, "and we need 30 more right now."

"I'm killing them, making them work six days a week to get all of these aircraft out of here," she said.

Baldwin said the Grissom facility is probably the largest independent paint shop of its kind.

"The big thing I think it means for Grissom is that people know we're open for business in the aviation industry," Walker said.

The expansion project was funded by a $7.2 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state loans totaling $5.1 million and more than $1 million in local funding from Miami County.

Dean Baldwin signed a 30-year lease agreement with Miami County to use the hangar. The yearly lease payments will go toward paying off the federal and state loans.

Jim Tidd, executive director of the Miami County Economic Development Authority, said studies estimate the facility will have an economic impact of $162 million in the area during its first five years of operation.

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