It’s fun, exciting and reeks of military secrets.
But the current use of the former Northwest Airlines aircraft maintenance base by a developer of high tech dirigibles for military use is just temporary, the city says.
Information Systems Laboratories plans to assemble and test one of its airships at the facility.
Military surveillance, likely in the Middle East.
The company is one of several defense contractors researching and developing unmanned dirigibles for high altitude military surveillance, weather and environmental monitoring or use as communications satellites.
So what’s the blimp advantage?
They can stay afloat much longer than airplanes which need to return for refueling.
Although ISL’s aeronautical division is based in Brownsboro, Ala, company spokesman Bob Portney says Duluth was chosen because of the sheer size of its maintenance base.
“You have a big building perfect for doing this, “ Portney said. “And this (airship) is very big.”
Although it’s 100 feet long and five stories high when inflated with helium, the airship would still fill just one-quarter of the cavernous 189,000-square-foot Duluth facility.
Portney said ISL would like to use the facility for “quite a while.”
“We hope to be able to do a lot more work there, “ he said last week. “It’s not known if we can.”
But ISL isn’t the Duluth Economic Development Authority’s first choice for a permanent tenant at the maintenance base that’s been without a tenant since Cirrus Aircraft moved out in September 2009.
DEDA, which owns the $52 million facility, is looking for a tenant that can use the facility for what it was designed for: maintenance, repair and overhaul of major airline planes.
Its first choice is using it as a maintenance and repair shop for a major airlines, followed by use as a hanger, followed by other aviation-related uses.
“The blimp is certainly in the aviation-related group,” says Brian Hanson, DEDA’s executive director.
Last resort would be leasing the space to a major manufacturer. “But,” says Hanson, “it’s better than an empty building.”
From the beginning, the city saws ISL’s use of the facility as temporary with its rents offsetting some of the facility’s annual $138,000 maintenance costs.
DEDA and ISL agreed to a monthly rent of $9,200 while the company is in production mode. But delays have put assembly on hold for now and the uninflated airship has laid flat on the floor since last fall. Hansen says ISL will be charged a storage fee, probably $1,500 per month until assembly begins.
DEDA was approached by another possible tenant: the city of Duluth which needs a place to store its voting machines.
“We told them it’s not a good fit now and to please continue looking,” said Hanson, though he’s also the city’s business and community development director.