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Arrival of large aerospace and technology company expected to bring job growth, development

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - ovels hitting the dirt later this week at Northrop Grumman's groundbreaking ceremony is a sound local officials hope will ring in a period of job growth and development for the area.

The aerospace and technology company will be the first tenant to begin construction at Grand Sky, a 217-acre business park situated on Grand Forks Air Force Base that focuses on unmanned aircraft systems and related services.

Local leaders expect Northrop Grumman and other companies coming into the business park to be an economic boon for the base, Grand Forks and the surrounding communities.

"As far as numbers, it's too soon to tell what that will look like, but we know we're going to see job growth, and we know it's going to make a positive impact on the economy and community," said Tom Ford, coordinator for the local Base Realignment Impact Committee.

Northrop Grumman's 36,000-square-foot facility, where the company has plans to conduct research, aircrew and maintenance training and other operations, represents more than just a filled space at Grand Sky, according to Tom Swoyer Jr., president of Grand Sky Development Co.

The presence of the fifth-largest defense contractor in the country is expected to attract more companies to the $300 million business park.

"At the UAS Summit two weeks ago, there were companies there that do business with Northrop that have expressed interest in locating at Grand Sky--partly because Northrop is there and partly because they think others will be there," Swoyer said. "There's some tentative interest but interest nonetheless from some other firms."

Job growth

Overall, estimates put the number of jobs Grand Sky could create around 3,000 in the park and in surrounding communities when construction is complete.

Northrop Grumman expects to have 100 employees onsite after the first phase of construction is completed next year, according to Janis Pamiljans, vice president and general manager of its unmanned systems division.

"As we expand ... we anticipate that number will grow over time," she said in an email, adding Northrop Grumman made the decision to expand to North Dakota several years ago.

Pamiljans emphasized the state's government, business and educational leaders want to create a unique environment for unmanned aircraft research. The state's partnership with the Air Force and the presence of a Federal Aviation Administration unmanned aircraft test site also were factors in the decision.

"We saw the real commitment the state was making to creating a world-class unmanned aircraft systems tech corridor, and this seemed a natural fit with our unmanned business and anticipated growth," she said.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the second company to publicly announce a lease at Grand Sky, is unsure how many jobs it will bring to the area.

With job growth at the park comes the need for housing and other jobs and services in Grand Forks and other surrounding communities.

"Some (workers) might move to Larimore, some might move to Emerado, or Northwood or wherever," Ford said. "You'll see some of that sprinkling effect in small communities. People might eat lunch there or visit the local watering hole. "

Expanding enterprise

While there are no estimates available on how much of an economic impact the Grand Sky tenants will have, local officials point to the Northrop Grumman's size and expertise as positive indicators.

Among American defense contractors, Northrop Grumman was the fifth largest in 2014 with $8.1 billion in contracts. It posted nearly $24 billion total in sales last year--down slightly from $24.6 billion the prior year--according to its 2014 annual report.

The company is behind the Global Hawk, an unmanned aircraft that regularly flies out of Grand Forks Air Force Base for surveillance missions. The base's trained personnel is another reason the company is expanding into the state, according to Mick Jaggers, vice president and program manager of Global Hawk UAS programs.

"This is a perfect opportunity for Northrop Grumman to partner with people that understand unmanned airplanes because although we've been doing this for 17 years, the innovation of unmanned airplanes is just about to start," he said last month at the UAS Summit & Expo in Grand Forks.

Those working at Northrop Grumman's Grand Sky location will join about 64,300 employees worldwide.

While it has other enterprises, the company has a long aviation legacy. Its namesake is the result of a 1994 merger between Northrop Aircraft Inc. and Grumman Aerospace Corp.

Both founded in the 1930s, the companies have manufactured various aircraft, from planes to patrol bombers to fighter jets.

Some of the more recognizable products include the Northrop B-2 Spirit stealth bomber manufactured for the Air Force and the Grumman F9F Panther jet used by the Navy and Marine Corps.

The public is very familiar with another of Grumman Aerospace's products, though this one doesn't fly. The company was the creator of the mail truck used by the U.S. Post Office, which is officially known as the Grumman Long Life Vehicle and was manufactured from 1987 to 1994.

Since the 1994 merger, Northrop Grumman has acquired dozens of companies of varying sizes, including Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical--the original developer of the Global Hawk .

Turning point

From their Grand Sky building, Northrop Grumman employees could catch the sight of Global Hawks taking off and landing at Grand Forks Air Force Base.

The aircraft is representative of the company's decades-long presence in the area--a presence that recently marked a turning point for the base.

It's been a decade since the first whispers of the phrases "Global Hawk" and "new mission" began making rounds at Grand Forks Air Force Base as the U.S. Department of Defense mulled the base's closure.

During several tense months in 2005, base personnel learned the base would stay open, the KC-135 refueling tanker mission would be leaving and in its place would come Global Hawks and other types of unmanned aircraft.

Fast-forward five years, and Northrop Grumman announced it would be setting up shop in Grand Forks with an office at the UND Center for Innovation. Estimates put the number of jobs coming to the city at 25 after about a year, Edward Walby, director of business development for the company's Global Hawk program, said at the time.

"This expansion is part of that planned growth since 2010," Pamiljans said of the company's move to Grand Sky. "The site largely exists on the Air Force base so expansion required multiple levels of coordination to move forward."

The first Global Hawk landing at the base occurred in May 2011. Just over four years later, Northrop Grumman signed its lease with Grand Sky for 10 acres of land and an option to rent an additional five acres. The Air Force owns the land where Grand Sky is located and leases it to Grand Forks County, which subleases it to Grand Sky Development Co.

"I think we're going to see Northrop Grumman's presence at Grand Forks Air Force Base, just on the other side of the fence there, positively impact the current Global Hawk mission," Ford said.

He added the hope is that companies such Northrop Grumman and General Atomics--also set to break ground on its Grand Sky facility this fall--along with the business park as whole, will enhance the base in a way that makes a future mission expansion or securing more missions possible.

"The impact is only positive," Ford said.