By Jon Bell
Above: Oregon Aero has expanded into aircraft seating and anchors a growing aerospace cluster at the Scappoose Industrial Airpark. Below: Oregon Aero's aviation and ballistic helmet upgrade kits were in high demand of the onset of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For years after its founding in 1989, Oregon Aero remained a small company that designed and manufactured helmet cushions and other products.
“Initially the military said they would need 5,000 a month,” says Tony Erickson, Oregon Aero’s chief operating officer, “but it grew to 50,000 to 60,000 a month.” Though that pace has since tapered off, the rapid growth — revenue grew from $6.9 million in 2002 to $28.5 million in 2004 — meant that Oregon Aero needed to expand, and fast. As a result, the company grew into several different buildings throughout the early 2000s: two at the Scappoose Industrial Airpark, two in St. Helens and one more in Salem.
Oregon Aero, which employs about 75 people, is now consolidating at least some of its operations in a new 22,000-square-foot building that the Port of St. Helens is building just across the way at the airpark. The company will move its St. Helens operations into the new building this summer and lease it from the port.
Besides increasing employee efficiency, the new building and its larger hangar will allow Oregon Aero to work on bigger aircraft, including large jets and twin-engine planes. It will also give the company more room to work on the markets it has expanded into — heavy-lift helicopters, for one — to make up for the faltering general aviation industry, which plunged nearly 60% during the recession. In addition to its military clients in the U.S., Norway and other countries, Oregon Aero also counts well-known aircraft companies like Cessna and Van’s Aircraft among its customer base.
Oregon Aero’s new facility is also setting the stage for what could be a flurry of new industrial activity near the airpark. Already home to a handful of small aerospace companies, such as Composites Universal Group, Sherpa Aircraft Manufacturing and Sport Copter International, the airpark sits next to 240 acres recently added to the city’s urban growth boundary. If the state approves the expansion, the new land could attract any number of companies looking for a home in the metro region. Portland Community College is already talking about a $2.2 million classroom center on 20 of the acres.
David Stocker, CEO of the Columbia County Economic Team, says it all points to some big possibilities for Scappoose, an old timber and farming town of 6,800 that’s evolved into a bedroom community just 20 miles north of Portland. Not only is the airport in a unique position for expansion, but Scappoose and Columbia County now boast some attractive business incentives as well. Last January, Scappoose expanded an existing enterprise zone, which exempts manufacturers from property taxes for three years, and Columbia County is the only metro area county that qualifies for the Oregon Investment Advantage program, which grants new businesses a multi-year income tax holiday.
“This little town with a funny name is going to be the Portland metro region’s next big economic development opportunity,” Stocker says.