Aborted takeoff: Commander the second manufacturer to struggle at Cape airport

Thursday, April 14, 2011
Two aircraft are undergoing repairs in the Commander Premier Aircraft Corp. building Wednesday, April 13, 2011, at the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport. (Fred Lynch)

When Commander Premier Aircraft Corp. announced it was relocating its manufacturing firm to the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport in 2005, it seemed like the solution to a multimillion-dollar problem.

After struggling with lawsuits and a lack of investors for three years, Commander's predecessor, Renaissance Aircraft, had just shut down operations at a 52,000-square-foot facility that the city had borrowed $2.8 million to build. Commander was promising to move in and begin making airplanes and rental payments, something Renaissance had failed to do.

But nearly six years later, Commander seems poised to suffer the same fate as Renaissance -- with closed doors, unemployed workers and the city again looking for a tenant to take over.

Commander has yet to produce a single airplane, hire the 100 employees it promised or even pay rent since December 2007. In fact, the company has made only eight monthly payments during its stay.

The Cape Girardeau City Council recently gave the airplane manufacturer 60 days to make $1.2 million in back payments. The deadline is April 22. If the money isn't paid by then, the city will notify the company -- which only employs three or four workers -- that it has 30 days to evacuate the building.

"It certainly isn't the way we wanted to see two businesses end with that building, I can tell you that," airport manager Bruce Loy said. "Anytime you have a building like that, one that's promising to employ people and benefit the community, that's the reason we built the building. You expect positive things out of it."

City officials also expected positive things from Delaware-based Renaissance Aircraft, which announced in January 2001 it would set up shop at the airport, promising 200 jobs for area residents. Renaissance had plans to manufacture an updated version of a 1930s-style, two-seat, single-engine aircraft known as the Luscombe.

In exchange for the company's commitment to locate at the airport, the city agreed to provide up to $1.6 million for construction of a new facility on airport property. The city also agreed to put up $200,000 for furniture, fixtures and equipment, $100,000 for road improvements and parking and $200,000 for extensions of water and sewer lines to the facility.

At that time, there was talk of as many as 1,000 new airplanes a year being built at Renaissance's facility. The company would sell the planes for about $70,000, and the city would use the rental payments to repay the bonds over 20 years.

"We were looking for opportunities," said Al Spradling III, Cape Girardeau's mayor at the time. "It was somewhat risky at the beginning. But you've got to take risk to get the reward. We just didn't get the reward."

The first signs of trouble came two months after the Renaissance announcement, when news broke that the company was coming to town carrying a bit of baggage. The company was embroiled in a series of lawsuits over the airplane it intended to build. At issue was who actually had the license to build the Luscombe airplane. A not-for-profit Arizona organization held the certificate that gave exclusive rights to Renaissance, but the foundation claimed Renaissance wrongly took equipment needed to build the plane.

Still, early in 2002, a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the construction of the new facility. The number of employees had grown to about 25. A side benefit of the Renaissance deal came later that year when it was announced that the city now qualified for a $480,000 state grant that would help pay to provide potable water to the city's then-30-year-old industrial park on Nash Road near the airport. The grant was only available when a company was expanding or coming to the area and has a need for extra services.

By May 2003, Renaissance was blaming delays on the lawsuits. By that time, the company had seen two years of legal wrangling, continuing cash-flow problems and some doubt about the marketability of its planes. The company was also trying to find $2 million from investors. It had cut back from 20 to nine employees, which included the company president and his wife. Though Renaissance won its lawsuits and was awarded $2.5 million, the foundation filed bankruptcy and Renaissance dropped to no employees.

In June 2004, the city council gave Renaissance until Oct. 1 to get its airplane manufacturing business up and running. By October, the company owed $61,000 and there was talk of eviction after Renaissance missed the deadline. In mid-November 2004, Renaissance announced it would close its doors after being unable to make bond payments.

Now, it seems possible, even likely, that Commander will be forced to close its doors. The city has already gotten out from under the bond payments, paying off the entire April 1 balance of $2.1 million, plus $61,380 in interest, said city finance director John Richbourg. The council used some of the $2 million from money it received from Isle of Capri as part of a land sale for the company to build its casino to pay off the bonds.

Now the city wants to market the building and get a new tenant there that can hire employees and pay its bills. City officials say they want to avoid a third failed business at the airport facility. City manager Scott Meyer said Commander wouldn't likely be evicted until at least June 1 and probably later.

But paying off the bonds has lifted a huge restriction. Under the bond stipulation, only an airplane manufacturer could be located at the facility. The best-case scenario would be to sell the building outright, he said, to something that would be airport-related.

"By removing the manufacturing requirement of the bonds, we have the ability to go with a more stable business that has a more established cash flow," Meyer said.

Mitch Robinson, executive director of Cape Girardeau Area Magnet, helped recruit both Renaissance and Commander. He said it has been frustrating to watch both businesses flounder.

"Unfortunately, we've had two strikes," Robinson said. "I don't believe we'll have a third."



Pertinent address:

3971 Godwin Memorial Drive, Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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