Blackwater USA hires Ford workers to build new APC
[] (2007-02-20) David Macaulay
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By DAVID MACAULAY - Staff Writer - February 20, 2007
CAMDEN- Blackwater USA has enlisted the services of former Ford workers to begin commercial production of an armored personnel carrier that could boost protection for U.S. forces in Iraq.
Blackwater President Gary Jackson told Camden's Board of Commissioners Friday that the private security firm plans to build a new line of armored personnel carriers. Early models of the new APC — also known as the Grizzly — were produced at Blackwater's facility at the Pasquotank Commerce Park outside Elizabeth City. But Jackson said the entire operation will eventually be moved to Blackwater's new 70,000 square-foot facility at its headquarters in Camden County near Moyock, in adjacent Currituck County.
Helping to build the new carriers are former Ford workers who were laid off after Ford announced last year that it was closing its Norfolk, Va., facility.
Jackson, who spoke to commissioners at the board's retreat Friday, said Blackwater's APC program was not as successful as officials hoped at first.
"We decided we would try to build an armored personnel carrier from the lessons we've learned overseas," he said. "We took a bunch of guys from Currituck and Camden and welders and gave them an Army truck and said 'Go ahead.'
"They built the first one — it looks really cool and drives around but it didn't work," he said.
Blackwater also hired engineers from Volvo in Chesapeake, Va., and former Ford workers from Norfolk who have helped improve production of the new carrier, Jackson said.
"We have a bunch of guys out of the Ford plant in Norfolk who work down here now," Jackson said. "Sure enough they've done it. The first production model will be coming out of Elizabeth City in two weeks."
Jackson said Blackwater is looking forward to moving into the new 70,000 square-foot facility near Moyock and begin manufacturing the carriers.
"Our goal is to move into that big building over there and build one a day," he said.
Blackwater officials hope the new Grizzly will provide improved troop protection over the Humvees that troops currently use in Iraq. The Grizzly can drive at a top speed of 65 mph and boasts an armored protective system able to deflect ordinance as large as.50 caliber.
Also Friday, Jackson outlined Blackwater's contribution to the Albemarle economy.
"We spent $35 million in products and services in 2005 in northeastern North Carolina in 2005," he said. "In 2006 we are probably spending over $50 million in northeastern North Carolina in products and services from the communities of seven or eight counties."
Blackwater still spends approximately double that amount in Virginia, but is continuing to expand its services at its headquarters.
Although Jackson said growth at the rapidly expanding company would likely slow down from 100 percent a year to approximately 25 percent to 50 percent a year.
Blackwater also is developing an unmanned, battlefield blimp that is close to becoming operational and may be destined for the skies over Baghdad, Iraq, Jackson said. The blimp also is being manufactured at the commerce park site, but Blackwater plans to move that operation to its new facility in the future.
The blimp, the first of which is expected to fly in the next two months, is flown from a control room on the ground and houses sophisticated surveillance equipment.
Jackson said the blimps will be able to stay in the air at altitudes between 5,000 to 18,000 feet for as many as four days, longer than its commercial rivals.
"We can sit it over the top of Baghdad at 18,000 feet and watch all that goes on," he said. "The problem is if it really does work, it will be hard to produce them fast enough. I believe airships will be a multi billion dollar business."
Blackwater's aviation division was recently relocated from Florida to Camden County, bringing with it 40 jobs. By the end of 2007, Jackson said, the number of aviation workers is expected to grow to approximately 75 to 80 people.
Blackwater also has constructed a 206-bed hotel at its Camden headquarters and plans to open it this spring. Jackson said a second hotel may follow.
Jackson also is considering an industrial park to encourage companies that produce Blackwater merchandise and other related products to move to the area.
"It's not going to happen this year \u2013 maybe '08-'09," he said. "I would build 10,000 to 15,000 square-foot buildings for them and they would bring satellite offices onto the property, into Camden County, anywhere from 30 to 50 employees for each one of them," Jackson said. "Those would be invites only."
Jackson's news of future developments was welcomed by Camden officials. That's because Blackwater comprises a good share of the county's tax base.
Camden County Manager Randell Woodruff said projects such as the commercial park were futuristic ideas.
"That would benefit us very much," Woodruff said. "We are excited about the growth and development at Blackwater."
Jackson was circumspect about development plans Currituck County side of the company's headquarters. However, Currituck officials did grant the security firm a conditional use permit for a firing range last year.
"I still haven't crossed into Currituck even though I have a conditional use permit to cross over," Jackson said. "I'm probably not going to any time soon. The footprint that you see now should last us a couple of years."
Blackwater North in Illinois is due to open in April and the company is seeking to set up a 1000-acre Blackwater West property near San Diego in California, although the project is proving slow because of planning hurdles.