Cirrus Aircraft unveils plans for design center in Duluth

Cirrus unveils the Vision Jet
Duluth's Cirrus Aircraft has seen rapid growth since 2016 when it developed its single-engine Vision Jet. The company on Monday announced plans to build a new aircraft design center at the Duluth airport.
Dan Kraker | MPR News 2016

Updated 11:55 a.m.

Small airplane manufacturer Cirrus Aircraft said Monday it will build a new aircraft design center at the Duluth airport. 

Cirrus said it plans to hire 80 additional engineers over the next three years to staff the new hub, which will be located in a giant hangar the company recently acquired from the city. The company will invest between $10 million and $15 million in the building, said Chris Fleege of the Duluth Economic Development Authority.

It’s the latest sign of rapid growth for Cirrus since 2016, when it developed its Vision Jet, a single-engine personal jet designed to be flown by its owner that starts at around $3 million. 

At the time the company delivered its first jet to a customer in late 2016, it employed around 800 people in Duluth. Now it employs about 1,200 people, making it the largest manufacturing employer in the city. It recently opened additional facilities in Arizona and Texas. 

“Investing in this facility aligns with our strategy of growing our presence in Duluth, advancing our local community and creating a world-class Innovation Center,” Cirrus Aircraft CEO Zean Nielsen said in a statement. 

Cirrus’ initial information release said it would spend $15 million on the project. In a later statement, the company removed the figure and said it would not disclose its investment at this time.

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The new Duluth facility will be located in an airbase originally built for Northwest Airlines. More recently it was occupied by AAR Corp., which performed maintenance on commercial airplanes. AAR left early in the COVID-19 pandemic, taking with it more than 200 jobs. 

Former Northwest hangar
In this 2012 photo, workers replace fluorescent lights 60 feet off the ground at the AAR aircraft maintenance facility in Duluth. Cirrus Aircraft will take over this space for its new airplane design facility.
Dan Kraker | MPR News file

The city of Duluth was left with a huge empty building. Chris Fleege, the city’s director of planning and economic development, said the city was paying about $57,000 a month in taxes, and maintenance costs. 

“We are eager to decrease public liability while exponentially growing the aviation economy and we are one hundred percent committed to the vision of Cirrus Aircraft as being central to our own vision of economic development within the city of Duluth,” Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said in a statement. 

That’s why the city agreed to sell the building, which has a market value of nearly $10 million, to Cirrus for just $1. The Duluth Economic Development Authority said the subsidy was justified because Cirrus was considering alternative locations, and the cost of the project would have been “economically unfeasible” without it. 

“I think it’s money well spent, and will pay dividends to taxpayers moving forward,” said Fleege. 

Buffing aircraft exterior
A Cirrus worker buffs the exterior of an aircraft in this 2012 photo.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2012

Fleege said this positions Duluth to be Cirrus’ hub for research and development as the company continues to grow and develop its next generation aircraft. Already it’s advertising for more than 120 positions in Duluth. 

“That is the exciting part,” Fleege said. And “it isn't just for Duluth, it’s for Hermantown, there are folks who drive in from the Iron Range who work there. It’s a big pull.”

Correction (Sept. 19, 2022): An earlier version of this story misstated the sale price of the company’s Vision Jet aircraft.