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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A second aviation components manufacturer in a matter of weeks has announced expansion plans that will bring jobs to southeastern Kansas, a welcome development for the region of the state with the highest unemployment rate.

Valent Aerostructures said Monday that it plans to build a 50,000-square-foot facility at its Fredonia plant by March 2012 and to expand its workforce from 55 employees to 100 over the next few years.

Spirit AeroSystems, which like Valent, makes components for the commercial and military aviation and aerospace industries, said last month that it plans to move into an existing facility in Chanute and to employ 35 people there by the end of 2012 and as many as 150 workers within a few years.

"This part of the state has been aching for good news for three years. It's been a good past couple of months," Sen. Jeff King, an Independence Republican, said Tuesday.

He and three other state senators are working with communities to increase employment, reduce poverty and improve the overall quality of life in the region. King said he's hopeful that airplane manufacturer Cessna will decide to build its new Mustang aircraft at its Independence plant.

"It's my hope that as a region we can come together to leverage this mini aviation cluster," King said.

He and Ann Charles, deputy director of the Great Plains Development Authority in Parsons, said the recent announcements are positive, but that the region will need more of the same if it hopes to improve conditions that declined over decades.

"It's going to be a long-haul thing," said Charles, one of four regional economic advisers working with the senators. "Southeast Kansas didn't become a socio-economic challenge to the rest of the state overnight and we're not going to get out of it overnight."

King and Charles said the region had to accept that new jobs for one community were jobs for the entire region and set aside old grudges. Charles said many of the workers at the Chanute plant would likely live in Labette County, which would have a ripple effect on Parsons and other cities.

"They will be buying homes, cars and spending those paychecks locally," she said. "The best thing we can do as a region is get past the Friday night football rivalries."

King said the region had the potential for growth, citing its competitive wage scale and supply of workers.

"We have a lot to offer. Sometimes we are our own worst enemy," King said. "We need to be less worried about where the jobs locate in southeast Kansas and just that they locate in southeast Kansas."

Commerce Secretary Pat George said the state was able to work with Spirit to find a location in Kansas to expand, instead of creating jobs in another state or country. He would like to see other companies do what Spirit did by finding an empty factory and growing their business.

"I think it's the tip of the iceberg," George said. "Southeast Kansas has struggled for a long time. This is a great win for everyone and I hope other companies will do the same."

King said the region has pulled together in the past as Parsons recovered from a tornado and Coffeyville from flooding. But those relationships were short-term and didn't produce the level of cooperation needed to rejuvenate the area. The region had the highest unemployment rate as a whole in in August in Kansas, with counties ranging from a low of 7.5 percent in Greenwood to 11.2 in Wilson where Valent is locating. The statewide rate was 6.9 percent.

Charles said he doesn't think the region needs government help to reverse its fortunes.

"I see this as being something outside widgets and tools. I see this as a focus on leadership," the former newspaper publisher said. "There may be things we are doing to try to address something ourselves that if we pull our heads together we may not have to reinvent the wheel."

 

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