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SC Aviation takes off at Janesville airport
An artist's rendering shows the 36,700-square-foot hangar that SC Aviation is building at Southern Wisconsin REgional Airport in Janesville. The facility will allow the company to expand its charter flights and the number of planes it can accommodate in Janesville. (Illustration supplied)
JANESVILLE - At SC Aviation's main hangar at the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport, the lobby door has a sign that reads: "Please watch for wing tips on the other side of the door."

It's not a joke.

For years, the private charter aviation service has run Learjet and Hawker business jets out of cramped hanger space at the Janesville airport. Planes are packed so tightly at times that their wing tips can come within 2 or 3 feet of the lobby door's outward swing.

Hangar space - and the need for more of it - is driving the company's $37 million expansion at the airport.

SC Aviation, a subsidiary of Monroe-based Colony Brands, formerly Swiss Colony, has broken ground on a 36,700-square-foot hangar that would triple its space. It's expected to be operating by September 2016.

That would give the company a place to put the growing number of planes it is adding to the fleet it flies around the Midwest, Sales Director Dan Morris said at a groundbreaking ceremony Monday.

Early estimates SC Aviation submitted in an application for state tax credits listed the project cost at $22.5 million. But the company says emerging plans - including a lease arrangement for at least two new planes - could tack on at least $10 million to the total cost.

The company already owns a 12,000-square-foot hangar and leases another hangar at the airport's south end. It will continue to occupy those spaces and other space it has at private airports in Kenosha and Wheeling, Illinois.

The company runs an estimated four to seven passenger flights a day in and out of the Janesville airport. The expansion will add volume and air traffic, company officials indicated.

Under the expansion, SC Aviation plans to hire as many as 31 new employees with specialized training, including pilots and aircraft mechanics. The new positions pay $31 an hour.

As the economy has strengthened in the last few years, the pace of commerce has quickened. That has boosted demand for corporate air travel.

SC Aviation President Ernie Grainger said Monday that Colony Brands itself has seen 30 percent growth, and it expects the upswing to continue.

Grainger started with the company as a pilot and continues to fly as a co-pilot in one of the 10-passenger Hawker 800 jets. He said the expansion will take advantage of one of the biggest upticks in demand the company has seen since it started chartered flights out of Janesville in 2000.

He and Morris said the project also will bolster SC Aviation's aircraft maintenance service, both for planes it owns and planes it leases, and make maintenance service available for private business jets.

Company officials said a few Janesville-area companies, including ABC Supply, Prent and Regal Beloit, have run their own private jets out of the airport, and some use SC Aviation to handle their flights.

SC Aviation already is the busiest tenant-operator at the Rock County-owned airport, officials said, and the expansion would solidify its presence in Janesville.

"This investment, it's a focus on our facilities here, plain and simple, and it's all geared toward economic diversity. We're thinking we're going to be here in Janesville for a long time," Grainger told The Gazette.

That's a turnaround from the recession years, including 2008 and 2009, when a falloff in chartered flights forced SC Aviation to lay off about half of its 14 pilots, Grainger said. The airport also took a hit on its other main operation, just-in-time air freight, during the recession and as a result of the General Motors plant shuttering in 2009.

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation said Monday it has given SC Aviation $500,000 in tax credits for the expansion. Under the terms of the WEDC incentives, the company is required to retain its staff of 46 and create 31 full-time jobs.

SC Aviation previously had been quiet about the project, although it came up publicly this fall when the Janesville City Council approved a $100,000 tax increment financing deal.

The airport is within a half-mile of a tax increment financing district, so state law allows the city to extend a TIF deal. City officials said the deal was in part an overture to SC Aviation after a city review of the expansion plans spurred special requirements that would raise the project's cost.

Some city officials have suggested a main impetus for the expansion was to tap into a need for corporate flights for SHINE, a medical radioisotope production facility set to open on Janesville's south side in 2018, and for Dollar General, which is building a 1 million-square-foot warehouse on the south side.

Morris said SC Aviation never saw those developments as a driver.

"Dollar General and SHINE are significant in what they could bring in demand, but the expansion never hinged on either company coming here," he said.

Grainger said Chicago-Rockford International Airport was among a few other airports that "tried really hard to woo" the company.

He said the Janesville airport was a better fit because it has multiple low flight paths, which suit the smaller aircraft that SC Aviation flies.