It’s been almost three years since Gov. Rick Scott came to Flagler to celebrate with county government the groundbreaking at Flagler County Airport of what was to ultimately be a 200,000 square foot facility for Aveo Engineering, a company that manufactures LED lights for planes and helicopters. The company was projected to invest $7 million locally.
The groundbreaking featured innumerable local government officials who were shuttled to the site by bus, including then-Sen. John Thrasher, the sheriff, Palm Coast’s mayor, several CEO’s of the county’s largest companies, and a dozen media outlets. The governor, standing next to Aveo CEO Christian Nielsen, touted the 300 jobs Nielsen was promising—the first 50 in 2013, the rest by 2016. So did Nielsen, who spoke of his “commitment here to not only change 300 lives but hopefully thousands more through the economic multiplier effect.” County officials basked in the glow of their jobs coup at a time when the local economy was still groaning from double-digit unemployment, then Scott, Christians and others grabbed their ceremonial shovels and turned over some dirt.
It would be the only dirt that would turn over on Aveo’s airport project.
Nielsen has decided not to build at the airport after all, Helga van Eckert, the county’s economic development director, confirmed Thursday, though county officials have known at least since last year that Aveo would no longer build at the airport, because the company doesn’t want to lease a facility. In September 2013, the county commission ratified a 30-year lease with Aveo at the airport, calling for monthly payments of $1,089 per acre, but starting only after Aveo would have been issued a certificate of occupancy. County officials had expected two buildings occupying up to 13 acres.
Nielsen himself had signed the lease on Sept. 13, 2013. It’s not clear when specifically he broke the lease, which does not set out penalties for such a break. (See the lease below.) But in late spring 20915 he was still planning to build there, though he was going through regulatory hurdles with the FAA over the solar panels he wanted to use on the building. The FAA, after errors in Aveo’s original submission of plans to the FAA, cleared the project.
“When I spoke to Christian last week his position was they really want to make a long-term investment and a large investment,” van Eckert said Thursday, “so they’ve reconsidered, and they want to own, but they still want to be in Flagler County and they’re appreciative of the services that they’ve received.”
“Although it would have been nice to have them at the airport my main interest is that we bring business to the community,” van Eckert said, and that, she said, is still going to happen with Aveo. “Any time you have an ownership interest as opposed to a lease there’s an added level of commitment and security there.”
Nate McLaughlin, the current chairman of the county’s economic development council, said he was not aware of Aveo’s change of plans when initially asked about it Thursday, contacting a reporter later, McLaughlin said he was “disappointed” in the change, as he’d seen Aveo as one of the anchors of new businesses at the airport, along with the National Guard. But, he said, he was pleased with the prospect that Aveo would remain in the county, and preferred to focus on that eventuality. “A project that takes this amount of time and this amount of involvement to get off the ground might take some adjustments along the way,” McLaughlin said.
But so far almost all of Aveo’s promises have been just that: promises, with little else to show for it. Aveo still hasn’t settled on a permanent location in Flagler. Nielsen, who a company official said was in the Czech Republic, did not respond to an email Thursday. His relationship with county officials has not been smooth. He is known to be blustery and impulsive, and late last year county officials were straining to ensure that he would stay in Flagler, going so far as cautioning against media reports that could turn Nielsen off.
Various reasons have been offered for the company’s delays and changes of plan. Van Eckert was first interviewed about Aveo’s decision not to build at the airport in December.
An enduring pledge to remain in Flagler County and start manufacturing soon.
“The goal that we have is that they continue moving forward with their economic development efforts. They’re looking at expanding where they are,” Eckert said, referring to an office location on Palm Coast Parkway. No manufacturing takes place there. “They’re looking at another facility right now because they’re looking to do more with the solar as I understand it, in Flagler County, but I don’t think it’s going to be near the airport.” (Nielsen intended to power his facilities with solar energy.)
“The permit that they had to get from FAA for manufacturing hadn’t come through at that point yet,” van Eckert said, citing another reason for the delays. That FAA permit was reportedly secured last week, enabling Aveo to start manufacturing in the United States. “From Christian’s perspective it was timing and permitting, the solar that he wanted to do and those kinds of components that he wanted to have on,” van Eckert said.
“And cost,” Barbara Revels, who was still chairing the county’s economic development council in December, said. Referring to Christian, she said: “I think that he had an expectation of cost that he didn’t feel like—it was more unexpected. So I don’t know where he generated those ideas about what it would cost, but when he started getting numbers in, I think it took him in a different direction.” Revels added: “What he might can do in the Czech Republic and what he can do here is different, and I don’t know that he was prepared for that,” Revels said.
“I was initially groomed for the project, but it was kind of like the dangling carrot,” Flagler Beach Architect Joseph Pozzuoli told the News-Journal last May. “But I never actually had a contract with them.” Even then Nielsen was describing the company’s local plans in buoyant terms.
Under Aveo’s original plans in 2013, the company was to receive financial incentives from Flagler County for every new job created, as well as incentives from state government’s economic development arm. Van Eckert said Nielsen ended up abandoning both sets of incentives.
Van Eckert in December was asked whether Nielsen had oversold the project. “I don’t think so,” she said. “It’s a great company they’re doing phenomenally well. I think it’s just a matter of attention that’s necessary in the local leadership that they have. So we’ll see. The gentleman that they had hired is no longer with them, the one that was put in charge of putting this thing in place.”