Duluth's once-prized but controversial Airbus maintenance facility, shuttered for the last three years, will return to its roots within the next year as ... an Airbus maintenance facility.

Only, instead of handling the service needs of the Northwest Airlines Airbus fleet as originally intended in the 1990s, the 188,000-square-foot hangar will be the repair facility for the 89-plane Airbus fleet of Air Canada. Work will be done under the supervision of AAR Corp., the newest tenant of the Duluth International Airport property.

AAR has signed a letter of intent with Air Canada to provide maintenance on the Airbus aircraft for the next five years, first at its base in Miami but ultimately at the center in Duluth, company executives said.

"Our team is excited about contributing to Air Canada's efficient operations and the [letter of intent] is the first step forward," said Dany Kleiman, AAR's vice president for repair and engineering, in a statement.

AAR already has a small crew of managers and mechanics in the Airbus building and is getting ready to start hiring more mechanics, said Pakou Ly, a spokesman for the Duluth Economic Development Authority.

Eventually, up to 225 people will be working in the plant.

"It's hard to imagine a better situation for the city of Duluth," Mayor Don Ness said in a telephone interview Monday. "It's a beautiful facility. It's well built. We always thought it was critical to find someone who would use the building for the purposes it was designed for."

Landing the Air Canada business is a coup for AAR, given Duluth's proximity to the Montreal-based airline, which also has hubs in Toronto and Vancouver. AAR's other maintenance facilities are in Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, Miami and Hot Springs, Ark. The Wood Dale, Ill.-based company had 2012 revenues of $2.1 billion and employs 6,700 workers. "The facility is an ideal fit for several reasons," said AAR spokesman Chris Mason. "The location is great, the [existing] equipment and tooling, and the available workforce."

Mason said one maintenance line should be operational by the end of the year. At full capacity, there will be four maintenance lines.

"We've been working to get the facility operational and land a launch customer to bring work there for some time," Mason said. "Air Canada represents that launch client."

The Duluth facility opened in 1996 as the property of Northwest Airlines, which pledged to build the center in return for a controversial $838 million bailout package it received from the Minnesota Legislature in 1991. Northwest desperately wanted the state aid to avoid bankruptcy during a period of economic turmoil in the airline industry and to repay lenders from a 1989 leveraged buyout by businessmen Al Checchi and Gary Wilson.

But Northwest closed the facility in 2005 at the start of a mechanics strike.

Duluth-based Cirrus Aircraft leased space in the hangar until 2009 when shrinking aircraft sales forced it to close down that part of its operation. The building has been largely vacant since.

David Phelps • 612-673-7269