Duluth is hoping to put its best face forward next week when an Illinois aircraft service company visits to check out the region's workforce as it searches for a new maintenance base.

Up to 250 jobs are on the table should AAR Aircraft Services select Duluth for its next facility.

Working in Duluth's favor is a currently vacant passenger-jet-ready hangar that was built in the mid-1990s as a place for Northwest Airlines to service its fleet of narrow-body Airbus aircrafts.

But AAR is looking at "a handful" of potential sites for expansion and a recent networking fair in Salina, Kan., drew several hundred potential workers, many with experience at airplane maker Hawker Beechcraft, which is closing its operation there.

In addition, AAR's four U.S. maintenance shops are nonunion, which could be an issue in the historically union-strong northeast corner of Minnesota.

"This is not a done deal," said Brian Hanson, director of the Duluth Economic Development Authority. "We think it's encouraging the depth of look AAR is taking, but we know we are not the only option."

That "depth of look" will feature a networking fair on Monday and Tuesday from noon until 8 p.m. at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center where area residents can discuss their skills and backgrounds as potential employees of AAR.

The job fair with no jobs is being coordinated by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, the development authority, the Duluth Airport Authority and APEX, a private sector development group.

A private search firm working on behalf of AAR began discussions with the department several months ago about potential sites in Minnesota.

Runway, little congestion

Heather Rand, a northeast region development specialist for the Department of Employment and Economic Development, said the company wanted a long runway, low air traffic congestion and an existing facility of at least 45,000 square feet with room to expand.

With a runway of 10,000 feet, relatively light traffic and a 189,000 square foot maintenance hangar, Duluth fit all of those categories, Rand said.

Rand said a review of FAA records also indicated there were more than 400 FAA certified mechanics in the Duluth area alone who could handle the airframe and power plant duties needed by AAR.

"We have a synergy for that kind of workforce," she said.

James Skurla, head of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Minnesota Duluth, said if AAR chose Duluth it would be a big shot in the region's economic arm.

"With more than 200 higher-paying jobs, it would have a good multiplier effect on our economy," Skurla said.

AAR has told city officials that there would be 125 jobs in the first year and the workforce would reach 250 in year three of operation.

The available maintenance facility at Duluth International Airport has been empty since 2009 when Cirrus Aircraft, which had been leasing it, cut back its workforce as a declining economy depressed aircraft sales.

It costs the city about $100,000 a year to maintain the building.

AAR, a $1.8 billion company that saw year-over-year sales jump by 35 percent earlier this year, is based in Wood Dale, Ill., a Chicago suburb near O'Hare International Airport. It employs 6,500 in 13 countries. Its four U.S. maintenance locations are in Miami, Indianapolis, Oklahoma City and Hot Springs, Ark.

"We're a growing business looking at ways to expand," said AAR spokesman Chris Mason. "We're in the process of assessing locations and available workforce. We hope to have a decision before the end of the year."

David Phelps • 612-673-7269