He praises 'very, very busy' Crookston final assembly plant.

    You hear it all the time, that it was a “business decision.” The Minnesota Vikings release star defensive back Antoine Winfield and justify the move by saying he’s in his mid-30s, kind of old for a professional football player, and that he was due to make more than $7 million during the upcoming season. Nothing against Winfield, the team’s brass says, it was just a “business decision.”

    That’s kind of how Paul Soubry, president and CEO of New Flyer of America, sums up the rationale behind the company’s decision earlier this month to expand its operation at its St. Cloud, Minn. facility, and not in Crookston. Simply put, Soubry told the Times in a phone interview from the company’s headquarters in Winnipeg, Manitoba, by choosing St. Cloud, the company will have to do less actual new construction, and will be able to get its new line of smaller “midi” buses rolling before the end of 2013. Had the Crookston facility been chosen for the expansion, Soubry said, a significant amount of new construction would have been needed. Plus, he acknowledged, it will likely be easier to find the approximately 130 new workers in and around St. Cloud than in Crookston.

    “We didn’t differentiate on the economics between Crookston and St. Cloud. We currently have the space available (in St. Cloud) and that’s primarily why we’re going there,” Soubry explained. “There’s already a dedicated line and a paint booth there to launch the new bus.” While some new construction is necessary in St. Cloud, he said it’s mostly due to increased inspection capacity that’s needed, and not specifically to assemble the new bus. “Crookston’s facility is very, very busy, and they are tremendous specialists there at finishing buses; they do great work and it’s a great facility,” Soubry said. “It really came down to the fastest way to get this up and running, to get this product to market and assimilate it.”

    In addition to proposals put together by leaders in St. Cloud and Crookston, the corporate headquarters in Winnipeg also vied for the expansion, as did New Flyer’s facility in Elkhart, Indiana. Eventually, it came down to St. Cloud and Crookston. Each city’s proposal at one point contained identical $500,000 grants from the Department of Employment and Economic Development’s (DEED) Minnesota Investment Fund. Then, at some point, according to Crookston Housing and Economic Development Authority (CHEDA) Executive Director Craig Hoiseth, the state intervened by doubling the DEED grant for St. Cloud to $1 million. He told the CHEDA Executive Committee after the decision to expand in St. Cloud was announced that the expansion appeared to be on its way to Crookston until the state doubled the DEED funding.

    “Everyone tried to help us make the right choice,” Soubry said when asked about the increased DEED funding in St. Cloud’s proposal. “Doing the math, financially, it was probably not that materially different in St. Cloud than Crookston. The economic incentives really don’t change things one way or another, but they certainly don’t hurt.”

    The Times left a voicemail for Lee Miller of DEED’s northwest Minnesota region, who was involved in the process. Blake Chaffee, DEED communications director, subsequently returned the call and said New Flyer simply determined what was best for the company and made a business decision. “Ultimately it’s not a community versus community situation,” Chaffee said. “They narrowed the field to two, we were put in a competitive situation, we made an offer, and we’re thrilled that the company is expanding here in Minnesota.”

    Soubry agrees that the State of Minnesota didn’t try to “jockey” one community against another. “What the state told you is accurate, and we’re very pleased we can launch this new line from an existing facility in Minnesota,” he said.