The British-owned defense contractor known as Cobham says it is closing its St. Petersburg production facility and moving three-quarters of its 160 employee workforce to other facilities in Davenport, Iowa and Orchard Park, NY.
That shutdown, planned for October, stunned city leaders who are still reeling from the closure of the Midtown Sweetbay Supermarket.
"Ironically, I met with the chamber of commerce president this morning," said St. Petersburg Council Chairman Karl Nurse. "We were talking about how do we proactively grow businesses."
The company's departure means a loss of millions in payroll from the defense contractor. "The problem is not only is it 160 jobs, it's 160 good jobs," said Nurse.
Cobham workers in St. Petersburg produce components for life safety systems that military pilots use to detach parachutes after they eject into the ocean on order to keep them from drowning in their own gear. They also make quick-release restraint systems in Humvees and MRAPS used by soldiers in combat.
Company spokesman Greg Caires said the nation's shrinking defense budget forced his company to consolidate operations as a cost-cutting measure.
"It makes good business sense to move this site," Caires said. "It is with genuine regret that Cobham must take these actions due to present conditions in the global aerospace and defense market."
Congressman Bill Young's chief of staff Harry Glenn said Young learned of the planned closure Wednesday, but wasn't surprised. Glenn said Young predicted months ago that such things would start happening as a result of defense spending cuts.
"This is another indication of what's happening all over the country in national defense matters," Glenn said. "The downstream suppliers are starting to feel the effects."
One worker at the plant who declined to give his name said Cobham informed employees of the October closing early Thursday and allowed assembly line workers to go home and gather their thoughts. The worker said he just moved here two months ago with his wife for a higher paying job at Cobham but decided to rent an apartment instead of buying a home because of the instability of the defense market.
Cobham said it would relocated 120 of its 160 workers and help those who want to stay transition to other employment.
Three years ago Cobham's St. Petersburg facility made headlines for another reason. The production plant was the target of a federal raid by criminal investigators from six different agencies on July 15, 2009 due to allegations the company was using counterfeit parts for its military life safety products.
Agents from every branch of the service along with the FBI and even NASA helped carry away documents and hard drives as part of a federal search warrant served on the premises.
Thursday, Caires said the counterfeit parts investigation lead by the Defense Criminal Investigative Service was ongoing but had nothing to do with the facility's closure. "There's no change in the product portfolio," Caires said.
U.S. Attorney spokeswoman Amy Filjones later said the case had been closed without charges and there would be no further comment on the matter. It's not clear why the company believes the investigation remains open when federal prosecutors say it is not.
Whatever the case, Congressman Young's staff and city leaders now worry that the loss of local 160 defense jobs at Cobham may just be an early warning of more shutdowns as defense cuts begin hitting other local companies that thrive on military spending.
"The good news is the wars are winding down," said Nurse. The bad news is that the defense contractors, which the bay area has lots of them, are going to be winding down as well."