"the AC COBRA ... a way of living"
Company President Alan Lubinsky said the U.S.-made cars would sell for $80,000 to $150,000 each. "It's a labor-intensive, high-priced product," he said.
Lubinsky was attracted to the Bridgeport site by the city's improving outlook, the region's skilled work force, and the factory building's history.
Armstrong Manufacturing Co. manufactured one of the first motorized vehicles ever produced, a gas-powered horseless buggy, in the brick structure in 1895.
"We like the heritage aspect of it," Lubinsky said.
The company also will receive government incentives for moving to Bridgeport, although the incentives are not viewed as overly generous by today's standards.
The state will give AC Cars a $1.5 million low-interest loan and, because the factory is in an enterprise zone, the company's property and equipment taxes will be reduced by 80 percent for five years. The state reimburses the city in full for that lost local revenue. ni
Moving its production to America, where the company sells about 85 percent of its cars, will greatly reduce the company's shipping costs. "The United States has always been our prime market, and it's what we're concentrating on now," Lubinsky said.
The Malta plant will continue to produce cars for the European, Arab and Asian markets, he said.
Building investors are local
The building at 305 Knowlton St. borders the Pequonnock River, just north of Barnum Avenue.
A limited liability corporation headed by former Republican mayoral candidate Enrique "Rick" Torres and local attorney Edward L. Piquette recently bought it. AC Cars will rent about 40,000 square feet in the 70,000-square-foot building, likely signing a10-year lease.
When Torres and Piquette approached the Bridgeport Economic Resource Center (BERC) for help in finding tenants, the center's Kevin Nunn and Jeff Bishop immediately thought of AC Cars.
State officials had been talking to Nunn and Bishop about the car company, which was close to selecting a site elsewhere in the state because an appropriate location couldn't be found in Bridgeport.
"The two sort of came together at the same time," said Nunn, president of BERC, a privately funded non-profit agency that promotes the city's business potential.
Piquette said he remembers when he first talked to Nunn and Bishop. "They looked at each other and both said at the same time, 'AC Motors,'" Piquette said.
Torres also recalled the conversation. "An 'AC' light bulb went off in their head," he said.
Within days, Lubinsky was touring the site. Piquette said BERC was "very instrumental" in putting together a deal.
Jeff Bishop, BERC vice president, said the agreement should be finalized soon. AC Cars will invest $4.5 million in the site. "It's as certain as we can make it," Bishop said. "There's a lot of commitment."
Mayor John M. Fabrizi is thrilled about the plan. "It's absolutely phenomenal," said Fabrizi, who had met with Lubinsky about six months ago. "He seemed determined to come to Bridgeport due to the enterprise zone abatements and the historical connection."
Torres, who opposed Fabrizi in the last mayoral election, said he doesn't mind if bringing AC Cars to Bridgeport helps Fabrizi politically. "This is a feather in [Fabrizi's] cap if he wants it," he said. "But look, I'm making money here. This is a for-profit venture."
Structure is solid
Torres said the East Side building reminded Lubinsky of the English factory where AC Cars started more than a century ago.
Lubinsky said Bridgeport shares many qualities with English industrial cities. "New England is very similar," he said.
The Knowlton Street facility was last occupied by the Atrium Window Co., which eventually moved to Massachusetts. A plant company and a moving-storage firm still use part of the building and likely will stay as tenants for now.
On a recent tour of the building, Torres marveled at the structure's post-and-beam construction, 3-inch sub-floors and 1-inch-thick maple floors.
Torres said William Armstrong, who constructed the building for his company in 1850, was known for inventing the locking wrench. Big-wheeled bicycles were made in the plant for a while. "[Armstrong] was a prolific inventor and builder," Torres said.
The complex, which includes sections added on as late at the 1940s, will be renamed Armstrong Manufacturing Village.
Bishop said because the building has been a factory, it already meets many of the specialized needs of an auto assembly plant despite its age.
AC Cars should begin moving into the facility in early 2006, with production capabilities increasing during the course of that year.
The car company also might use another 8,300 square feet for a museum to display historic automobiles. An elevated walkway may be built around the plant so customers and the public can watch the cars being custom-built.
"People will want to see how a car is built," predicted Torres, owner of Harborview Market in Black Rock.
He said the city could compete with low-wage countries when it comes to specialized manufacturing, but not regular manufacturing. "Anything that's high-end luxury," he said.
Piquette agreed. "This is boutique manufacturing," he said. "It's about as good as it gets."
Torres said AC Cars uses many modern techniques, such as incorporating lightweight carbon fiber instead of aluminum in some car models. "This is the future," he said.
The positive reaction in the community to the AC Cars announcement has been overwhelming, Piquette said.
"People know this will enhance the image of Bridgeport, raising the city's esteem up a notch," he said.
Lubinsky stressed AC Cars would support local businesses by contracting work in the area. "We buy lots of components from suppliers," he said.
The company's new Malta factory should be in full production by mid-2006, with close to 50 employees. The plant should make 60 cars in the next nine months.
Lubinsky said he moved AC Cars out of England due to "astronomical costs."