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DULUTH — Duluth-based Cirrus Aircraft unveiled its new $20 million innovation center Tuesday to hundreds of employees, their families and others, nearly filling a hangar in the 189,000-square-foot facility.

"I knew instantaneously when I walked into the building three years ago that this would become an important part of our future campus," Cirrus CEO Zean Nielsen said. "It might sound crazy to some, but we really feel like we're just getting started."

Nielsen said that in 2019, a Cirrus goal was to triple the size of the company within a decade, and four years in, it's doubled.

Cirrus is the leading U.S. maker of single-engine piston planes. It has delivered 475 Vision SF50 jets, launched in 2016. Ninety were delivered in 2022, its best production year yet. Jets account for about 30% of Cirrus' sales.

The center, near the Duluth International Airport, was first used by Northwest Airlines and then AAR Corp. The city of Duluth most recently owned it after AAR left during the pandemic, and the city was paying $700,000 annually in taxes and to maintain the property.

Duluth sold it to Cirrus for $1. The aviation company will also benefit from city and county tax abatements.

The new building brings together all the company's product development teams, including engineers, designers, experimental and air-worthiness teams and flight testers. Its test lab for "iron birds," or planes that don't fly, is four times bigger than its previous space, and its number of meeting spaces has increased by 90%.

"We're here to … truly appreciate where we're going and what we have here in one place," said Pat Waddick, Cirrus' president of innovation and operations.

In a video message, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Cirrus is a "great example of a business that thanks in good part to strong community support and a terrific workforce … it has survived and thrived and is now a global leader in this industry."

Cirrus, which began in Duluth in 1994, is owned by AVIC, an aerospace company owned by the Chinese government. It's one of Duluth's largest employers with nearly 1,600 workers — the majority in manufacturing and engineering.

Cirrus has a backlog of orders for more than 1,400 aircraft, and the new innovation center frees up about 75,000 square feet for manufacturing.

Mayor Emily Larson called the facility a "monumental shift of progress" for Duluth. "This is a job creation tool," she said. "I can't wait to see what comes next."