An experimental Boeing plane hangs above visitors looking at engines and planes on display at the Future of Flight on Friday in Mukilteo. The Boeing Co. plans this year to operate the Future of Flight Aviation Center. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

An experimental Boeing plane hangs above visitors looking at engines and planes on display at the Future of Flight on Friday in Mukilteo. The Boeing Co. plans this year to operate the Future of Flight Aviation Center. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Boeing will take the controls at the Future of Flight museum

The county’s contract with the current operator, the Institute of Flight, is expiring.

EVERETT — The Boeing Co., which announced billions of dollars’ worth of airplane deals this week, plans this year to close on a more down-to-earth venture — operating the Future of Flight Aviation Center. The company’s neighbor at Paine Field is one of Snohomish County’s biggest tourist attractions.

If all goes as planned, Boeing will take over operations of the aviation gallery on the west side of the airport and the aviation programs there. The aerospace giant signed a letter of intent Wednesday to enter into a long-term lease for the Future of Flight Aviation Center, which is owned by Snohomish County, according to a county news release.

Boeing currently leases 20 percent of the Future of Flight Center, which it uses as the starting point for tours of its nearby Everett assembly plant and as a venue for occasional events. The tour attracts more than 320,000 visitors a year. Under the new contract, Boeing would lease the entire building.

Boeing said on Friday it looks forward to “expanding and enhancing visitor experiences beyond the public tour and increasing community engagement at the facility.”

The Future of Flight will continue to be a public facility and will “continue to host local and international conferences, events and educational activities at the facility,” the company said in an email.

Still, changes could be in store for the 13-year-old Aviation Center once the new lease is signed.

“The most noticeable change will be in the Gallery,” the company said. “Boeing is considering near-term and longer term investments that will make the Future of Flight a premier destination in Puget Sound. As we finalize plans, we will share them.”

Boeing is wrapping up participation this week in the year’s biggest aerospace event, the Farnborough International Airshow outside London.

Since the Future of Flight opened in 2005, it’s been operated by the Institute of Flight, formerly known as the Future of Flight Foundation. The nonprofit oversees day-to-day operations, management and ticketing of the center at 8415 Paine Field Blvd. in Mukilteo. It also markets the Boeing tour, runs educational programs and oversees charitable programs.

The Institute of Flight, which has about 30 employees, has an annual budget of $3.8 million.

The county’s contract with the Institute of Flight expires October 11.

Jeff Van Dyck, the Institute of Flight’s executive director, said Friday the Institute plans to close the Future of Flight’s Gallery in September and remove the collection. The center’s airplanes and a mock-up space module are on loan from Seattle’s Museum of Flight, an independent nonprofit.

The Institute plans to disband once Boeing takes over operations, Van Dyck said Friday.

While the Future of Flight Center has achieved much success, it also is in need of continued investment, including significant ongoing financial commitments to establish a world-class gallery and new exhibits, county officials said.

In pursuit of that goal, Snohomish County began seeking new management options. In June 2017, officials began negotiating with the nonprofit Museum of Flight in Seattle to manage the Future of Flight. Those talks earlier this year ended without a deal.

County spokesman Kent Patton said talk of new management began about two years ago when Airport Director Arif Ghouse and County Executive Dave Somers began discussing a new vision of the airport and surrounding areas. The county also owns and operates Paine Field Airport.

“They began to ask what it would mean…to have an entirely different entity managing it, one that might be able to invest more and do more,” Patton said.

While the number of visitors was “pretty good,” county officials hoped they could be even better, he said.

Boeing was with us the whole time, Patton said. “They were talking about how they thought this public facility would be extraordinarily valuable for informing future aerospace enthusiasts. Now they’ve come forward to say ‘we think we could help take this to a new level.’”

Its hoped the Institute of Flight continues to support the Future of Flight, Patton said. “We have the greatest respect for them. They may have a role to play — we don’t know what that might continue to be until we get into the nitty-gritty of discussion,” Patton said.

Discussions with Boeing have been under way since late 2017, Patton said.

Somers said he’s looking forward to seeing what can happen with more involvement by the world’s largest aerospace company.

“By expanding our partnership with Boeing, we are bringing their aerospace expertise, global reach and commitment to educating the public to the county’s single biggest tourist attraction,” Somers said.

Kendee Yamaguchi, Snohomish County executive director for economic development, said that “with tourism accounting for over $2 billion in economic activity in the county and the planned launch of a commercial air terminal at Paine Field next year, Boeing’s partnership comes at a perfect time.”

Together, the Future of Flight Aviation Center & Boeing Tour sees about 500,000 visitors per year.

Janice Podsada: jpodsada@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3097. Twitter: @JanicePods.

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