CHARLESTON -- Under a blistering sun and facing a heated court battle, Boeing snipped the ribbon Friday on its new 787 Dreamliner assembly plant in North Charleston six months ahead of schedule.
Company officials, politicians and workers hailed the aerospace giant's $750-million production facility as the start of a new era in the Lowcountry.
To the loud roar of applause from the hundreds of workers and guests seated and standing outside the cavernous facility the size of 11 football fields, Boeing Vice President and General Manager Jack Jones said, "This building is open for business."
He later brushed aside questions about the National Labor Relations Board lawsuit, saying, "We are focused on today. Nothing is stopping us from moving forward."
The NLRB sued Boeing in April, alleging the company set up its secondary 787 plant in mostly nonunion South Carolina as an illegal form of retaliation against the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers for past strikes in Washington state.
Boeing has denied that. It said it weighed numerous factors, including its relations with the machinists union, before choosing to build a new plant in South Carolina.
State and federal lawmakers on hand for the ceremony rallied to Boeing's defense.
"We're going to fight for you. We're going to support you. We'll be a cheerleader for you, and we can't wait to see those mac daddy planes roll out of here," Gov. Nikki Haley said.
"This state has your back," U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said. "Boeing is here in South Carolina, and in case anyone is wondering, Boeing is not going to leave South Carolina."
Reflecting on the groundbreaking ceremony in November 2009 and Friday's ribbon-cutting, Graham added, "The goal is not to build a building. The goal is to fly a plane made in South Carolina. We are one step closer."
The first pieces of the 787 wide-body jet, other than the aft and mid-body sections built next door, will arrive next month as 4,000 workers already hired begin to piece together the first completely assembled model of the
airplane outside of Washington state.
"This is the first time we are actually going to send an aft and mid-body across the street instead of 3,000 miles away," Jones said. "Lots of good things are going to happen. This is history."
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn called Boeing's new footprint in the Lowcountry "one of the biggest game changers" of his life.
"It's hard to believe that just a few years ago we were wondering if this was possible, and here we are," state Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell said.
"This shows what happens when people sit down together from all aspects of government to make something happen," North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said.
Reflecting on the oppressive heat for the outside ceremony, Graham said, "I' m looking forward to seeing the inside of this building, and I think it could have held us all -- just a suggestion."
He joked, too, that the project was ahead of schedule and under budget.
"Obviously, none of them ever worked for the federal government," Graham said.
"We built something more than a building," said Luther Cochrane, chairman and chief executive officer of contractor BE&K Building Group. "We built an industry that is part of South Carolina."
Wing assembly worker Cindy Cogley, of Summerville, was ecstatic that she will be a part of the team that will build three airplanes a month by 2013.
"We have been waiting for this day," Cogley said. "It's the start of a new beginning for us."