Bell Helicopter in early 2016 will begin hiring most of the 115 Acadiana employees needed at the company’s new $23.6 million assembly plant, an 82,300-square-foot facility located at Lafayette Regional Airport that will start producing the 505 Jet Ranger X next year.

“We know what types of people live, work and play in this region,” said John Garrison, Bell Helicopter president and CEO, at the grand opening of the facility Thursday.

Garrison said the Fort Worth, Texas-based company took note of the quality of work done by employees who work at two other Bell facilities in Lafayette.

“We recognized that the workers here are hardworking and focused on providing a good product,” Paul Watts, manager of the Lafayette plant, said after the audience of about 250 started exploring the vast hangar.

Watts said the welcome mat officials threw out for Bell also was a factor in locating in Lafayette. That welcome included tax breaks for some Bell customers and $23.6 million in state funds to build the facility. Bell plans to spend $11.4 million for equipment and tooling. The assembly hangar will be owned by the Lafayette Regional Airport Commission.

Bell is in the process of acquiring the government approvals for the 505, Watts said. He said Bell expects to have the jet, which is in high-altitude testing in Colorado, certified next year and the assembly plant rolling. Part of the facility resembles a car dealership, with a showroom floor and expansive windows that front U.S. 90. Dana Schenck, a Bell communications manager, said the 505 Jet Rangers will retail for about $1 million. She said that in the aviation world, it’s a bargain.

On the Bell505.com website, there’s a “Build Your Own” feature where customers can choose color schemes and other specifics. So far, Bell has 350 letters of intent from customers who put in writing their pledge to buy one of the five-seat, single-engine, turbine aircraft, Watts said.

Bell’s new facility and south Louisiana’s aviation industry — fixed-wing commercial flights, oil and gas worker transportation via helicopter, and cargo transport — were factors in the decision by South Louisiana Community College officials to push for an aviation complex at Acadiana Regional Airport in New Iberia.

The complex, in its early planning stages, would award two-year degrees to aviation students. SLCC students would study and learn how to work on aircraft components from tip to tail: the engine and body, including the lightweight composite materials used in modern aircraft; nondestructive testing; avionics; painting and coating; and pilot training.

Business and SLCC officials plan to request $14 million next year from the Legislature for the proposed building and hangar in New Iberia.

SLCC President Natalie Harder, who attended the grand opening Thursday, said an aviation campus and its graduates would complement companies like Bell and keep them competitive.

The event Thursday was held exactly one year after Bell and Louisiana officials broke ground for the facility on 14 ½ acres at the Lafayette airport.

“We are excited to have successfully reached this milestone of the facility opening,” Watts said. “This advances us one step closer to production and delivery of this aircraft.”