ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. - Security contractor Blackwater USA, which has lost at least eight workers in ambushes in Iraq, is growing at an impressive rate, its president said during a ceremony for a new plant to manufacture targets.
"The numbers are actually staggering. In the last 18 months we've had over 600 percent growth," Blackwater President Gary Jackson said Tuesday.
Blackwater's headquarters in northeastern North Carolina's Currituck County will see a doubling of workforce to about 400 people, Jackson said.
The company in the past year also has opened offices in Baghdad and Jordan.
Blackwater is one of the biggest and best-known private security firms working in Iraq. It had a $21 million contract to guard the Coalition Provisional Authority when it existed. Now, Blackwater guards John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, along with the food shipments destined for U.S. soldiers.
Four Blackwater employees - two Americans and two Poles - were killed in June on the main road to Baghdad airport. Four others were killed March 31, and their bodies were mutilated and burned. Two were hung from the framework of a bridge across the Euphrates river.
The company started seven years ago with 27 employees. Blackwater now has thousands of contract workers based in several countries.
"This is a billion-dollar industry," Jackson said of the target business. "And Blackwater has only scratched the surface of it. Shooting skills deteriorate quickly. It's not at all like riding a bicycle."
Jackson said the company plans to have 400 employees in northeastern North Carolina next year because of its growth. The company is opening the target plant in Pasquotank County and has headquarters and training ranges in nearby Currituck County.
Gov. Mike Easley said having the global security company headquartered in North Carolina is fitting for what he called the most military-friendly state in the country.
The target division had been scheduled to move to Greenville but local officials kept it in Pasquotank by creating an incentive package. Under the agreement, Blackwater will pay $1 a month for 16 months for a long-vacant shell building and a public-private partnership will make $600,000 in improvements to the building. Blackwater will buy the building from the county for $500,000 by October 2005.
The target plant will open with 24 employees.
Blackwater Target Systems designs and builds shooting-range targets for a number of different agencies. Jackson said his latest target system, called The Bear, is being used by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Blackwater USA has five divisions: Blackwater Training Center, Blackwater Target Systems, Blackwater Security Consulting, Blackwater Canine and Blackwater Air.