SUFFOLK, VA. -- General Electric Co. said it will open an aircraft engine repair plant that will employ nearly 500 on the site where a GE television factory closed in 1986.

At a ceremony to announce the opening last week, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder credited a government-business partnership with convincing GE to return to Suffolk.

"The 8,000 GE employees currently working in Virginia -- and the nearly 500 workers who will eventually be employed at this Aircraft Engine Maintenance Center -- can vouch for what can be accomplished when government and business work together to provide for a first-rate business climate," Wilder said.

The 855,000-square-foot plant is on 100 acres off U.S. 17, near the southern end of the Interstate 664 bridge-tunnel under construction across the James River.

The television plant once was the largest private employer in South Hampton Roads with about 5,000 workers, but it folded against competition from foreign television manufacturers.

GE has similar retooling and repair operations for commercial aircraft in Kansas and California. All are divisions of the GE Aircraft Engines business of Evendale, Ohio.

GE Aircraft Engines, the largest builder of commercial jet engines in the world, reported sales of $6.8 billion and an operating profit of $1.05 billion last year.

The closest major GE engine-maintenance center is in Arkansas City, Kan. Donna Avery, executive vice president of the Arkansas City Area Chamber of Commerce, said the company has nearly doubled employment there in the past seven years to about 1,000 people.

"They pay excellent wages, and they hire tip-top people," Avery said of the maintenance facility.

The most unappealing aspect of such a center is noise from testing the engines, Avery said, but there have been relatively few complaints from the half-dozen or so other businesses in the industrial park that GE occupies in Kansas.