|Putting money where their mouth is
By Connie Baggett
...The mayor of this city in South Alabama’s Covington County thinks he knows what
it takes to get companies in the lucrative aerospace field to take notice.
“You have to be willing to spend money, significant money, on facilities,” says Mayor
Earl Johnson, who notes that attracting aerospace companies is a highly competitive
“Spec buildings have to be more than just a pole barn. The Department of Defense
has complex specifications for contractors, and we were willing to invest along with
Opp and Covington County to basically put our money where our mouth is. It’s one
thing to say you want jobs. It’s another to make a significant investment to make that
Apparently, the approach works.
Andalusia is in a rural region north of the more densely populated metropolitan
areas along the coast and south of metropolitan Montgomery. To its east is the
Dothan metropolitan area.
That gives those rural counties some impressive neighbors, like the Airbus assembly
line in Mobile, Ala., and military activities at Maxwell Air Force Base, Fort Rucker,
Naval Air Station Pensacola, Naval Air Station Whiting Field and Eglin Air Force Base.
Five of the counties, Choctaw, Clarke, Monroe, Conecuh and Escambia, are
members of the Coastal Gateway Regional Economic Development Alliance, which
sees aerospace as a priority. It points out that the state is home to hundreds of
aerospace and aviation-related industries, and that the group’s goal is to have a
workforce ready for those types of jobs.
Gateway says South Alabama is home to 63 aviation, aircraft, and aerospace
companies, and the Alabama Aviation Center, Alabama's largest aviation
maintenance technology campus, is in Enterprise in Coffee and Dale counties, and
operates a facility off campus in Mobile.
Seven years ago, economic development efforts in Covington County shifted heavily
to recruiting aerospace companies linked to the newly renamed Southwest Alabama
Regional Airport. The county pooled resources with Opp and Andalusia to seek high-
tech jobs in aviation and automotive industries. Around the same time in 2007 a
grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation allowed the airport to add 1,000
feet to its main runway for a 6,000-foot track. Industrial sites surround the airport
allow room for growth and new recruits. Within a year, Vector Aerospace moved in
with its helicopter maintenance operation.
The Toronto-based company, which traces its roots to 1947, has since been
acquired by Eurocopter Holding (now called Airbus Helicopters), a subsidiary of
international aviation giant EADS (now called Airbus Group) in a $638 million
transaction in 2011.
Vector has grown to more than 200 workers with a $3 million expansion last year
adding some 75 jobs. Mechanics and technicians work on TH-67 helicopters for the
Army in Fort Rucker to the east as well as TH-57s from Naval Air Station Whiting
Field in Florida’s Milton to the south.
“Vector is an excellent corporate partner,” Earl Johnson said. “Not only do they
provide more than 150 jobs here, but they were a significant donor to our Miracle
Field project and continue to be active in our community.”
There are other success stories.
“One of our best stories is Muskogee Technology,” said Jess Nicholas,
communications director for Coastal Gateway Regional Economic Development
Alliance. The company is a subsidiary of the Creek Indian Enterprises Development
Authority of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.
Muskogee Technology in Escambia County is a growing company specializing in
metal fabrication, composites, precision machining, water jet cutting, electronics,
engineering, and electronic and electromechanical assembly and kitting services.
Nicholas says the Atmore company won an award in June 2014 during the
Farnborough International Airshow in the United Kingdom.
It took home the Lean and Innovation award from tier one supplier GKN Aerospace,
recognized for its innovative approach to handling the carbon composite supply
chain for GKN’s Tallassee, Ala., production facility. The award is given to only one of
hundreds of companies worldwide comprising the supply chain for GKN’s aerospace
Interest in the area is picking up.
“Our region has seen a lot of activity since the Airbus announcement,” said John
Johnson, executive director of CGEDA. Airbus said in 2012 it would build a $600
million A320 final assembly line in Mobile. The plant will open in the fall of this year.
“Aggressive efforts in Andalusia have been ongoing for decades with great success.
They operate more on the maintenance and repair business coming out of Fort
Rucker and other military installations.
“What we are seeing in the rest of the region now is a push to increase aviation
training like the initiative in Fairhope, for example.”
Baldwin County Public School System constructed a $2.7 million training facility at H.
L. “Sonny” Callahan Airport that will give students aviation industry training, like
industrial maintenance and welding. Students can earn dual enrollment college or
technical school credits through the program. Other counties may be following that
approach to lure aviation jobs, according to John Johnson.
“We don’t see a lot of people building new hangars now, as in a spec building
approach. It’s more workforce training like maintenance and mechanics,” Johnson
said. “That is a completely different approach from what Andalusia and Covington
County have been doing.”
Gateway Executive Director Johnson said he has seen some interest in the region
with companies from other parts of the country visiting to scout prospective sites. He
said they are looking for two things: a location closer to the Airbus operation to
reduce transportation costs and reduction in labor and tax costs.
Evergreen Mayor Pete Wolff said his city is poised to take advantage of any
aerospace development, whether it is military-based maintenance opportunities or
“We have two 5,000-foot runways,” Wolff said, “and we are in the process of adding
another 2,000 feet to our north/south runway. We will be able to accommodate any
aircraft once that is done. We have a 24-hour refueling station and added pilot
comfort stations. We want a new terminal and have applied for grants for that and
new hangars and we are working on taxiways.
“The way we look at it,” Wolff said, “the airport is the first thing those prospective
industrial representatives see. We had a corporate jet land here. I met with the pilots.
They couldn't believe a town our size had a 24-hour refueling station. Aerospace is a
great investment. It can be a game-changer.”
Brewton has also looked to its airport and surrounding land so prospects can give
the area a look. The city offers acreage from a 20-acre tract to an option on much
more adjacent to the airport. Mayor Yank Lovelace said sites with rail access and
other amenities attractive for aerospace suppliers are abundant in the city and
surrounding county with a community that boasts a highly-rated quality of life.
In Monroe County, officials have long touted the county’s airport with runways
expanded over the years to handle corporate jets for companies like Vanity Fair and
Alabama River Companies, now known as Alabama River Cellulose, owned by
Georgia Pacific. Efforts to improve the airport as well as attract Airbus suppliers are a
priority as the county continues its efforts at diversifying what has been a wood-
centered industrial base.
“Across our region,” Johnson said, “there have been companies showing an
interest” and that bodes well for rural counties near the coast, he said.
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