Economic development has taken to the skies and the seas in Mobile, but the key may be in the groundwork.
The latter has helped it land a number of aerospace projects – most notably the first U.S. Airbus assembly plant. The former was instrumental in Mobile’s most recent big announcement – a $135 million Walmart import distribution facility.
But the secret sauce is Team Mobile.
“Team Mobile is made up of the city and the county, the chamber, Alabama Power Company, MobileGas, University of South Alabama – any number of entities that are needed to make a project happen,” Troy Wayman, vice president of Economic Development with the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce.
It may also include a local mayor, a county commissioner or other elected officials. Leaders from the port or Brookley also come into play as do local business leaders.
“We can bring all of those people to the table at the right time to get any deal done,” Wayman said.
It’s a united front to show a potential company it is valued and will be supported in Mobile.
Wayman said past wins and losses helped forge Team Mobile into what it is today.
When the united front was out to win a Boeing aircraft manufacturing project years ago, it learned much even though it lost. The cooperation exhibited between local, state and port officials demonstrated how the team could work.
Winning the $5 billion ThyssenKrupp steel mill project (now AM/NS Calvert) was the largest U.S. economic development project in history.
Winning Airbus when it had a U.S. Air Force tanker contract and then losing Airbus when the Department of Defense changed its mind and chose Boeing for the contract was another watershed moment for Team Mobile. In fact, the solidarity Mobile and Alabama officials showed with Airbus during the tanker battle is considered a key element in Airbus deciding to build its current $600 million passenger jet plant in the Port City.
“We’ve been in the battle before,” Wayman said. “They say a lot of relationships are better if they’re forged in battle. Well, our relationships with Team Mobile have been forged in battle.”
Patrick Murphy, vice president of Economic and Community Development with Alabama Power, said Mobile regularly demonstrates the kind of teamwork approach it takes to win projects big and small.
“Mobile certainly has impressive assets to work with, such as the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley, the port and a strong workforce,” Murphy said. “But Mobile also has experienced leadership from both the public and private sectors who consistently take a teamwork approach to help grow the local economy. That approach is certainly visible in major projects like Airbus and Walmart, but it’s also evident in any number of recruitments and expansions the metro area has enjoyed.”
With the Walmart project, it was a combination of teamwork, expansions at the port’s APM Terminals and persistence.
“Ten years ago, before the container terminal even opened, we made our first call to Bentonville to Walmart’s headquarters and we’ve sent somebody up there just about every year to remind them, ‘Hey, we’re still here and we’re still interested,’” said Jimmy Lyons, director of the Alabama State Port Authority, which operates the Port of Mobile. “What we actually ended up with was better than anything we would ever have expected.”
The Walmart distribution center will have 550 workers in skill sets that differ from what may be found at major employers like Airbus and Austal, serving a real need in the employment base.
It’s also driving more ship activity into the port and is making Mobile more attractive to other distribution companies.
“When you land a company like Walmart that has a reputation of being a leader in the industry as far as their logistics and they’ve got a reputation of knowing what they’re doing, other people in the industry are going to say, ‘Hey, if Walmart thinks Mobile or Alabama is a good idea, maybe we should be looking at Alabama,’” Lyons said.
Lyons said the port is working with two other distribution center projects.
Another major benefit from Walmart is going to be the availability of shipping containers needed for exports. Walmart will be bringing in between 25,000 and 50,000 shipping containers per year – containers that, when empty, can be filled with Alabama goods bound for world markets.
Lyons said up until now, the port regularly has to bring empty containers in, adding costs to exporters. Now, there will be an ample supply of shipping containers.
“If they can bring the boxes in with cargo for Walmart, then we can load them back out with paper products and pulp products and lumber and steel and other things … chemicals that we produce here in Alabama,” he said. “So it’s a real win for our exporters.”
The Walmart project will be 2.5 million square feet and supply 800 locations along the Gulf Coast.
“That’s not just a distribution center,” Wayman said. “That’s an import distribution center. It’s a distribution center for distribution centers.”
Getting the Walmart stamp of approval is significant, he said.
“We think that’s going to create a domino effect for companies looking to import goods and distribute them to the U.S.,” Wayman said.
Meanwhile, Airbus is drawing suppliers clustering at Brookley. Safron Engineering Services, Hutchinson, MAAS Aviation and UTC Aerospace are among the companies that have announced new projects or expansions in the past year to support Airbus.
“Airbus is at a point now where they’re close to three airplanes per month,” Wayman said. “They believe they will be at rate four – making four airplanes a month – by September. We think that’s going to, obviously, have an incredible impact on us here.
“We’re getting a number of marquee names that are increasing our capabilities out at Brookley that is making us more and more attractive to the aerospace industry,” he added.
Even long-standing Brookley companies are enjoying new success.
Continental Motors Group in March announced plans to build a 225,000-square-foot facility to centralize the company’s operations now scattered among 11 buildings in the Brookley Aeroplex. It will then outfit it with $40 million in new equipment.
“That company has been here for over 50 years,” Wayman said. “We’re hoping that this solidifies their presence for another 50 years and more.”