BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Billy Joe Camp had a front-row seat for Project Rosewood, the recruiting effort that brought Mercedes-Benz to Alabama, and has witnessed every development in the Alabama auto manufacturing industry ever since. He remains bullish on the sector’s prospects after two decades of dynamic growth.
Back in 1993, Camp headed the Alabama Development Office, the state’s top economic development agency (now called the Alabama Department of Commerce). He worked as part of team attempting to land one of the century’s most coveted economic development projects — a Mercedes assembly plant.
Project Rosewood, the code name for the campaign to win over the German automaker, was full of colorful economic development intrigue, including clandestine helicopter rides, assumed names and misdirection tactics. But the Alabama team succeeded. Mercedes picked a site near Tuscaloosa over locations in about three dozen other states, setting up the birth of an industry that has become a key component of the state’s economy.
The industry’s explosive growth in Alabama has surprised even Camp, who today works for the Southeast Alabama Gas District, a natural gas provider that serves three dozen communities in that part of the state.
Camp says he sometimes jokes that he knew Alabama would one day become a top auto-producing state back when Mercedes announced that it had chosen Vance, a community a few miles from Tuscaloosa with a population of around 200. “If they believe that, I have some beach front property in Cullman County I would like to sell them,” he jokes about the landlocked county.
At first, he concedes, he didn’t foresee that Mercedes would be followed by Honda, Hyundai and Toyota, as well as scores of suppliers. He knew, however, that Alabama had advantages that could prove attractive to the auto industry, which was expanding in the Southeast region at that time.
“In the beginning, my focus was on recruiting Mercedes-Benz, and I never really stopped to think about it,” Camp says today. “But I gained the belief that Alabama could compete in the auto industry.”
Even before Mercedes came along, Camp had looked at what Alabama had to offer the auto industry and came to the conclusion that the state could compete for the assembly plant projects that were bound for the region.
He had pitched a site in Tuscaloosa County to General Motors when the Detroit automaker was searching for a home for its Saturn plant. GM ended up picking Tennessee, but Camp liked Alabama’s chances from that moment on.
For one thing, Alabama could offer an automaker a solid work force, and it had strong training programs that could prepare those workers through AIDT, the state’s worker training agency. The Interstate 65, 20 and 59 corridors and several Class 1 railroads crisscrossed the state, creating an extensive transportation infrastructure needed by a major manufacturer.
When Mercedes began eyeing the same Tuscaloosa County site that GM had considered, he had something else to add to the pitch — a link to the University of Alabama and Shelton State Community College, both minutes away. Both schools have partnered with the automaker on various initiatives, including job training.
Twenty years after Project Rosewood, Alabama’s auto industry has turned into a manufacturing juggernaut. In 2011 and 2012, auto-related companies announced 103 projects across Alabama, representing nearly $2.4 billion in investment and 9,900 new jobs, according to the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama.
Today, Camp likes Alabama’s chances of landing another assembly operation, which would function like a mothership for surrounding activity. He believes spots in North Alabama, locations in the Wiregrass region near Dothan and areas served by the future Interstate 22 (now Corridor X) are ideal for such an operation.
“I think it’s a possibility. When? Who? Where? I can’t tell you that, but it is possible. There is still plenty of room for one,” Camp says.
ALABAMA AUTO PLANTS
Location: Vance (Tuscaloosa County)
Capital investment: $4 billion
2012 production: 182,000
Vehicles: M-Class SUV, GL-Class luxury SUV, R-Class crossover. Coming in 2014: C-Class sedan. Coming in 2015: undisclosed fifth model
Location: Lincoln (Talladega County)
Capital investment: $2 billion
2012 production: 336,766
Vehicles: Odyssey minivan, Pilot SUV, Ridgeline pickup. Coming in 2013: Acura MDX SUV
Capital investment: $1.7 billion
2012 production: 361,348
Vehicles: Sonata sedan, Elantra compact