Having mastered auto, Tuscaloosa targets aerospace

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TUSCALOOSA, Alabama — Twenty years after Tuscaloosa landed a Mercedes-Benz assembly plant that turned Alabama into an automotive powerhouse, the city is ramping up efforts to recruit another advanced manufacturing sector: aerospace.

Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox and officials from the city and county will travel with the Tuscaloosa County Industrial Development Authority (TCIDA) and a larger Alabama delegation to next week’s Farnborough International Air Show to build relationships with aerospace and aviation companies in hopes of bringing in new jobs and capital investment.

Walt Maddox is mayor of Tuscaloosa.
Walt Maddox is mayor of Tuscaloosa.

Maddox, who attended the industry’s primary global trade show in 2010, said the Tuscaloosa team will hold meetings with a “narrow pool” of prospects at the London event and discuss the city’s capabilities in manufacturing and technology.

“We‘re a proven commodity,” he said. “We have demonstrated that we can make one of the world’s best automobiles.”

Maddox said the team has four main objectives on the air show mission. First, the team aims to identify opportunities for technology-based manufacturing in the aviation industry. Airbus’ $600 million A320 Family Assembly Line now being built at Mobile Aeroplex creates a “synergetic effect” across the entire state, and Maddox believes Tuscaloosa can benefit.

While in London, the team also hopes to gain new contacts for future opportunities, while supporting Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and the Alabama Department of Commerce in aerospace industry recruitment efforts.

ADDING AERO TO AUTO

Maddox said the Tuscaloosa team headed to the air show will focus its efforts not solely on the manufacturing side of aerospace, but also on the technology side, thanks to the presence of the University of Alabama, which can become a partner to aerospace firms setting up shop in the area.

“What was accomplished on the Gulf Coast with landing Airbus has opened a door and given us all an opportunity to showcase our state as a place where you can build the world’s best automobile or the world’s best aircraft, to put the state on the map in a whole new industry,” Maddox said. “What we want to do as a city and as a county is walk through that door.”

Tuscaloosa made international news in 1993, when German automaker Mercedes picked the Alabama city for its first North American assembly plant. After a series of expansions, Mercedes has become the area’s economic engine, with a workforce topping 4,000 and a network of nearby suppliers.

The auto industry is so important that the Tuscaloosa team will take time in England to meet with officials of Purico Group, the U.K.-based parent of auto supplier Bolta Werke. Last year, Bolta announced plans to create 350 jobs and invest $40 million in Tuscaloosa. Maddox said the team plans to talk with Purico officials about opportunities for expansion.

TARGETING PROSPECTS

The Tuscaloosa team has developed a plan to capitalize on air show opportunities. TCIDA officials have done advance work for Farnborough Air Show mission, setting up meetings with representatives of aerospace companies and compiling a list of targeted prospects for the region.

Dara Longgrear, executive director of the authority, said the goal in Farnborough is to make contacts with aerospace and aviation companies and identify trends so the Tuscaloosa team can craft recruiting strategies.

The delegation also hopes to learn more about infrastructure and support needs that aerospace companies have. The presence of Shelton State Community College and the University of Alabama benefits Tuscaloosa by being able to provide a workforce ready for manufacturing and engineering jobs.

“Our team is going to develop a rifle-shot strategy, focused on certain segments of aerospace that are complementary to the type of workforce that the University is turning out,” he said.

Longgrear said two decades of automotive industry experience has helped lay a foundation in Tuscaloosa for other advanced manufacturing industries, including aerospace and aviation. While the plan isn’t to create an aerospace sector on the same scale as Tuscaloosa’s auto cluster, Longgrear said the city wants to be positioned for growth if opportunities arise.

“TCIDA will continue to pursue manufacturing investments from a diversified group of industrial projects.

However, in the future, the approach will be more focused on technology and advanced manufacturing and we believe that many of those opportunities will come from the aviation and aerospace sectors.”

Jeff Thompson, a professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and executive director of the Alabama Aerospace Industry Association, said some Tuscaloosa industrial firms are well positioned for activity in the sector. For instance, there are a number of machining companies that could perform aerospace work, he said.

Maddox said his 2010 air show trip gave him perspective on the inner workings of the event, which attracts thousands of participants and hundreds of companies. He also learned that a having presence there is vital for any community that has ambitions of recruiting aerospace firms.

“Being at Farnborough, being an active member of the state’s delegation is absolutely essential if we are to make the gains we want to in the years to come,” Maddox said.