BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Economic developers think a sprawling hangar complex just off the main runway at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport can help Alabama’s largest city make a return flight to an aviation sector that’s taking off in the region.
The 1.8 million-square-foot complex, last operated by Kaiser Aircraft Industries, stands on 180 acres just off Interstate 20/59, minutes from downtown Birmingham. The hangar has 10 bays, each 160 feet wide and 725 feet deep, with 40-foot ceilings and concrete floors a foot thick. The complex has a paint hangar, warehouse space, offices and more.
The commercial facility, first operated by Hayes Aircraft Co. and later by Pemco Aeroplex, has a long history in aviation, serving as a center for maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) operations for decades. When Pemco operated the facility a decade ago, its workforce numbered 2,300 and it had major contracts with the military for work on C-130 Hercules transport and KC-135 tanker aircraft.
“We think the facility has potential in a number of categories in aerospace and aviation,” said Jeff Traywick, senior project manager for the Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA). “It could be reused as an MRO facility – it’s set up for it perfectly with the fuel farm, the paint hangar, direct access to the runway. But given the size of the facility, it could also be used for manufacturing or tear-down operations.”
The vacant Kaiser hangar complex gives the BBA something it’s never really had – a large available property to market to aviation companies. That’s exactly what a team from the region’s main economic development organization, the Birmingham Airport Authority, and the city is doing this week at the Paris Air Show, the industry’s most significant trade event in 2015.
“It’s got the size — the bay widths and bay heights are perfect, depending on the size of the craft you need,” Traywick said. “It’s got a bead blast facility so you can strip the exterior paint off the aircraft. The paint hangar is phenomenal. It’s a great, great asset. And you have secure, direct access to a 12,000-foot runway.”
Ogden Deaton, a senior vice president at commercial real estate firm Graham & Co., said the Kaiser hangar complex could house a single tenant or several of them since the owner of the property, the Birmingham Airport Authority, is willing to subdivide. The hangar alone sprawls for 1.2 million square feet.
“This is a unique facility with the size and the flexibility that make it perfect for many types of aviation and aerospace companies that need to establish an operation on an accelerated timeline,” Deaton said. “It’s a property that could act as a catalyst to expand the Birmingham region’s presence in a sector that has significant growth potential.”
Aviation and aerospace represent an emerging priority for Birmingham, whose economy is largely centered around health care services, banking and insurance, and logistics. In addition to the Kaiser facility, the Birmingham area’s aerospace assets include Southern Research, whose engineering team has deep expertise in advanced materials testing, and Diehl Aerospace, which has an avionics facility in Shelby County.
Timing has a lot to do with Birmingham’s aerospace push. Later this year, Airbus will begin assembling A320 Family aircraft at a new $600 million facility in Mobile, accelerating growth in the aviation sector in the state and beyond. Airbus will employ 1,000 people at its Alabama manufacturing center, and suppliers and service providers are expected to create another 4,000 jobs.
Meanwhile, the aviation sector is expanding across the Southeast. Boeing continues to expand its activity in South Carolina, where it assembles the 787 Dreamliner. Honda is manufacturing a business jet in North Carolina, and Brazil’s Embraer is building an assembly facility for its mid-size executive jets in Florida. Airplanes and parts have become Georgia’s No. 1 export.
In Alabama alone, aviation and aerospace companies announced 1,200 new jobs and nearly $220 million in new capital investment during 2014, according to data from the Alabama Department of Commerce. The state landed projects from Lockheed Martin, GE Aviation and 10 other aerospace/defense companies last year.
“The Kaiser facility is now available at a time when we are seeing a lot of activity in the Southeast,” Traywick said. “It could be a great advantage to us.”
The facility’s home, Birmingham-Shuttlesworth, has made a number of recent improvements. The most significant is a $201 million project to modernize its terminal that included the addition of a federal inspection station that will allow the airport to accommodate international flights.
Rick Davis, the BBA’s vice president of economic development, said Birmingham has other advantages that could help in the recruitment of aviation and aerospace companies. For one thing, Birmingham has an extensive transportation network, with six interstate spokes and three railroads. Plus, the city has a cost of living that is more than 10 percent below the national average.
Birmingham also has a workforce that’s well-versed in manufacturing.
“The ability to build things is something we have had for generations,” Davis said. “It is in our DNA. We have been building things for more than 100 years. It’s what we do.”