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Project Axle: How Alabama Landed Polaris’ ATV Factory

Polaris Industries announced plans in 2015 to build an advanced manufacturing facility in Huntsville, Alabama, to produce off-road vehicles, creating as many as 2,000 jobs and packing a massive economic impact.

To win this high-stakes competition, Alabama had to beat out 14 other states in what was codenamed “Project Axle.” It was a major victory: The Polaris facility represents an investment of at least $127 million and possibly as much as $142 million.

“We are committed to making Polaris Huntsville the premier manufacturing facility for power sports, anywhere,” CEO Scott Wine said at a November 2016 grand opening ceremony for the facility.

Wine called the investment in the Alabama manufacturing center “transformational” for the company.

Back in 2015, Polaris said Huntsville was an ideal pick for the facility because of the city’s skilled workforce, its history of technology and innovation, existing utility infrastructure, and local and state support. The 453-acre site also brings Polaris closer to its key customer base in the region and offers a strong logistics network for the new operation.

Medina, Minnesota-based Polaris completed construction on the facility in early 2016 and began production shortly after that. At full capacity, the Huntsville facility will employ at least 1,700 workers – a figure that could rise to 2,000 by 2020.

“We are committed to making Polaris Huntsville the premier manufacturing facility for power sports, anywhere.”

That makes “Project Axle” one of Alabama’s largest job-creation projects in recent years.

The Polaris manufacturing facility features multiple assembly lines and state-of-the-art technologies. It supports core processes including vehicle assembly, chassis and body painting, welding, fabrication, and injection molding. It produces the company’s popular Ranger and RZR off-road vehicles, as well as the Batmobile-like Slingshot three-wheel roadster.

The Site Search

Polaris engaged consultant SSOE to conduct the site search for the facility. Alexandra Segers of SSOE, who handled the search, noted in a company blog post that this became of one of the fastest large-scale site selection processes she has handled during a 15-year career of working with major corporations.

“Polaris wanted to be very inclusive in its search, so we sent the site selection RFP to 14 states (union as well as right-to-work states) and received proposals for 150 sites,” Segers noted. “After evaluating the responses, our short list totaled eight sites in four states. Once we visited those locations, we were able to narrow the contenders to three sites, each in a different state. Then we were ready to negotiate incentives.”

The “Project Axle” recruitment climaxed in late 2014 when economic development officials from Alabama and two other Southeastern states designated as finalists made pitches at the company’s headquarters in Minnesota.

Shortly afterwards, the Alabama team got word it had secured the Polaris project.

The Polaris recruitment hinged on teamwork between multiple economic development agencies in north Alabama – a collaboration that reunited many of the same players in Huntsville’s successful recruitment of Remington Outdoor Co.’s $110 million firearms manufacturing facility in 2014.

Joining the Alabama Department of Commerce and the Chamber of Commerce of Huntsville-Madison County on the project was the Tennessee Valley Authority, which also assisted with Remington’s “Project Traveler.” Polaris’ was the first major project in Huntsville to land in a newly annexed area of Limestone County, and Limestone officials agreed to contribute incentives valued at $1 million to the package.

AIDT, the state’s primarily job training agency, also played a prominent role, committing to provide pre-employment screening and training for Polaris as part of an incentive valued at $20 million. In addition, the State of Alabama agreed to provide $31 million in discretionary incentives to Polaris, and it reserved an incentive of $2.5 million to offset capital costs for future expansion at the site.

“We are grateful to city of Huntsville and the state of Alabama for their support as we invest in our shared future,” Ken Pucel, a Polaris executive vice president, said at the time.

As usual, the recruitment effort also relied on personal touches. A memorable moment occurred when the Huntsville team took Polaris executives to a local restaurant for a plate of barbecue ribs – a turning point in the project, according to (a slightly joking) Mayor Tommy Battle.

SSOE cited a “highly professional team of local and state government officials” as one of the reasons Huntsville came out on top in this economic development competition. (Segers also cited the ribs as another factor.)

Economic Impact

The Polaris facility is expected to have a significant economic impact on the Huntsville region, with benefits extending to the state.

According to estimates by the Alabama Department of Commerce, “Project Axle” will have a direct economic impact of $124 million over 15 years, with an additional indirect impact of $283 million in that time frame. Direct wages over 15 years are estimated at $1.8 billion.

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