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Paris Air Show

Montgomery officials aim to lay path for GKN Aerospace expansion

PARIS, France -– Alabama’s capital city cradles one of the nation’s busiest auto assembly plants, along with a growing network of parts suppliers to the massive Hyundai operation. But this week, it’s aerospace manufacturing, not auto, that is driving the hopes of Montgomery officials.

Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange is attending his first Paris Air Show with an agenda that includes meetings with aerospace companies and introductions to industry officials. Strange is no stranger to economic development, having once headed the Alabama Development Office (now the Department of Commerce), where he helped land Hyundai. In Paris, he is counting on Montgomery’s track record in industrial recruiting.

“We have a history of landing big projects, and we want to use that knowledge,” Strange said.

Montgomery’s closest link to aerospace manufacturing actually stands about 35 miles away in Elmore County – a GKN Aerospace facility in Tallassee that produces components made of composite materials for Airbus and other industry heavyweights. Both Alabama and Montgomery officials hope that facility ends up with work from the Airbus A320 assembly line being constructed at Mobile’s Brookley Aeroplex.

“GKN is a strategic partner of Airbus and we would like to see their Alabama operation get new business that would result in new capital investment and the hiring of more Alabamians,” said Alabama Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield.

Alabama officials and GKN executives sat down this morning for a confidential meeting at the Paris Air Show. (See photos below.)

Down the road, Strange also thinks the Montgomery region could attract suppliers to the Airbus Alabama facility about 180 miles to the south along Interstate 65. “We know there are going to be suppliers looking for locations,” Strange said. “Those suppliers will be looking to be close but outside the labor area of the main plant.”

Strange is bringing an ally to Paris – Paul Cocker, a former GKN executive who once ran the Tallassee plant and has settled in Montgomery. Cocker is there to help the Montgomery team make contacts with GKN, Airbus and other companies.

While Montgomery’s involvement in aerospace manufacturing is emerging, the city has long had ties to aviation.

“We certainly have a deep history in flight. The Wright brothers opened their very first flight school in the world here. And we have Maxwell Air Force Base … and that military presence,” said Ellen McNair, senior vice president of corporate development for the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce.

Back in 1983 while at the Alabama Development Office, McNair recruited helicopter-maker Sikorsky to the plant site in Tallassee that now houses GKN. At the time, the Elmore County city was being hit hard by shut-downs in the textile industry. Many of the area’s displaced textile workers, it turned out, had the dexterity and skills to fit in perfectly at the new plant, she said. The city even gave up a location at its airport for the Sikorsky operation.

“It was just a great story,” McNair says.

GKN later began operating the Tallassee plant, making composite aerostructures for a customer roster that includes Airbus, GE Aviation, HondaJet and Sikorsky. In 2005, GKN announced a 120,000-square-foot expansion in Tallassee, adding 250 jobs and $20 million in investment. In 2012, the company said sales from the Alabama plant had grown by 500 percent  in the prior decade.

“Composite technology has implications in all facets of aerospace,” McNair says.

U.K.-based GKN, which has operations worldwide, is showing off its technological innovations at this week’s Paris Air Show.

But Strange is not putting his entire focus on GKN in Paris. He plans to hold talks with representatives of South Korean aerospace companies while in the French capital. Strange said the city is planning on attending the Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Exhibition in South Korea later this year.

Montgomery’s Korean ties have grown strong since Hyundai picked the city for the site of its only North American auto assembly plant back in 2002, followed by a string of Korean parts suppliers. Since then, Korean-language schools, markets and other businesses have appeared in the city.

“We’ve got a big investment in the Korean culture,” Strange said.

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