The Leonardo aircraft manufacturing facility that’s slated to be built in Tuskegee would have a vast economic impact across Macon County and beyond, according to key local officials supporting the project.
The global aerospace and defense firm’s plans to produce the T-100 jet trainerat Moton Field would create a ripple of new jobs and investments along the Interstate 85 corridor in eastern Alabama.
The company must first win a U.S. Air Force competition for the next-generation training aircraft, an effort that has galvanized communities across the region, said Joe Turnham, a strategic consultant for theMacon County Economic Development Authority.
“This will be a new economic anchor for this century, certainly for Macon County, and there will be tremendous coattail opportunities,” he said. “Leonardo officials are talking about building an aerospace footprint here, not just in final assembly but also in research and innovation.”
All of the activity would boost local revenue for the city, county and local schools.
Beyond Macon County, Turnham expects numerous opportunities for spinoff jobs and investments, at suppliers and support businesses connected to the aerospace industry. And then there are the retail, lodging, dining and other service prospects that naturally come with a large industrial project.
Turnham said Macon County has not had a major manufacturing project of this scope since Hanon Systems, a Tier 1 auto supplier to Hyundai and Kia, located in Shorter in 2003. That operation has had years of success, including five expansions.
“But Leonardo is bigger, with more employees and more capital investment, and it’s our first foray into aerospace here even though we have a great aerospace history,” he said.
“The possibilities are endless and abound for us with the impact of such a project.”
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Indeed, Moton Field is where the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American military pilots, trained during World War II. The combat success of these pilots, known as the “Red Tails,” led the way to the desegregation of the U.S. military in the late 1940s and provided a major spark for the Civil Rights movement.
“I hope the Air Force understands that there’s not a better narrative for this T-100 project. Going to Moton Field shows diversity and inclusion, and it says so much to the American people, that everyone can participate in a project like this,” Turnham said.
Tuskegee Mayor Tony Haygood said he is excited about Leonardo’s plans for the city.
“This is a great opportunity for our city, and I look forward to the tremendous benefits that will allow us to rebuild our economic base and launch economic development to another level,” he said. “It will be a major impact on our city, as well as the whole county.”
Haygood compared the Leonardo project and its potential ripple effect to what the VA hospital did for the community when it was originally established for African-American veterans after World War I. Now serving all veterans as the East Campus of the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System, the Tuskegee facility is a major employer with a wide network of support businesses.
“I see the same possibility here for Leonardo. There will be a large number of skilled jobs. It will also open up a lot of opportunities for surrounding areas,” he said.
A similar transformational effect is expected for local schools and students.
“The impact of Leonardo and T-100 on Macon County Schools would be monumental, life-changing and energizing,” said Dr. Jacqueline Brooks, the system’s superintendent.
The project would allow the system to make its STEM programs more robust and create a feeder pipeline from kindergarten through college, partnering with Tuskegee University, in programs such as robotics, drone technology and more.
“We would be able to start an aviation academy to include an aviation pilot program, as well as an aviation mechanics program,” Brooks said. “The possibilities are endless and abound for us with the impact of such a project.”
Turnham said the cooperative nature of the project has been remarkable.
“It’s been one of the great experiences I’ve had in economic development,” he said. “The scale and scope of this project is so big, and we’re a community of less than 25,000 people. At one end, we’re on the edge of the Auburn/Opelika MSA, and on the other end is East Montgomery. We’ve leveraged regional assets all across the area and beyond so that we could really pull this off, both in recruitment and in how we’re going to fulfill the project with labor.”
That includes Alabama’s political leadership, the Alabama Department of Commerce, city and county governments, local chambers of commerce, economic development organizations, many alumni groups at Tuskegee University and even ministers across the area who held a prayer service for the success of the project.
Recruiters also have touted the clout of the engineering programs at Tuskegee University and Auburn University, as well as the community colleges in the region.
“We want our Tuskegee University engineering students to have something on the other end of their education. We want them to stay, really rebuild our middle class, fill vacancies in housing and increase the population in the school system,” Turnham said.
“We’re dreaming really big. We’ve just got to bring it totally home,” he continued. “Every day, we’re doing something grassroots, trying to maximize our assets. We really feel like this is a way that the economic development miracle of Alabama can happen not just in Huntsville, Mobile and Auburn, but it can happen in a place like Macon County.”