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Airbus in Alabama offers a regional opportunity


Economic development folks in our region are on a mission and the objective is Mobile.

You may recall the news last July that the aircraft giant Airbus had picked that Alabama city for a $600 million plant where it will be doing final assembly of its A320 airliners in 2016, if the timetable holds. Eventually, the plant will employ 1,000 workers and lead to thousands more at various suppliers and support firms.

At the time, I thought, “Great for Alabama.” This week I got to hear Neal Wade make his case for the regional impact Airbus will have on business — even companies here — and now I get it.

Mr. Wade is Alabama’s former secretary of commerce. Today he is executive director of the Bay Economic Development Alliance in Panama City and active in a group called The Aerospace Alliance, which consists of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

The map he displayed on the wall during his talk at our local Aviation & Aerospace Industry Roundtable of the Economic Development Council of Tallahassee-Leon County was sprinkled with dots representing aviation and aerospace companies, military bases, NASA facilities and related sites.

As it turns out, the four-state Alliance territory covers an area that is the fourth-largest aerospace and aviation manufacturing corridor in the world. That’s 313,750 aerospace and defense-related jobs, an average annual wage of $64,203, and $31.4 billion in total business revenues.

Adding Airbus to the mix, Wade says, has major repercussions. First, the European company’s foothold in the U.S. depends on developing a supplier base to support such manufacturing. That work is under way now, with some overseas firms needing a U.S. presence now inquiring about companies here they can do joint ventures with — a faster process than starting from scratch.

Beth Kirkland, the EDC’s executive director, said later that Tallahassee comes to the table with two important attributes — education and training providers, and a research component tailored to aerospace and aviation. The roundtable’s meeting happened to be taking place in FSU’s new Aero-Propulsion, Mechatronics and Energy Building, which is right next door to the High Performance Materials Institute in Innovation Park.

Wade and some roundtable members pointed out that a skilled workforce is the deal maker of late, more so than land, available buildings or relocation incentives. Conversely, Northwest Florida still has work to do in overcoming the perception by aerospace and technology firms that we’re a tourist haven and don’t have a lot of technical talent to recruit. That makes workforce development critical, he added.

While states along the Gulf Coast are rivals in trying to attract new companies, Wade explained the term “coopetition” as the practice of these same jurisdictions being allies on the big projects. For example, he and others will be including Tallahassee and its resources among this region’s attributes when they go to an upcoming conference in Hamburg, Germany, and to the Aeromart exposition in France.

While A320 manufacturing is still a few years away, now is the time for firms to assess their potential role in the industry, market what they do and build alliances. “It’s an ever-changing, growing situation and it will have a great impact on this region,” Wade concluded.

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