By Brad Harper, Montgomery Advertiser (USA Today network)
30 March 2017 -- An Italian company plans to build a $250 million jet factory at the field where the Tuskegee Airmen once flew, creating at least 750 jobs in an area that needs them. But the factory will only happen if the company, Leonardo DRS, wins an Air Force contract to build the T-100 training jets.
There are at least three other major aerospace companies in contention for the contract – Boeing, Lockheed and Sierra Nevada.
Leonardo may have an advantage because of a state and local incentives package worth about $100 million over 30 years. "To win this kind of program you have to have the lowest cost, and you're helping us do that," Leonardo DRS CEO Bill Lynn told a gathering of state and local leaders Thursday at Moton Field, where the factory would be built.
Lynn said the incentives package was one of several factors in the site selection process. "There were other sites we looked at. It was a competition," he said. "We felt that the package they put together here was very attractive. The work force here in Tuskegee and Auburn is very attractive. And then, we needed an airfield."
The one they got isn't just any airfield. It was the home of the Tuskegee Airmen, something that Gov. Robert Bentley referenced when talking about the project. Bentley said the airmen were told they couldn't do it but became the best.
Bentley said he has "full faith" that the Air Force will pick Leonardo. "We're not where we want to be yet, but we're close," he said.
Jobs at the plant would average $24 an hour and dozens of engineers and "highly skilled workers" will be needed, the company said. Elected officials pledged to provide them through local training and the statewide AIDT program.
Joe Turnham of the Macon County Economic Development Authority said area universities and the K-12 system will be involved in that, exposing kids as early as middle school to "the skills that they will need." "Part of our investment is getting our workforce ready," he said.
The company expects the winner of the contract to be announced by the end of the year. If it wins, Leonardo DRS would start a two- to four-year process of construction and ramping up production. Some major components would be built in Arizona and Florida, but the project would likely attract other aerospace suppliers to Alabama.
The unemployment rate in Macon County last month was 7.5 percent. That's more than a percent higher than the state average, and the highest in the eight-county region.
The county lost more than 1,000 jobs after VictoryLand casino in Shorter was raided and electronic gambling was shut down there. The town of Shorter has made up some of the ground by turning to automotive jobs. It's now the home of Hanon Systems, a Hyundai and Kia supplier that employs more than than the town's total population.
Shorter was also the site of a splashy announcement of a plant that never materialized. Would-be auto supplier Taesung Alabama announced plans for a $6.6 million plant in 2013. But the company failed to land the supplier contracts it expected and within a year it had abandoned the building, which was in mid-construction.
Bailey Harris Construction decided to finish the work anyway and used the completed building to try to attract a different company.