By Eric Mann
Two years ago this month, Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance President Lee Lawson had a meeting with UTC Aerospace Systems Vice President of Operations Michael Grondalski in San Diego, California, to discuss the potential expansion of the aerospace and defense parts manufacturer’s facility in Foley.
Lawson said UTC was one of the biggest priorities among several companies he and other officials met with on the West Coast trip. According to Lawson, the meeting with Grondalski began as a courtesy call but escalated into a high-level corporate discussion about the future of the aerospace company’s presence worldwide and its facility in Foley.
Following that meeting, the BCEDA spent the next year discussing UTC’s needs with senior officials. At last year’s Paris Air Show, Lawson and officials held meetings with representatives from UTC as well as Airbus, Segers Aero Corp., the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley and others.
Negotiations became more intense over the last year, and Lawson said the BCEDA met with UTC officials at least once every month or two. Last week UTC announced an 80,000-square-foot, $30 million expansion at its plant in Foley, which the company expects will provide an additional 260 jobs and roughly $50 million in annual payroll to Baldwin County.
“We were fortunate that they chose to handle these negotiations themselves, rather than use a mediator or middlemen,” Lawson said. “I think we were really able to show them the value of investing here instead of any number of worldwide locations they could have chosen.”
The company is based in Charlotte, North Carolina, but also has facilities in Indonesia, China, Mexico and multiple locations in Europe. Lawson said UTC’s choice to expand in Foley should be a signal to other international aerospace companies that Baldwin County is open for business.
“They have existing square footage already available elsewhere for expansion, so they actively had to choose to come build in Foley,” Lawson said. “This is an international, ‘A’ rated aerospace company that chose to expand in Foley. We want others to know that UTC expanded here, so they can too. This announcement really gives us a lot of credibility out there.”
Because of Baldwin County’s rapid growth — the county has experienced 43 percent growth since 2000 and is the eighth fastest growing area in the country — UTC shouldn’t have much trouble finding additional workers at the facility, which is already home to more than 800 employees. In 2014, U.S. Census data showed Baldwin County had 200,111 residents. By 2020, the county is projected to have more than 225,000 residents and more than 265,000 by 2030.
Additionally, figures from the BCEDA indicate 88 percent of Baldwin County’s workforce is armed with a high school degree or higher and one in 10 workers has a graduate degree. There are roughly 500,000 people in the regional workforce, and 35 percent of them are between the ages of 18 to 45.
According to Lawson, of the 260 additional employees, the majority will likely come from Foley and Baldwin County at large.
Lawson said UTC’s expansion in Foley is a testament to the quality of work to which its employees are committed. He said UTC consistently ranks its Foley facility as one of its highest producing workforces in the world.
“It is all about the people who work there,” Lawson said. “UTC knows they will always get the most productivity and efficiency from the people in Foley.”
At the May 3 groundbreaking for the expanded facility, UTC aerostructures division president Marc Duvall said Foley was the ideal location because of its dedicated workforce.
“We chose Foley to expand because of its proven track record of performance, our desire to be near a key customer and the tremendous cooperation we’ve had from the state, county and the city,” he said.
Darrell Wilson, general manager of the UTC Foley Original Equipment facility, said the expanded facility will serve largely as an Airbus supplier. The company will install engines, install build-up hardware, tubing and ducts and exhaust products. They will support both current and new engine options for the A320, which is built in Mobile. He said the new facility will be “something to behold.”
“All of this takes a back seat to the most important elements in the building, the people,” Wilson said. “I appreciate working with the Foley team. They have made this facility what it is, widely recognized within UTC Aerospace Systems as a standout center of excellence.”
The expanded facility will help UTC support multiple aircraft platforms including the Airbus A320, the Bombardier CSeries, the Embraer E2 and the Mitsubishi Regional Jet. Its primary mission will be to service the Airbus final assembly line in Mobile.
Alabama Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield said the expansion will be a “capstone” for the future of aerospace and industry in the state.
“We are so grateful to be able to have this happen,” Canfield said. “We have a long view about our future in the state of Alabama, and UTC in Foley and Baldwin County are a big part of that.”
The expansion is slated for completion in the second quarter of 2017 and will house the assembly of nacelle components and propulsion-system integration. It will also make UTC Aerospace Systems the third-largest aerospace manufacturer in Alabama, based on its number of employees. The facility will expand west of its current location, and Lawson said UTC will have the ability to double its footprint in the future if further expansion is necessary.
“This expansion is a significant event for Foley that will provide additional high-quality jobs and put us on the radar within the aerospace community,” Mayor John Koniar said. “UTC has been a pleasure to work with, and we look forward to their continued growth in Foley.”
Gov. Robert Bentley celebrated the Foley facility as one of UTC’s most innovative and productive operations.
“Creating new jobs remains my top priority, especially in the aerospace industry which we identified as strategic in our Accelerate Alabama growth plan,” Bentley said. “I commend the leaders at UTC Aerospace Systems for their investment in our state and confidence in the Alabama workforce.”
Congressman Bradley Byrne also hailed the announcement, saying it signals that South Alabama will soon become a leader in aviation in the country.
“I want to commend UTC Aerospace for reaffirming and expanding their commitment to Baldwin County and their operations in Foley,” Byrne said. “[The] news is an important reminder that the economic impact of the Airbus manufacturing facility is not just limited to Mobile. I truly believe Southwest Alabama is on the path to becoming one of the major aviation hubs in the United States, and it is a testament to the great people who make up our workforce.”
Lawson said the BCEDA hopes UTC’s expansion will be a “call to action” for other aerospace companies and industries to consider Baldwin County as an option. Since the news of the expansion broke May 3, the BCEDA has sent marketing materials to more than 3,000 of its contacts in the aerospace field gauging their interest in the county.
“As UTC grows and expands, and as Airbus grows and expands in Mobile, we certainly hope to attract additional parts suppliers to the area,” Lawson said. “This puts Baldwin County in a great position to attract new industry because of UTC. When we bring people in to discuss coming to Baldwin County, we can point to UTC’s choice to locate in Foley.”
According to Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce President Heiko Einfeld, small businesses compose roughly 80 percent of the more than 3,000 businesses on the Eastern Shore.
“It is important that our small businesses are able to thrive as the population grows,” Einfeld said. “There are a lot of larger-scale things moving in as well, and we are excited about the overall growth of business and industry in the county. It is important that our small businesses remain healthy as well.”
Einfeld said the health care industry is “growing leaps and bounds” on the Eastern Shore. Thomas Hospital has announced plans to develop a standalone emergency clinic at the southwest corner of U.S. Highway 90 and State Route 181 in Malbis. The clinic is expected to provide many of the same services offered at traditional emergency rooms, and the clinic will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Also, the University of South Alabama Mitchell Cancer Institute recently held a groundbreaking ceremony for a new cancer treatment facility on Fairhope Avenue, next to the Fairhope Satellite Courthouse. The 11,000-square-foot facility will be constructed on the 2-acre site and include exam rooms, cancer treatment areas and physicians’ offices, to be completed by early 2017.
Einfeld also said the aviation industry has been booming countywide, as evidenced by UTC’s recent announcement. Currently, Einfeld said, there are roughly 12 aviation-based companies in Baldwin County, with several located on the Eastern Shore. He said the Eastern Shore is also home to some other economic developments, including the proposed Daphne Innovation and Science Complex (DISC), which could attract white-collar jobs to support UTC and Airbus.
The DISC project will be located at the southwest corner of State Highway 181 and Champions Way near Daphne High School and seeks to attract high-paying jobs in science and technology to Daphne. The Daphne Industrial Development Board had sought permission to use $426,000 in early BP restoration funds to purchase the 30-acre parcel from The Bills LLC No. 2, a company with a Fairhope address registered to Michael C. Bill. The IDB planned to close on the purchase at the end of December last year, but after a series of modifications to the plan, the IDB was given an extension on the purchase through this summer.
“From Spanish Fort to Daphne to Fairhope, there are some really good developments happening that we’ve tried to coordinate with the cities,” Einfeld said. “The DISC project in Daphne will be big. The developments at the Fairhope Airport and the continued build-out on Highway 31 in Spanish Fort are really good for the community.”
Einfeld said the Eastern Shore is able to attract businesses small and large because of the high quality of life in Baldwin County.
“Overall, the quality of life on the Eastern Shore is fantastic,” Einfeld said. “We tell prospective businesses that they are just 20 minutes from Mobile and 30 minutes from the beach. It is a central location, surrounded by a diverse clientele. There is a large demographic spectrum here, and that’s an ideal opportunity for a business.”
In a previous interview with Lagniappe, North Baldwin Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ashley Jones said the economy in Bay Minette is growing, but at a slower pace than the rest of the county. She said Quincy Compressor, an air compressor manufacturer, recently moved its base of operations from Illinois to Bay Minette, bringing approximately 100 new jobs with it.
Jones said Plasmine Technology, a chemical technology company manufacturing the “sticky stuff” on the back of labels, recently brought 10 jobs to the area. With a home base in Pensacola, Florida, Plasmine has manufacturing operations in Bay Minette and Portland, Maine.
Lawson said there are a “myriad factors” that contribute to a business’s decision to locate in a place.
“Most of the time, when an industry or business decides to locate somewhere, they look at the available workforce,” Lawson said. “Is the workforce educated? Also, are there available sites, with available utilities? Are other assets nearby? Those are the key assets that are usually talked about in discussions. They also want to know what other companies are here. Are there other international companies nearby? In Baldwin County, the answers to those questions is ‘yes.’”
According to a report from the BCEDA, of the county’s 62,719-employee workforce, 11,319 workers are employed in the accommodation and food services industry. That total is the second highest in the county behind 12,642 workers in the resale trade industry. Currently, the county’s largest industrial employers are UTC Aerospace Systems with 820 employees and Bay Minette-based Standard Furniture, which employs 600 workers.
Lawson said in the next five to 10 years, Baldwin County will likely see a boom in industrial development. He said the State Highway 59 corridor will grow at a fast pace over the next few years, and in Foley there is a very good base for industrial growth.
On the Eastern Shore, Lawson said, there is great potential for white-collar growth in health care and technology. Also, retail development will follow the rooftops.
“In looking at everything, some of our cities have been more proactive in incentivizing retail,” Lawson said. “That’s largely how most of our cities have been funded over the years. There is an arms race for retail in high-growth areas statewide like Prattville, Madison and now in Baldwin County.”
One of the areas with the biggest retail expansion over the last few years has been Foley, where Lawson said the city’s proximity to the beach and value as a high-traffic area attracts retailers large and small. An estimated 5.7 million visitors head to the beaches in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores every year.
“Retailers look at the density of rooftops and density of the number of potential visitors,” Lawson said. “With 5.7 million visitors to the beach, that’s been an X-factor in Foley.”
To Einfeld, the opportunity for growth in business and industry in Baldwin County is endless.
“We are blessed to be in such a great county,” Einfeld said. “There is ample space for businesses to locate, and our cities have well-developed, long-term plans for growth. There is tremendous opportunity for growth everywhere around us.”