Standing between a joint high-speed vessel called Fowl River and a Littoral Combat Ship called Jackson 6, U.S. Senator Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, Mayor Sandy Stimpson and Austal Ltd President of USA Operations Craig Perciavalle stopped to speak with media during a tour of Mobile’s site on Jan. 20.

Shelby’s trip to south Alabama came just days after announcing there will soon be a significant boost to the area’s economy — Mobile will receive a new federal courthouse and the existing courthouse will be renovated, courtesy of the Fiscal Year 2014 Government Funding Bill, which was filed on Jan. 13.

More notable to Austal, and other businesses on Mobile harbor, is the report accompanying the funding bill directs the Corps of Engineers to study the widening and deepening of Mobile harbor.  This is a necessary, preliminary step under the Corps’ regulations before the work can be undertaken.

“Mobile can be one of the top five ports in the country,” Shelby said. “Its economic potential is limitless. I am pleased that this legislation provides for the next critical step in that direction.”

 However, there was some negative news for Austal just before Shelby’s visit as well. At the beginning of 2014, a memo regarding the nation’s 2015 budget revealed the order for LCS vessels was possibly being cut from 52 ships down to 32 ships. The LCS program, which is overseen by the Pentagon, buys the ships from Austal and Lockheed Martin.

Shelby and Perciavalle were still optimistic though, saying it wasn’t a final decision.

The senator said he was disappointed, but still hopes for the best.

“I don’t like it, but at the same time I think if we can build 32 (ships) we’re still on positive ground. The Navy likes what we’re doing,” Shelby said. “I think the ship has proven its worth to the Navy.

“Nothing is ever a done deal in Washington, (D.C.). This is a step that we don’t like, but at the same time there is competition. I believe we’ll be fine in Mobile. I’m going to work to see it is.”

Perciavalle said the possible decrease in ships wouldn’t affect Austal for several years.

“If this does happen, it will not be until two to three years away,” he said. “We are still hiring and will hire about 200 people in the next few months.”

Stimpson felt Austal’s LCS would sell itself.

“Like Senator Shelby, I would say this isn’t a done deal,” he said. “I think as the ship proves itself in trials and shows its sea worthiness, the demand will be there.”

While the possibility of losing business at Austal is a threat, the possibility for growth in downtown Mobile is real.

Stimpson called the new federal courthouse a boost to downtown.

“This will really help downtown Mobile. It will clean up an area that needs it, and it will be beneficial for the economy,” he said.

The Fiscal Year 2014 Government Funding Bill provides $69.5 million to construct a new federal courthouse in Mobile and to renovate the existing courthouse. That will be done by combining the $69.5 million with the $49 million that is remaining from previously appropriated courthouse funding for Mobile. The total project cost will be $118.5 million.

In a September 2013 feasibility study by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) for Mobile, it proposed constructing a 138,000-square-foot facility with three district courtrooms and three magistrate courtrooms at a cost of $85.9 million.

The project’s remaining $32.6 million would be used to modernize the existing courthouse and accommodate the U.S. Bankruptcy Court and U.S. Probation, which are currently housed in leased space.

The total design and construction work is expected to take five and a half years.

According to a Jan. 14 press release by Shelby’s office, the new building is needed because “the John A. Campbell Courthouse was built from 1932-1934.  The existing building lacks the physical space to accommodate the full program and operational needs of the Court and is unable to support criminal proceedings adequately.  The building’s tenants are crowded in non-contiguous space, and it lacks restricted circulation, requiring the public, jurors, attorneys, prisoners and judges to use the same corridors.  Additionally, due to space constraints, U.S. Bankruptcy Court and U.S. Probation are housed in privately owned lease space at a cost of $1 million annually.”

After his stop at Austal, Shelby headed over to UTC Aerospace Systems in Foley.