Editor’s note: This story appears in the May 2022 edition of Business Alabama magazine. On Wednesday, May 11, officials announced a tenant for the space — a $2.5 billion plant built by Novelis.
It’s a prime location, along I-65 in Bay Minette, with more than a mile of interstate frontage. Utilities are in, and the land is cleared. It’s also just about 30 miles to the Port of Mobile, with a CSX railroad spur planned.
What the South Alabama Mega Site doesn’t have — still, after nearly a decade of marketing it — is an occupant.
Baldwin County purchased the 3,000 acres for $32 million in 2012, but a tenant still hasn’t been found for the property. Lee Lawson, president and CEO of the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance, says it’s coming.
“We feel like success is imminent,” Lawson says. “We’ve had a bunch, a bunch of nibbles and a couple of handfuls of real serious engagements. We’ve got a bunch of actives right now, and we’re hopeful for success very soon.”
It’s not unusual for a mega site — a site large enough to handle an automotive or other large-scale advanced manufacturing facility — to remain empty for a while, Lawson says.
“Most of the sites in the Southeast have been on the board an average of 10 years before seeing success,” he says, pointing to the Madison site that went to Mazda Toyota, the Chattanooga Volkswagen site and the Memphis Ford site as examples.
In 2018, Baldwin County came close to landing the Mazda Toyota manufacturing plant that eventually went to Madison, and though he won’t name names, a number of other big-time projects have been “almosts” at the Baldwin site.
“The hardest part of economic development is that you don’t get to celebrate second,” Lawson says. “A lot of energy and resources go into finishing second, which we’ve done a number of times. What we do is continue to try to understand the why behind the second-place finishes and address those, although sometimes it’s outside of our control.”
For instance, Lawson says, a qualified workforce is always a concern of large manufacturers, and a new stand-alone career tech high school planned for Loxley will help address that in Baldwin County.
“We asked ourselves, how do we tangibly affect that narrative and that outcome when it comes to workforce?” Lawson says. “We feel like we’re doing that.”
And that’s not all. Thanks to money from the Growing Alabama Commission — most recently $5.5 million in July
2021 — improvements continue to be made at the site.
“The last five years have been a tremendous ramp-up of positioning the site, making site improvements and enhancements,” Lawson says. “We’re constantly marketing the site and having conversations. We’ve been patient. We’ve said no to a lot of projects, too — not the right industry, not the right size, not the right fit.”
In one way, recent manufacturers that have gone elsewhere have bolstered the South Alabama Mega Site’s chances to land a big one.
“You look across the landscape in the Southeast right now, and a lot of projects have been announced in the past few years,” Lawson says. “We believe we’re continuing to rise up the board as some of our competition falls off.”
And Lawson, who has been in his job for nine years, is confident something will eventually happen with the site.
“We’re definitely all-in on it,” he says. “One thing that gives me the most confidence is that a lot of projects where we’ve finished second, those consultants give us repeat business. They bring multiple other clients back to look at the site again for other projects. We have a great property, and we know we’re going to get to the finish line.”
Alec Harvey is executive editor of Business Alabama.
This article appeared in the May 2022 issue of Business Alabama.