Mobile County Takes The Spotlight for Shipbuilding

Mobile County, in southwest Alabama, is the state’s second most populous county. It has the state’s only seaport, and is known for its booming shipbuilding and aviation/aerospace industries.

It also has a rich history and culture. Four flags flew over Mobile before it was annexed into the United States in 1813. It claims honors as the site of the nation’s original Mardi Gras celebration. Outdoor recreation abounds and sports tourism is popular. 

Mobile County captured nearly 10 percent of the state’s $11 billion tourism revenue in 2014. In Mobile County, 2.9 million visitors in 2014 led to more than 15, 200 jobs.

Mobile County has a long history of international trade, dating back to the days when seagoing commerce was the only route to foreign destinations. The new wave of foreign direct investment began in 1973 when Degussa, predecessor of German chemical firm Evonik, moved in along the Bay. Now the bay and riverfront are home to dozens of international firms making chemicals, ships, steel and more.

Headliner for foreign direct investment is the new Airbus final assembly plant at the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley.  Two years ago, the European consortium, based in Toulouse, France, announced plans to build its U.S. line in Mobile, performing final assembly for the A320 new family of fuel-efficient jets. Today construction of the $600 million plant is nearly complete. The development is expected to bring more than 1, 000 workers — some of whom have already been hired — and first deliveries are expected in 2016. Economic impact is estimated at $348 million in the county, and it is fueling increased demand for housing, retail and more. Economic developers have already welcomed some Airbus suppliers and hope for more.

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In answer to the call for trained workers for Airbus, AIDT recently opened a $7 million Alabama Aviation Training Center in Mobile. The center includes six classrooms, five labs, office space, conference room and a large shop floor for hands-on training. It is located next door to the Alabama Aviation Center, which trains students for aviation careers. 

Shipbuilder Austal USA, Mobile’s largest manufacturer, is working on $5.1 billion in military contracts, building up to 12 littoral combat ships and 10 joint high speed vessels for the U.S. Navy. 

Nearly every type of service for the maritime industry can be found here. The Alabama State Docks, in partnership with private industry, recently opened the Alabama Steel Terminal to better handle steel shipments — just the newest in an 85-year history of expansion to better serve industry throughout the state.

But there’s more to the Mobile County economy than ships and planes. Chemicals and steel are major players here, too, as are the non-industrial sector strongholds in education and health care.

Mobile County is home to the state’s largest school district, even though several small cities have created hometown districts in the past decade. It is also home to the University of South Alabama, Spring Hill College, the University of Mobile and several special purpose institutions.

The county is also home for the USA College of Medicine and its two hospitals, plus three other major hospitals and a psychiatric facility.

As for other issues affecting Mobile, the Coastal Alabama Partnership, a not-for-profit organization led by a diverse, volunteer group of private and public sector, civic and business leaders, along with the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce is continuing a longtime quest to build a new I-10 bridge across Mobile River in order to reduce traffic congestion and promote economic development, says Wiley Blankenship, CAP president and CEO. Potential economic impact ranges from $537 million to $1.08 billion per year, according to a University of South Alabama study. The bridge will cost about $850 million. 

“It will improve the economy, promote retail and home sales and add tax revenues, ” Blankenship says. “Right now traffic must travel through tunnels under Mobile Bay, and if there is an accident, it can be a two-hour delay or more. This is costing people who ship goods through Mobile. The amount of traffic is growing in the region and will continue to, and this is the number one transportation challenge.” 

Federal environmental impact studies have been conducted, a preferred route chosen and public hearings held. The design and engineering phase could take up to two years, and it should take another four to six years to build the bridge. 

Lori Chandler Pruitt is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.

text by lori chandler pruitt

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