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Mobile’s Economy is on the Move

Past meets present in downtown Mobile where the RSA-towered skyline lofts above the Fort of Colonial Mobile, with roots some 300 years old. Photo courtesy of Alabama Tourism Department/Chris Granger

For centuries, Mobile County has been Alabama’s connection with world commerce. Increasingly, its economy is based on moving things in and out.

Airplanes arrive in pieces and fly out as fully assembled jets. Lately, aerospace developments involving Airbus have been making the most business news, but shipbuilding remains strong as does manufacturing.

Items that will line the shelves of some 800 Walmart stores are shipped to a new regional distribution center to go on to other distribution centers. Cargo of all kinds comes and goes via water, railroad and truck. Jobs multiply to keep everything moving. From steel mills to beaches, the Mobile County economy is diverse, and it’s international.

The Mobile County Public School System remains the county’s largest employer, with 7,500 workers. The University of South Alabama, with its medical school and expanding health care system, is in second place with 6,000 workers. And Infirmary Health — with its flagship Mobile Infirmary in the city — remains the largest non-governmental health system in Alabama.

The single biggest economic development has to be Airbus, not only because of a second final assembly plant for the A220 jet that is under construction next door to the original A320 series plant, but because even more suppliers and other associated business are coming in, creating even more new jobs. It’s all happening even faster than Bill Sisson, president and CEO of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, had hoped.

“The main thing is that in aviation aerospace in particular, that sector is probably going to grow faster, fill out more quickly than we had anticipated,” Sisson says. “What’s also good news is that both of those aircraft, the 320 line and the 220, are very hot-selling aircraft. For them to be here in Mobile, that just bodes well.”

The county also is seeing growth in shipping, shipbuilding, steel manufacturing, distribution facilities, construction, business incubation and health care, among other sectors.

“That’s the beauty of our economy here, it’s so diverse,” says Mobile County Commission President Connie Hudson. “We’re seeing some steady growth across the board in all sectors of our economy. Even when one should dip, the others aren’t.”

Local and state governments, along with the Chamber of Commerce, have established a record of working together in economic development over the last 20 years, regardless of politics or who occupied what public office.

“I think we are all like-minded when it comes to successfully recruiting business and industry to the state and particularly here in Mobile,” Hudson says.

Sisson says Mobile is the right size to present a united front in recruiting new businesses, and the considerably lower cost of living is a major factor. “When a business prospect is looking at this area, all the partners are at the table extending help,” he says.

What happens next? More aerospace, more transportation, more port-related development and more business incubation, Sisson says. “We’re seeing more and more distribution activity related to the container terminal. That’s certainly very promising and that’s happening simultaneously with what’s going on in the aviation-aerospace sector.”

The chamber will be moving into talent development and recruiting for the labor force, as well as for new business, he says. A recent chamber-commissioned study of the labor force revealed that 5,000 new, high-paying jobs had been created in the area in the last four years.

Mobile City Council Vice President Levon Manzie cites Airbus, Austal USA’s contracts for the U.S. Navy and Continental Aerospace’s new facility in saying, “The sky’s the limit.” But he’s especially excited about the new Mobile Downtown Airport at the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley, where Frontier Airlines has begun passenger jet service to Chicago and Denver.

“The eventual movement of the airport to Brookley Field Complex is going to be big for the city of Mobile,” Manzie says. “Eventually you’ll see all the airlines follow suit, and they’ll build out the total complex.

“I believe the next 10 years will be game-changing years for the city of Mobile.”

Jane Nicholes is a Daphne-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

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