Top Stories of 2019

A few remembrances as we approach the Roaring ’20s

Masashi Aihara, president of Mazda Toyota Manufacturing U.S.A. Inc., signs, on April 23, the first steel column of the $1.6 billion Mazda Toyota plant under construction in Huntsville.

Signature Victories

The year started with Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey being sworn in for her first full term, only the state’s second female governor. She guided a 10-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax increase into law like a boss, something men had failed at for years. She also declared south Alabama’s $2.1 billion Mobile Bay Bridge project dead in August after tolls took their toll.

The Alabama Legislature was weirdly productive, setting in motion the first legal crop of industrial hemp, used in producing CBD oil, as well as launching task forces on artificial intelligence, direct wine home delivery and medical marijuana.

Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA planted its first steel column and started hiring for its $1.6 billion manufacturing plant in Huntsville. It is set to begin production in 2021 and will eventually employ 4,000 workers.

In Birmingham, Amazon got busy building its new fulfillment center, to be packed with robotic efficiencies. Shipt became the new anchor of the city’s tallest building and landed a contract to deliver CVS prescriptions. DC Blox, a multi-tenant data center provider, opened a new data center facility in July.

Jeff Bezos’ spaceship company Blue Origin broke ground in January on a plant in Cummings Research Park to build engines for United Launch Alliance rockets made in Decatur. Not to be outdone, Aerojet Rocketdyne in June cut the ribbon on its new 136,000-square-foot advanced manufacturing facility in Huntsville, making solid rocket motor cases and missile hardware.

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Airbus broke ground in January on an assembly line to build A220 family jetliners. When the line hits its stride, Mobile will be the fourth largest producer of commercial aircraft in the world, making nine planes a month.

McLeod Software moved into a new, 140,000-square-foot headquarters in Meadow Brook Corporate Park, in Hoover, in the summer of 2019.

Solid Triumphs

Four Huntsville companies, Cummings Aerospace, IERUS Technologies, Kord Technologies and nLogic Alabama, helped Raytheon win a multibillion-dollar defense contract for radar to guard missile batteries.

Protective Life paid up to $20 million for naming rights to Birmingham’s $174 million open-air downtown stadium, set for completion in 2021.

Ground was broken in October for Grand River Technology Park, an $85 million project near Barber Motorsports Park in east Jefferson County.

McLeod Software opened its new corporate headquarters in Hoover after a $21 million consolidation effort.

Finland-based polymer producer Kemira started a $70.8 million project to expand production in Mobile.

Encompass Health Corp. acquired Alacare Home Health & Hospice, making Encompass a top 10 hospice provider nationwide.

Dread River Distillery opened in Birmingham’s Southside area, offering bourbon and rye whiskey among other refreshments.

Haleyville-based Lakeland Community Hospital, on the brink of closure last year, continues to operate after city and county governments worked out a financial rescue plan.

Montgomery’s first public charter school, LEAD Academy, opened in August in a city where only 30 percent of public-school students read and do math at grade level.

Long Overdue

Honda Manufacturing of Alabama set in motion a $54 million expansion to enhance its welding capability, at about the same time it opened its new $85 million logistics building in Lincoln, adding 400,000 square feet to the factory.

Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama announced a $388 million investment on next-generation engines for the Sonata and Elantra sedans, creating 50 jobs in Montgomery.

Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama produced its first new four-cylinder engine following a $106 million investment for its Toyota New Global Architecture.

Indiana-based Autocar opened its $120 million heavy-duty work truck assembly plant in Birmingham, to eventually employ 746.

New Flyer of America Inc. built its first Xcelsior Charge, a heavy-duty electric bus with zero emissions, in Anniston.

Talladega Superspeedway invested $50 million in a yearlong project to add better amenities, more fan areas and cooler spaces to America’s fastest NASCAR track.

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle and Alabama Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield joined Toyota Alabama President David Fernandes in March for announcement of the largest expansion ever at the Huntsville engine plant — two new engine lines that will increase the plant’s production volume by 35 percent by 2021.

Deals on Wheels

Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama in May opened a $388 million cylinder head machining plant, the third part of its complex in Montgomery that employs about 3,000 people.

Toyota North America said in March it would add two new engine lines to its Huntsville manufacturing plant, a $288 million investment likely to add 450 new jobs.

Mercedes-Benz continued work throughout 2019 on Project Gateway, which positions its Alabama investment of $5.8 billion to build the automaker’s most advanced vehicles and cements its spot in its global production network.

Japanese auto supplier Y-tec Keylex Toyotetsu Alabama broke ground in May on a $220 million stampings plant in Huntsville, expected to employ 650.

Navistar, maker of commercial trucks and buses, announced a $125 million expansion investment for its Huntsville factory.

DaikyoNishikawa US started construction in August on a $110 million manufacturing plant in north Alabama to make Mazda Toyota plastic parts.

Toyota Boshoku America in April said it would invest $50 million for a new plant in Athens to build seat systems, employing about 400 people.

German-based auto supplier Gerhardi Inc. in July opened its first U.S. manufacturing facility in Montgomery, a $41.6 million operation employing 235 people.

Bus manufacturer New Flyer of America unveiled a fuel cell-electric transit bus in March after doing a $25 million expansion at its Anniston factory.

South Korean-based Hanwha Advanced Materials America in April announced a $20 million expansion at its Opelika facility, adding 100 jobs.

Parts of the Puzzle

Enviva Partners in October announced a plan to create a $175 million wood pellet production plant at the Port of Epes Industrial Park in Sumter County, worth 85 jobs.

West Fraser Inc. said in June it would invest $43 million for a new lumber planer in Opelika.

Hyundai and Kia supplier Guyoung Tech USA in February began a multimillion-dollar welding line upgrade in Evergreen.

Yongsan Automotive USA in March announced plans for a $5.5 million manufacturing facility in Opelika to employ 150.

Huntsville-based Abaco Systems acquired a new 40,000-square-foot engineering design center at Redstone Gateway in Huntsville.

Israeli-based auto supplier Arkal Automotive planned a $2.5 million expansion at its Auburn factory.

MacLean Power Systems in June announced a $5.3 million upgrade at its Alabaster foundry. 2A USA, an Italian-based die-casting company, is doing a $15 million project expansion to its Auburn foundry.

German-based Winkelmann Flowform Technology opened its new plant in Auburn, making metal parts for the aerospace and defense industries and employing 50.

Texas-based Conner Industries Inc. unveiled an 87,000-square-foot plant in Montgomery to make packing materials.

Wind Creek Hospitality finalized its $1.3 billion purchase of the Sands Casino Resort in May.

Atop their Field

Agricultural equipment manufacturer AGCO Corp. in April said it would invest $5.7 million and hire 50 in Cullman County for its Farmer Automatic Aviary Systems production line.

Hancock Whitney Corp. invested in naming rights at the University of South Alabama, paving the way for Hancock Whitney Stadium to open in 2020.

The Poarch Band of Creek Indians acquired the Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in a $1.3 billion deal and renamed it Wind Creek Bethlehem.

The HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology assessed its annual impact at $2.45 billion.

By the Numbers

The HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology has a $2.45 billion impact on the Alabama economy.

Birmingham’s Protective Life Insurance Co. acquired the individual life and annuity business of Great-West Life & Annuity Insurance Co. in a $1.2 billion deal.

PricewaterhouseCoopers was told to pay $335 million to settle claims of professional negligence related to the 2009 collapse of Alabama-based Colonial Bank.

Dynetics, Rolls-Royce and MZA earned a $130 million contract for a truck-based laser system.

Owa amusement park started construction worth $100 million on its Phase II involving an indoor waterpark, hotel space and RV park.

The Department of Justice in June ordered Encompass Health to pay $48 million to resolve false Medicare billing allegations.

3M agreed to pay the West Morgan East Lawrence Water and Sewer Authority $35 million for illegally dumping chemicals into the Tennessee River.

Anniston’s Center for Domestic Preparedness won an extra $20 million, beyond its regular $66 million, to modernize facilities.

Despite having jobs, more than 100,000 Alabamians still can’t afford health care.

The Space Launch System in cargo configuration at nightfall, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville. The Block 1 configuration gives the SLS the capability of delivering a payload inside a cargo fairing to the Moon. Photo by NASA

Winging It

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in August was named headquarters for the human lunar lander program, to put astronauts back on the moon by 2024.

GE Aviation announced a $50 million expansion at its Auburn facility where jet engine components are made.

Alabama engine manufacturer Continental Motors re-branded as Continental Aerospace Technologies.

Mobile’s Downtown Airport at Brookley Aeroplex (“BFM” in airport code) got off the ground in May.

Huntsville defense contractor Yulista Holding LLC plans a four-building campus within Redstone Gateway.

Boeing Co., Huntsville, in March won a $29 million add-on to an existing contract aimed at putting low-power laser weapons on drones.

Dynetics Technical Solutions and Lockheed Martin earned contracts totaling almost $700 million for work connected to hypersonic weapons.

Heartbreaking News

Tornadoes on March 3 destroyed parts of southeastern Alabama and claimed 23 lives in Lee County, with the town of Beauregard seeing such devastation that it warranted a visit from President Donald Trump.

A 15-year-old Guatemalan boy died in July on his first day of a Cullman roofing job when he fell through an unsupported span onto a factory floor.

Gadsden’s Goodyear tire plant, some 90 years old, laid off 175 workers and saw buyouts as company officials called it too expensive to operate.

Southern Fish & Oyster closed shop on the Mobile River waterfront after more than 80 years in business.

Frontier Spinning Mills in Wetumpka plans to close by year’s end, idling all 148 workers at the plant that completed a $6 million expansion just two years ago.

Western Supermarket, a Birmingham-area chain, liquidated after 70 years in business.

Georgia-Pacific closed its particleboard facility in Monroeville, costing 100 jobs.

Dixie Store Fixtures of Birmingham, founded in 1921, planned to cease operations this year after three generations of family leadership.

Alabama Power closed almost half of its small town business locations, going from 86 to 40 offices.

The University of Alabama Culverhouse College of Business celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2019.

Campus Highlights

Auburn University’s men’s basketball team made it to the NCAA Final Four for the first time, but bowed to the Virginia Cavaliers.

The University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide reached the College Football Playoff National Championship but came up short against the Clemson Tigers.

NASA gave a $5.2 million contract to Auburn’s National Center for Additive Manufacturing Excellence.

The University of Alabama in Huntsville added a multi-purpose facility for ice hockey and basketball.

The University of Alabama’s Culverhouse College of Business marked 100 years of transforming business.

President Steven Leath resigned at Auburn and Jay Gogue, a former AU president, took his place.

Austal USA in Mobile has developed a design for the Navy’s new frigate, now being considered as one of four competing proposals for a $16 billion contract expected to be awarded in July 2020. Photorealistic image of an Austal design released by the company in 2018.

On the Waterfront

The remains of the Clotilda, an 86-foot schooner that brought 109 enslaved Africans to Mobile in July 1860, was found buried in the mud of the Mobile River.

MTC Logistics invested $61 million to build a 12-million-cubic-foot cold storage facility near the Port of Mobile.

The Hangout Music Festival marked 10 years and was credited with an estimated $290 million economic impact.

Austal USA and Huntington Ingalls Industries joined in a competition with others to design the U.S. Navy’s next-generation guided-missile frigate. Austal USA’s parent company had its best year ever, with four-fifths of revenue coming from the U.S. Huntington Ingalls won a contract worth nearly a billion dollars to oversee post-delivery work on Littoral Combat Ships.

Modern American Recycling Services purchased World Marine’s facility in Mobile.

Road Blocks, Stallouts

Alabama officials in March said Remington Arms would lose $3 million of its $38 million in state incentives for failing to hit hiring and payroll targets in Huntsville.

As of this writing, former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard has still not begun serving his sentence for a 2016 conviction on ethics charges.

Three Tuscaloosa County auto suppliers, Eberspächer, Inteva Products and Faurecia Seating, laid off a combined 301 workers over the summer.

A deal to sell the unfinished TVA Bellefonte Nuclear plant melted down over financing.

A federal judge in May sentenced former state Rep. Ed Henry to probation for Henry’s role in a health fraud case involving co-payments being improperly waived.

The city of Birmingham gave a collective sigh as a one-mile downtown portion of Interstate 59/20 closed for 14 months to replace aging bridges.

Standard Furniture idled 185 workers in Bay Minette and Frisco City when it ceased making laminated case goods.

The University of Alabama returned a $21.5 million contribution to Florida businessman Hugh Culverhouse Jr. when he got too proactive in university operations.

Birmingham attorney Donald Watkins Sr. got 60 months in prison and substantial fines for defrauding investors, including NBA star Charles Barkley, of millions of dollars.

Donald Watkins Jr. got a 27-month sentence and was ordered to pay $13 million for conspiracy.

Torch Technologies celebrated its new and improved South Huntsville campus in June.

Earth Movers

Caddell Construction in February won a potential $223.8 million contract from the State Department to design and build an embassy compound in Nassau, the Bahamas’ capital.

B.L. Harbert International won the contract for a new $42.5 million federal courthouse in Anniston.

Turner Construction Co. in June completed a $10 million addition to Torch Technologies’ South Huntsville campus.

Doster Construction Co. in February completed LG Electronics’ advanced solar module assembly plant in Huntsville.

Widows Creek Fossil Plant in Jackson County near Bridgeport, a shuttered TVA coal plant, was imploded in September, making room for new economic projects.

Sadly Missed

Huntsville tech pioneer Lonnie McMillian, a co-founder of Adtran and the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, died Dec. 30, 2018.

Larry Langford, former TV journalist turned politician in Birmingham, died in January.

J&J Furniture co-founder Oran Robert Jones died in January at 73.

Alabama State House Rep. Dimitri Polizos died in March at 68.

Pike County businessman Wiley Sanders Jr., of Sanders Trucking, died in March at 78.

Space pioneer Owen Garriott, 88, who spent 70 days in space, died in April in Huntsville.

Frank Bromberg Jr., the fifth generation to lead Alabama’s oldest jeweler, died in June at 87.

Muscle Shoals Sound Studios founder and guitarist Jimmy Johnson died in September at 76.

Ross Neely Trucking founder Thomas “Ross” Neely Jr., 92, died in September.

Jack Edwards, who represented southwest Alabama in Congress for two decades, died in September at 91.

Guthrie’s Restaurants founder Hal Hudson Guthrie Sr., 82, died in September.

Retired State Rep. Pete Turnham, D-Auburn, who represented House District 79 for 40 years, died in September.

Henry “Gip” Gipson, proprietor of the Birmingham juke joint that bore his name, died in October.

Robert Luckie III, of Luckie & Co. in Birmingham, died in November at 72.

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