During 2011, the northwest Alabama counties of Limestone and Morgan led the state in new business announcements. Economic development professionals in Limestone County announced $539 million in capital investment during 2011, and Morgan County was right behind, with $416 million in capital investment and $1 billion currently invested in construction. Home to the mid-size cities of Athens and Decatur, the two counties benefited from their proximity to Huntsville and Madison County, one of the state’s fastest growing metropolitan areas.
“The unified efforts of Limestone and Morgan counties to bring business opportunities to the region have paid off with the counties leading the state in capital investment, ” says Greg Canfield, Alabama Department of Commerce secretary. “Having several highly specialized machining companies and the Robotics Technology Park will attract even more investment to the area in years to come, as this facility produces highly detailed parts and appliances for a variety of industry sectors.”
In Limestone County, the biggest economic development news of 2011 was the decision of Pennsylvania-based Carpenter Technology Corp. to build a plant near Athens to supply premium alloy products, primarily in the aerospace and energy industries, beginning in 2014. The facility is expected to create more than 203 jobs.
“The Carpenter project was our main one for 2011, with a total cost of about $500 million, ” says Tom Hill, president of the Limestone County Economic Development Association. “It’s a company that got started in the aerospace business when they sold metal to the Wright brothers to build their plane.”
Limestone also announced the arrival of another new company and five expansions. Aviagen Inc. will open a poultry diagnostic and research laboratory in Elkmont with a $1.7 million investment. American Leakless Co., Custom Polymers PET LLC, Electricfil Corp., Federal-Mogul Sealing Systems and Turner Medical Inc plan to expand.
Morgan County is also seeing investments and expansions. India-based Polyplex will open its North American headquarters and polyester films plant in Decatur, with a price tag of $187 million and a promise of 150 new jobs. Excel Interior Door will invest $2.9 million to open a new facility in Hartselle, bringing 35 new jobs.
Existing companies in Morgan County that announced expansions last year include 3M Co., AlphaPet Inc., Ascend Performance Materials, BP Decatur Site, Byco Plastics, Hexcel Corp., Lakeland Industries, Micor Industries, Nucor Steel, River City Sales, Sonoco Products, Sue-Jac, Tru-Line Manufacturing, United Launch Alliance and Valley Rubber. Together, these existing companies will invest more than $230 million in Morgan County and add 190 new jobs.
Why have Limestone County and Morgan County raked in so many economic development successes recently? Local leaders and executives of expanding companies say there are a variety of reasons, including infrastructure, workforce and existing industry, as well as proximity to Huntsville, regarded as “one of the most high-tech areas in the country, maybe in the world, ” Hill says. In addition, the area boasts highly-ranked public schools, colleges and universities that are effectively training a high-tech workforce.
“Morgan County has always been a leader in the state each year for new investment and job creation, ” adds Jeremy Nails, president and CEO of the Morgan County Economic Development Association. Beyond location and workforce, “We also have a world-class existing industry base that is growing and they help us attract other companies to our community that help complete or complement a particular industry cluster.”
That package was exactly what Polyplex was looking for. “Morgan County caught our attention because of the large industrial base already established and the close proximity of one of our major raw material suppliers, ” says Jeff Hudspeth, plant manager at Polyplex USA. “The large industrial base meant we had all of the ancillary businesses and industry necessary to support our manufacturing plant and a work force already familiar with medium to heavy manufacturing to call upon, ” coupled with great support from economic developers.
In addition to the business environment, Hudspeth says the company looked at housing options, schools and other amenities that would be important for potential employees.
In Limestone County, local officials have a strong record of success when prospective companies come to visit the area. “We get prospects from the Department of Commerce and fill out the requests for information, and if we make the cut and get them to visit, we can really put our best foot forward, ” Hill says. “When Carpenter came to visit, for instance, we were able to show them the Robotics Technology Park, which is a world-class facility for designing and repairing robots, and that really made an impression.”
“Morgan County has provided a business friendly environment in terms of the infrastructure supporting industry and their willingness at the city and county levels to work directly with industry to help them resolve issues affecting their manufacturing, ” says Polyplex’s Hudspeth. “For example, when we needed some help getting our construction completed and the city and county officials found out, they proactively reached out to us and helped us figure out the best path forward to meet our needs. ”
Limestone and Morgan counties offer examples worth emulating. “Limestone and Morgan counties have developed plans for success and found ways to successfully attract industries from across many industrial sectors, ” Canfield says.
Nancy Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville.
By Nancy Mann Jackson