MOBILE, AL — In February 2008, the U.S. Air Force announced it was awarding the $40 billion contract to build refueling tankers to replace its aging fleet of KC-135s. The winner was a team led by Northrup Grumman Corporation, which proposed a KC-45 tanker based on the Airbus A330 commercial airliner and which would be assembled at a $600 million, 1,500-employee plant at the Brookley Field Industrial Complex here. A protest by Boeing and a subsequent report by the Government Accountability Office led the Air Force to rescind its decision, and the program remains on hold today. Officials with the Mobile Airport Authority, which oversees the former Brookley Air Force base, remain hopeful the tanker project will still land here — even if it doesn’t, the economic development initiatives undertaken in this community are bringing success and helping to revitalize a region.
Indicative of the community’s approach to economic development was the naming last fall of William ‘Bill’ B. Sisson as executive director by the Mobile Airport Authority to replace the retiring Bay Haas. Sisson says he was approached by the authority after having worked with it in his prior position as vice president of the Economic Development of Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce.
Explains Sisson, “When I first got here we were working on the Boeing Dreamliner project. So I was thrust into learning about the airport authority and the assets here. And we had a follow-up project to supply into that with Vought, who was doing the fuselage. It ended up going to Charleston.
“We immediately jumped into the Northrup Grumman project.”
Regarding the go/no-go decisionmaking by the Air Force, Sisson, says, “It’s just been a real roller coaster ride for us. Clearly, the KC-45 is a product that the Air Force wants. As a community, I think we have won that fair and square. The site here is perfect for what they need to do. We have the logistics here.
“They’re still very committed to this community. We still have weekly meetings or conference calls to keep the project top of mind. We’re ready to go.”
Central to that logistics is the Brookley Complex, which is operated by the authority that also oversees the Mobile Regional Airport. Located adjacent to downtown and on Mobile Bay, it is served by a major seaport, rail, and Interstates 10 and 65. Brookley is home to Teledyne Continental Motors, FedEx, UPS, and some 100 other tenants on its 1,700-acres. According to the authority, those companies employ some 4,000, some 60 percent of which are in aerospace. The airport also has a 9,600-foot runway and a portion of the mixed-use Brookley property is made up of the Mobile Downtown Airport.
For the KC-45 tanker, Mobile had competed with Melbourne, FL and Kiln, MS. Says Sisson, “I think that we have the best logistics; a turnkey site. No significant infrastructure has to be constructed to make the project happen.”
The authority is pushing development at both of its airports, and actually has much more acreage available at the commercial airport. “The Brookley Complex has more potential because of the logistics. Economic development, having become so competitive and so razor thin, logistics has become very important. It puts us in a very good position.
“The regional airport does not have all those logistics, but it has a bright future because it’s good land, high dry, an excellent place for development, and a population that’s growing in that direction. There are some creative things that we can do out there as well; it just wouldn’t be logistics-oriented.”
Airbus/EADS North America would occupy some 80-acres at Brookley, and it already maintains a presence with its engineering design division.
An ongoing, cooperative approach
Officials here stress the ongoing working relationship between the airport authority, the local business community, and civic leaders to bring new industry and jobs to the region. In Mobile, the Chamber of Commerce is the lead organization for economic development, explains Sisson. The airport authority is a partner. In recent times a container company, a major hospital, a cancer center, and a shipbuilding company have been lured to have a presence in Mobile.
When asked if the intent is to make Mobile an aerospace center, Sisson replies, “Yes, it is; but we also want to be a steel center, a shipbuilding center, a health care center. We want that diversified economy; and it’s really been the hallmark of our economic development over the last five years.
“Where a lot of cities would be happy and proud to have one sector that is growing, we have several. We think positively about the EADS/Northrup Grumman project, and that would just be icing on the cake.
“A reason I think we’ll be faring better than other locations is because of that diversification. I believe that we are primed to come out of the chute with full energy once things do turn around because of all of this development. People are nervous; kind of holding back. My prediction is that you’ll see it unleash.”
Regarding the exposure that the Air Force contract has brought to Mobile’s economic development efforts, Sisson says it puts them in a new league. That’s particularly true, he says, when exhibiting at air shows in Paris, Farnborough, Singapore, and Berlin, which Mobile has done in conjunction with the state.
“It brings a lot of global exposure,” he says. “That enables us to capitalize on that exposure, and we can do that more easily at an event like that where you have access to the global market.
“Before then, you’re going fishing and you don’t know if you’re going to be successful or not. It’s a relationship building process.”
Sisson also credits the fact that he’s working for an airport authority with helping to facilitate his efforts — or to not impede them. “I think that we are a really good organization, from an economic development standpoint, to do industrial park development. My main reason for saying that is that we’re insulated from a lot of politics. If the city or county develop an industrial park, politics just inherently is involved, and we can avoid that and focus primarily on the needs of the prospect.”
Impact on air service
Officials here are optimistic that successful economic development will in turn lead to increased air service to Mobile Regional. The Chamber heads up an air service task force to connect business needs with new air service development.
In particular, landing the Northrup Grumman/Airbus tanker deal would positively impact future air service. “I think it will make a significant impact because of the nature of the sector. I think they’re saying three supplier jobs for every one direct job, and all those companies are going to need to do some traveling,” says Sisson.
“This region has had a lot of accolades about the economy here, but the top accolade I would say is Moody.com’s ranking of Mobile as the fastest growing economy of all mid-sized cities in the U.S. over the next five years. That says it all.
“Regarding air service, somebody’s going to come in and capitalize on that. It’s our job to present it to all of them [the airlines] and the smart will take advantage of it.”
Julie Bordes, marketing manager for the Mobile Airport Authority, and director of aviation Thomas G. Hughes, A.A.E., head up the local air service development efforts. Mobile Regional recorded some 617,000 enplanements last year, which Bordes estimates is a drop of 7 percent.
Officials say that a central component in attracting new air service since 9/11 has been the creation of its Station Services arm, launched with funds from the U.S. DOT’s Small Community Air Service Development program. The intent, they say, is to reduce start-up costs to new entrant carriers. [For more on this topic, see “Inside the Fence.”]
Comments Bordes, “I think if there’s one thing our community wants today, it is mainline service. We’re currently served by 50-seat to 76-seat regional jets.
“With all the economic development coming on board, I think we’ll be pretty well positioned.”