Feb 24 2007

Senators behind Mobile steel bid

Mobile Press Register

By GEORGE TALBOT

Alabama has assembled a powerful team of political supporters in its bid against Louisiana for a proposed 2,700-worker steel manufacturing plant.

The German steelmaker ThyssenKrupp AG is evaluating whether to build the $2.9 billion project in north Mobile County or St. James Parish in southeast Louisiana. A decision is expected by May.

Both states are dangling lucrative financial incentives in an effort to win the project, packages that are expected to exceed $300 million in cash, infrastructure improvements and tax breaks.

Gov. Bob Riley visited the company's headquarters near Dusseldorf last week. During the recruiting trip, he delivered a letter to ThyssenKrupp signed by the six U.S. senators representing Alabama, Florida and Mississippi. A copy of the letter was obtained by the Press-Register on Friday.

"We truly believe the Alabama site represents ThyssenKrupp's best opportunity to develop a world-class facility with the latest technology and more importantly, a workforce committed to ThyssenKrupp's success," reads part of the four-paragraph note, printed on U.S. Senate letterhead and dated Feb. 16.

"We are united in our support of ThyssenKrupp's selection of the Alabama site and pledge to work with you every step of the way to ensure it is the premier steel manufacturing location in the world."

The letter was signed by Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions of Alabama; Thad Cochran and Trent Lott of Mississippi; and Mel Martinez and Bill Nelson of Florida. All but Nelson are Republicans.

Alabama officials said the endorsements demonstrated a rare and impressive show of interstate support for ThyssenKrupp. The state has competed against Mississippi and Florida for several projects in recent years.

"Frankly, I'm amazed. It's unprecedented," said Bill Sisson, vice president of economic development for the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce. The six lawmakers "represent a powerful constituent base. It sends a very powerful message that we're committed to success."

Federal support could be an influential factor in the company's decision-making process. The global market for steel is highly regulated, and countries routinely assign or remove tariffs that can have a profound impact on prices.

Congress also could have a say in transportation and environmental issues affecting the plant. Lott could be a particularly influential ally. The Pascagoula native is a member of the Senate committees that oversee international trade and interstate commerce.

The backing of the Florida and Mississippi delegations "is a huge plus in our favor," Sessions said in an interview Friday. "Foreign companies like to know they've got support in the Senate. I think it puts us over the top."

Both Sessions and Shelby commended Riley for initiating the letter.

"We will continue to work with the governor and others to support Alabama's efforts to bring this facility to Mobile," Shelby spokeswoman Katie Boyd said Friday. "ThyssenKrupp is a top-notch company with an outstanding reputation around the world."

Louisiana officials, citing a policy not to comment on ongoing negotiations, declined to comment on the letter or to answer questions about their bid. The state is represented in the Senate by Democrat Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, a Republican.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, is scheduled to travel to Germany on Sunday to continue her recruitment of ThyssenKrupp, returning on Wednesday, according to spokeswoman Marie Centanni.

It's not the first time Riley, a Republican and once an Alabama congressman, has asked former colleagues to help recruit an industrial prospect.

Riley used a similar tactic in the state's 2005 recruitment of EADS North America Inc. for a hotly contested, 1,000-worker aircraft assembly plant.

Competing against a group of finalists that included Mississippi, Florida and South Carolina, Riley presented EADS with a letter signed by Sessions, Shelby and all seven of the state's U.S. representatives offering their unified support.

The defense contractor later said the letter helped reinforce its decision to put the project in Mobile. The plant is contingent on EADS and its partner, Northrop Grumman Corp., winning a Pentagon contract to build aerial refueling tankers for the U.S. Air Force.