May 29 2013

Yellowhammer: Shelby's Vision for Jobs in AL

Shelby's Vision for Jobs in Alabama

By Cliff Sims, Yellowhammer Politics

“We’ve got the world’s attention,” Senator Richard Shelby told me as we launched into a discussion about his latest meetings with top business leaders overseas.

Shelby recently returned to the States after visiting Toulouse and London, where he and Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran went to recruit suppliers for Airbus’s new south Alabama manufacturing plant to come to their respective states. The Airbus facility represents a $600 million total investment and is expected to create up to 1,000 jobs within the production facility when it reaches full capacity. The competition to recruit their suppliers will be intense.

The model of landing a major manufacturer, then following it up by recruiting its suppliers is one that Shelby is very familiar with.

He played a key role in bringing Mercedes-Benz and their suppliers to Alabama in the 1990s after a visit to Stuttgart, Germany.

“I’m drawing on the experience we gained while dealing with Mercedes-Benz,” Shelby said. “We went to Stuttgart and met with them. Mercedes had suppliers they were familiar with and we did everything we could to make sure they followed their manufacturer to Alabama. Many of them did.”

There are now over forty German suppliers located in West Alabama.

Similarly, Shelby believes that, in order to maximize Airbus’s economic impact, Alabama must successfully recruit as many of their suppliers as possible.

“In the next two to three years, you’ll see a lot of these small businesses locate in Alabama,” he said. “But we’re not through. I’m going back to Germany because that is where a lot of Airbus’s suppliers are based. We have to take full advantage of what’s going on in Mobile.”

If the potential Airbus is bringing with it is fully realized, Shelby believes it could be transformational for south Alabama’s economy.

“When the Von Braun rocket team came to Huntsville, it transformed the city. When Mercedes came to Tuscaloosa, it transformed west Alabama’s economy. Airbus and its suppliers are in a position to bring that kind of transformation to Mobile.”

When I asked him to talk about his recruiting pitch to companies overseas, the Senator seemed to focus on three main points: “Alabama is a great place to do business. It’s a great place to live. And our workforce is the best in the world,” he would tell them.

The third point, workforce development, is something that Senator Shelby has been working on for decades.

He chose early on in his political career to constantly take his message straight to the people. He visits every county in Alabama, every single year.

He recently held his 1,800th town hall meeting — an unbelievable accomplishment considering most politicians confine themselves to D.C. after winning a couple of terms and basically assuring themselves re-election.

Shelby realized after holding town halls around the state that Alabama’s college and university facilities were not on par with some of the top notch institutions around the country.

“I noticed our facilities didn’t look like MIT’s or Stanfords,” he told Yellowhammer. “I was sitting on the Appropriations Committee watching all this money going to Harvard and Yale. I realized if Alabama was able to get some of those resources, it would pay off generation after generation.”

He has since been able to bring hundreds of millions of dollars to our state’s universities to build math, science and engineering complexes.

“We now have first-class facilities at Alabama, South Alabama, Auburn, Alabama-Huntsville, and Alabama-Birmingham,” Shelby said with satisfaction. “Alabama has some of the finest math, science and engineering institutions in the country.”

And while the complexes will no doubt pay off for decades to come, they’ve also become a huge selling point for new companies considering locating in Alabama right now.

“It’s an investment in the future that’s already paying off in the present.” Shelby intoned. “Airbus is excited about working closely with the University of South Alabama’s engineering program.”

When asked to further elaborate on his longterm economic development vision for the state, Shelby said he also sees further development opportunities for the Port of Mobile, especially now that Airbus is moving in.

Specifically, he wants to widen and deepen the port so that it can handle larger ships — and a lot more of them.

Massive projects like that are only made possible when someone with a lot of horsepower can set the process in motion.

Alabama’s congressional delegation is ranked the sixteenth most powerful in the country in Roll Call’s latest “Clout Index,” which scores the influence each state has on national affairs. This is significant considering Alabama ranks as the twenty-third most populous state.

One of the main reasons for Alabama’s strength in Washington is Senator Shelby’s position on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

He flexed his muscle on the committee recently when he secured money to do a study on the feasibility of widening Mobile’s port.

“The study is the first step toward my vision is to widen and deepen the Port of Mobile,” Shelby said. “I want the port to be able to handle some of the biggest ships in the world.”

Shelby explained that the Port of Mobile is basically a straight shot from the Panama Canal. The increased capacity could position Mobile to become a world center of trade and commerce. Another economic boom would no doubt follow.

“This is going to be a ten to twelve year process,” he said.

And that statement illustrates what may be Shelby’s greatest strength — his longevity. It has allowed him to keep from getting bogged down in whatever is the latest scandal in Washington. Instead of riding the political roller coaster in D.C., he has consciously worked to focus on economic development projects back home in Alabama that could take years, even decades to come to fruition.

“All of this is about jobs and the future, and upgrading the standard of living for all Alabamians,” Shelby concluded. “It all starts with making sure the world knows that Alabama is open for business.”