Mobile, Alabama (AFP) March 23, 2008
From his office on the bay, the mayor of Mobile, Alabama, can glimpse in the distance the site where he hopes Europe's EADS will soon start constructing re-fueling aircraft for the US military.
Mayor Samuel Jones is joyous at the likely employment boost the aviation production line will create for the southern US city despite a political storm surrounding the Pentagon decision.
The lucrative contract was awarded to Airbus parent the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), and its American partner Northrop Grumman on February 29 in a snub to Boeing Corporation.
"You will find that all the people in this community are very excited," the mayor said. "It's the kind of industry we've been trying to attract since the 60s."
At least 1,500 new jobs will be created if EADS and Northrop Grumman begin production of up to 179 refueling jets, dubbed flying gasoline stations, for the US Air Force as part of a giant 35-billion-dollar contract.
Local hopes are riding high, but Boeing, which also wanted the contract, has thrown a spanner in the works.
The US aviation behemoth has challenged the air force's decision in a move that temporarily freezes the contract.
Officials and business owners in Mobile remain hopeful that the air force's decision will survive a government review. And they are going into battle against opponents they describe as protectionist and Boeing's Washington lobbyists.
"What we wage now is a public relations battle," said Bill Sisson, vice president of economic development for the Mobile area Chamber of Commerce.
Mobile officials have launched a website, www.keepourtanker.com, to drum up support and defend the contract award to EADS and Northrop Grumman.
Mobile's mayor says other companies had as much right as Boeing to bid.
Other foreign investors have been welcomed to the Mobile area in recent years with open arms including German technology firm ThyssenKrupp AG, Australian-based ship builder Austal and Swiss chemicals group Ciba Specialty.
But Jones says Mobile has been seeking investment from an aerospace company since the air force vacated the Brookley air base south of the city.
Boeing had assessed the air base as a possible site to assemble its new Dreamliner 787 commercial jet, but opted not to use the sprawling facility.
Marc Pelham, director of Mobile's airport authority, says it was "devastating" for the local community when the air force closed the Brookley base in 1968. The mothballing of the base resulted in the loss of 16,000 jobs.
Officials hope the 1,500 workers EADS and Northrop are expected to hire will help boost local employment and city business owners are impatient for operations to ramp up.
"This is just sort of the icing on the cake," said Melissa Morrisette, who runs a local real estate firm.
Business owners in Mobile, a city with old brick homes with iron balconies, hope an influx of outside investment will help the city ward off an economic downturn that is threatening other parts of the United States.
"I think when the contract comes it is going to step our restaurant up to a new level," said Penny Taylor, manager of the "Spot of Tea" restaurant.
Taylor, who has around 300 to 400 customers a day, believes more people will call by the Spot of Tea if EADS and Northrop Grumman start producing the tankers, which are needed to replace the air force's fleet of aging Boeing KC-135 tankers.
"We need the money, you know, we need the jobs," said James Findley, a 29-year-old worker employed at the Bender ship repair facility.
Findley says he is learning a trade for around nine dollars an hour as an apprentice, but local officials believe EADS and Northrop Grumman will pay at least 20 dollars an hour to workers, some of whom will need to be highly skilled in aircraft assembly work.
Matt Dobbins, 28, is already preparing. He has almost completed a training course qualifying him to work on aircraft structures and jet engines.
"I want to be more marketable, because competition is going to be pretty good," Dobbins said.
Officials and local workers have had their hopes raised by the air force award and are keeping their fingers crossed that planes will soon start rolling off an Alabama production line.
"This city is no less important than theirs," mayor James added, referring to Boeing's northwestern home base of Seattle in Washington state.
Aerospace News at SpaceMart.com
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