Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A new era begins

The meeting being held in New Orleans today isn't on the radar of many people. But it's certainly on mine. It's another step in the right direction in the development of the Gulf Coast aerospace corridor.

The fledgling “Stennis-Michoud Aerospace Corridor Alliance” is holding a meeting today that brings together key economic development leaders from Louisiana and Mississippi. Organized by Sen. David Vitter's office, it was put together because the senator – and others I must say – recognize that having Michoud Assembly Facility and Stennis Space Center so close together is a valuable tool that stands every chance of becoming an economic development magnet.

It's not like these two facilities just suddenly appeared. They've been in close proximity for years, but neither Louisiana nor Mississippi looked at the two facilities as forming one "entity" that could be leveraged. We may finally be entering a new era where both states take full advantage of having NASA facilities that, by design, look to the future.

Not long ago a NASA official told me she saw no reason that the Stennis-Michoud area could not develop along the lines of what developed in Huntsville, Ala. For those of you who may not be familiar with Huntsville, it is a high-tech hotspot noted not only for the major aerospace companies that have significant operations there, but for its entrepreneurial ventures. The payoff, for average citizens, is these companies offer good jobs and terrific wages and opportunities. It has one of the highest median incomes in the South.

We may be seeing in this region a development along those lines. We can only hope the folks gathering in New Orleans recognized that this Stennis-Michoud Aerospace Corridor is not and should not be seen as an entity in and of itself. The region between New Orleans and Northwest Florida has three key focus areas that are closely related and synergistic: space, aircraft manufacturing and weapons development.

In the western portion of the region we have the space program. Key players are NASA, Stennis Space Center, Michoud Assembly Facility, the National Center for Advanced Manufacturing, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney. The universities with interests in the Stennis-Michoud area is considerable: the University of New Orleans, LSU, Mississippi State University, University of Mississippi and the University of Southern Mississippi.

In the center of this region you have Moss Point-Mobile, which is still forming its aircraft manufacturing segment. Already Fire Scout and Global Hawk unmanned aerial systems are built there, and there’s still a good chance that Mobile will be building wide-body aircraft at Brookley Field. Key players are Northrop Grumman, Airbus/EADS, Mobile Aerospace and Teledyne Continental.

And in the eastern part of the region you have the long-time military focus. Pilots and flight officers are trained in Pensacola and Milton, Fla., and aerial weapons are developed at Eglin Air Force Base. It’s also going to be training pilots of all branches to fly F-35 jets by 2010. Not far away is Panama City, which not only has Tyndall Air Force Base, but a significant Navy research facility.

This region now seems to recognize the importance of having research parks that bring together universities, big companies and entrepreneurs in an environment conducive to collaboration - something leaders in Huntsville recognized long ago. In Florida a research park in Panama City is developing not far from Tyndall Air Force Base, and near Eglin the Emerald Coast Research Park is being developed.

On the other end of the corridor, NASA intends to develop the area around Michoud as an advanced manufacturing park, and at Stennis Space Center there are at least three separate technology parks in the works. In between there’s the new University of Southern Mississippi campus that will be built in Gulfport and the aviation park that’s up and operating in Moss Point.

This speaks well for the separate efforts. But there's also a real problem that each area will just focus on its own piece and fail to understand the bigger picture. We've had a problem with the turf mentality for years, and there's every chance that will rear its ugly head. Use the ingredients in just one area and you may have an interesting dish, but use all the ingredients that are available Gulfwide and you have an extraordinary feast.

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