Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Boeing and Alabama

The announcement that Boeing will move its Missile Defense Systems headquarters from Arlington, Va., to Huntsville, Ala., may not appear to have any significance for the Gulf Coast region. After all, that’s way up in North Alabama, close to Tennessee.

But it is important for this region on many levels.

First, it’s an affirmation that some parts of the South - including the Gulf Coast - have the pieces in place to host the most cutting-edge operations in the world. Huntsville has been building that foundation for years. Once the city got a NASA facility and the Army missile experts, it began to build on that to position itself for the future. Among the pieces put in place: ensuring the city had a campus of the University of Alabama, and taking steps to acquire the land for what is today one of the largest research parks in the nation. There was more, of course, but those are two key steps taken along the way.

For those who are not familiar with Arlington, it’s got to be said that it was no small feat drawing something from the city that sits across from Washington, D.C. As home of the Pentagon, Arlington is a premier location for companies that work with the federal government. Arlington, close to so much power and influence, provides access to a highly educated workforce, where a third of the population holds a graduate degree. It also has one of the highest median incomes in the nation. So that in itself speaks well for Huntsville and what it has put together.

Boeing initially will shift division management and support functions to Huntsville. But it will evaluate moving other MDS employees from Arlington to Huntsville over time. The company says between 40 and 50 positions may be transferred by the end of this year. That’s not much when it comes to numbers, but numbers do not tell the whole story of what it means to have an operation of this type.

“Huntsville is a leader in the aerospace industry, and Boeing is proud of its 47-year partnership with this community, which now includes work on defense, space and commercial programs," said Greg Hyslop, vice president and general manager for Boeing Missile Defense Systems. “Our customers have been locating more of their personnel and operations in this community, so now is the right time for us to center our missile defense business here as well. We want to remain close to our customers and the vital national-security programs Boeing employees support.”

Some are saying moving MDS headquarters to Alabama was a smart move by Boeing as the competition starts up again for the Air Force tanker project. Boeing is competing against Northrop Grumman and its partner, EADS, which wants to assemble the tanker downstate in Mobile. The thinking is, giving Huntsville this headquarters may make Alabama politicians think twice before bad-mouthing Boeing. But that makes little sense. Boeing, the largest aerospace company in the state, already has 3,200 workers in Alabama and is one of the state’s largest employers. Would 50 more and a headquarters operation change anyone’s mind?

If it’s PR, just how do you explain Northrop Grumman’s sizeable operation in Huntsville? Last year it broke ground on the second of four buildings that will comprise the company’s Huntsville campus at Cummings Research Park. The first building is four stories and 110,000 square feet, as is the second. They have offices, laboratories, integration and research and development facilities. In addition, the company established a premier Missile Defense Engineering and Analysis Center and the Huntsville System and Mechanical Engineering Center of Excellence. Northrop Grumman employs more than 1,200 people in the Huntsville area, and 1,330 in Alabama.

If the Boeing decision on the MDS headquarters is to some extent a PR move, then it could backfire. The fact that Boeing thinks enough of Alabama workers to move this crucial operation to the state should quiet politicians from Washington State who say the Pentagon should not entrust untried Alabama workers with the task of building a tanker. Of course, that argument should have been quelled long ago by pointing out the experience Northrop Grumman had when it set up its unmanned systems center in Moss Point, Miss.

The workers there had never built aircraft, let alone unmanned aircraft. But these untried workers today are building portions of the Global Hawk and Fire Scout, and as one Northrop official put it, the learning curve was short and the workers have continued to perform admirably – enough so that the company is considering sending more work to Moss Point.

PR move or note, I can't help but think there are some who simply can’t accept the fact that there are places in the South that can compete for some of the best projects and operations the world has to offer. They are stuck with the image they developed long ago about anyone with a Southern accent. And they keep that image and their own peril.

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