Economy derails railcar plant

Published 11:43 pm Monday, July 19, 2010

BARTON, Ala. (AP) — A north Alabama plant that was to produce as many as 10,000 railcars a year and hire some 1,500 workers has been derailed by the recession.

The National Alabama Corp. project, announced in July 2007, was to be in production this summer, but it now has only 120 workers on site in Colbert County and is waiting for its first contract.

Officials with the company, which received financing by the Retirement Systems of Alabama and nearly $17 million in government investments, said it is conducting testing and training so the work force will be prepared when contracts arrive. It also is exploring contracts unrelated to railcar production.

CEO John Stein said the work done during the delay is being performed “in a fashion designed to best lay the foundation to give us the ability to produce cars at the highest quality, highest volume and highest consistency that the plant was designed to achieve.”

“While the industry remains in a significant downturn, it looks like we are seeing signs that the industry is bottoming,” Stein told the TimesDaily of Florence in a story Monday.

But the lack of any return on the nearly $17 million government investment has raised concerns.

“I’m hopeful, but my hope gets a little dimmer the longer that place sits out there with nothing happening inside. I hope we haven’t been snookered,” Jimmy Steadman, a Franklin County retiree who worked in the manufacturing section, told the paper.

Muscle Shoals Mayor David Bradford said government funds designated to go for training won’t be paid until the number of workers increases.

“We have built in safeguards,” he said.

Forrest Wright, Shoals Economic Development Authority executive director, also said government funds went toward improving the local infrastructure, such as an interchange that provides vehicles a safe transition from U.S. 72 to the entrance to the industrial park where the plant is located.

“It’s not money going to the company,” he said. “It’s money spent in our econom