Keep welcome mat out

Published 1:40 am Saturday, August 11, 2012

It was the mid-90s, and we lived in Atmore.

Economic development officials in Escambia County were working with a huge poultry company looking to locate a processing plant, feed mill and hatchery somewhere in Alabama. We were on the very short list of possible sites and hundreds of jobs.

A group of ill-informed individuals formed a group to oppose the industry. Blood would run in the creeks, they said, if the processing plant located there. They also opposed an influx of ethnic labor.

We covered the opposition efforts in the local media, and also quoted experts from EPA and ADEM about the environmental standards the company would meet. Then the Pensacola News-Journal ran a Page 1 story about the opposition and suddenly, we were no longer on the poultry company’s short list.

In addition to the economic loss, the city was embarrassed. The county was embarrassed. Alabama Development Office (ADO) officials who’d promoted our locations were embarrassed. It took years – and much lobbying effort – to convince ADO to bring another prospect to visit there.

I thought of that this week when this community rolled out the carpet to welcome DRS Technologies to the South Alabama Regional Airport.

DRS leased the twin hangars at SARA beginning Jan. 1, 2012. Their current lease runs through Dec. 31, 2013. If the company never hired a single employee, this community should welcome them with open arms. When the hangars were empty, the Airport Authority depended upon help from the Covington County Commission, the City of Opp and the City of Andalusia, to pay the note on the facility. With the lease in place, SARA is now able to handle the payments solo.

DRS has facilities in 23 states, including Alabama (Huntsville). At most of those facilities, they contract with the American military to upgrade aircraft. This is not their first rodeo.

They’ve installed many thousands of dollars worth of equipment here. They have experience getting contracts, and are ready to go to work as soon as they get one. They project they will have at least 75 employees here at the end of two years. Slow growth? Yes. But it’s the norm; the way that Vector started here, and they employ about 200 people.

Almost all of the 200 people who attended the welcoming ceremony and following lunch Tuesday were pleased with the announcement. Gov. Bentley was smiling, so was Rep. Martha Roby. Former Speaker of the House Seth Hammett – who helped set the stage for aerospace in Alabama – was smiling about the announcement.  ADO officials, state transportation officials who’ve helped with our airport, local economic development board members, realtors, politicians – all smiles.

The one person who wasn’t pleased, and who tried then and in the rest of the week to turn the story negative, wants to lead the effort to get jobs for “Our Town.”

There’s one thing he needs to learn: You don’t replace the welcome mat with one that says “go away” and expect to get cooperation for long.