Huntsville, Ala., grew into the “Rocket City” of America’s space program after German scientist Werhner Von Braun brought his team of famed rocket builders to Alabama in 1950 after the end of World War II.
Nearly 60 years later, Huntsville area boosters are hoping once again to land a venture begun in Germany.
Volkswagen AG, Europe’s largest carmaker which began as “the people’s car” in Germany during the 1930s, reportedly is looking at a site just west of Huntsville in Limestone County to build a U.S. assembly plant. The 2,010-acre farm along Interstate 65 near Athens, Ala. — the last of eight properties certified by TVA as a “megasite” ready for an automobile plant — offers plenty of flat, accessible land only a short distance from all of Huntsville’s robotic and technology industries.
“We have a great site in close proximity to the technical assets and labor in Huntsville,” Limestone County Commission Chairman David Seibert said. “There’s a lot of excitement generated by all this but no finality yet.”
VW officials said they have narrowed their search for a new plant site to locations in Alabama, Tennessee and Michigan and expect to make a decision later this month on whether and where to build any plant.
In April 2007, TVA’s automotive advisors, McCallum Sweeney Consulting of Greenville, S.C., certified that the Limestone site meets all the criteria that a major automotive manufacturer would require.
The TVA megasite in Limestone County is located near Athens at mile marker 346 on Interstate 65, which Southern Auto Corridor Publisher Mike Randle calls “the spine” of the growing auto industry in the Southeast.
The site is only a few miles from the Delphi automotive parts plant in Huntsville, which is scheduled to close next year. The Delphi plant once had more than 2,000 workers represented by the United Auto Workers union and offers a supply of trained workers for any new auto plant.
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley also announced plans in June for a $71 million Advanced Technology Robotics Research and Development Complex at Calhoun Community College near the Limestone site.
Alabama has been a leading state in attracting automotive investment over the past 15 years. Since 1993, when Mercedes-Benz picked Alabama for its first North American manufacturing facility, Alabama also has recruited automotive assembly or engine plants from Honda, Toyota and Hyundai and has lured scores of suppliers to those facilities. State development officials now tout Alabama as “the center of the new automotive universe” and say they are eager for even more.
“We are aggressively going after this project and will continue to do so,” Neal Wade, director of the Alabama Development Office, told The Associated Press.
Even without a major new auto plant, the Huntsville area is leading the state in economic growth.
Metropolitan Huntsville, which includes the North Alabama counties of Madison, Limestone, Lawrence and Morgan, accounted for one-third of Alabama’s entire job growth since 2000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. From 2000 through 2007, employment grew 13.5 percent in Huntsville, more than three times the growth pace in the rest of Alabama and twice as fast as any other metro area in the state.
Huntsville is benefiting from military personnel shifts started in 2005 by the Base Realignment and Closure commission, which recommended 4,700 military jobs — and perhaps as many related civilian contractor positions — be relocated to the Huntsville area from northern Virginia.
Buoyed by defense, aerospace and biotech jobs related to NASA, the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal and the HudsonAlphacq Institute for Biotechnology, Huntsville is one of the few Southern cities with average pay above the national average. Wage rates last year, on average, were more than 18 percent higher in metro Huntsville than in metro Chattanooga, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Mr. Seibert said there is near-universal support for a new Volkswagen plant in the Limestone area, although he and others won’t talk about any specifics of their offer.
“At this point, we don’t want to say anything,” said Tom Hill, president of the Limestone County Economic Development Association, which spent three years getting the Alabama megasite ready.
But VW is generating lots of talk around the courthouse square in downtown Athens, the county seat for Limestone County.
“Everybody is talking about Volkswagen, and people are hopeful,” said James Phillips, a 45-year-old real estate agency owner in Athens, Ala. “It certainly wouldn’t hurt our real estate market to land a plant like this, although there’s a lot of growth coming out of Madison County already.”