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Regional Report: Beyond Automotive, the South Revs Up Growth Across Diverse Industries

A highly skilled work force and good transportation infrastructure are also drawing aerospace and other high-tech companies.

Beth Mattson-Teig (Directory 2014)
Automotive Shines Spotlight on Region
Automotive continues to be a powerful engine for growth across much of the South. Yet the region is firing on all cylinders, with expansion occurring across a variety of sectors ranging from aerospace and advanced manufacturing to data centers and technology.

As more of the old line industries that dominated the region, such as textiles, moved off shore, the resurgence in automotive manufacturing is one of the key industries that has fueled economic growth throughout the region. “That has continued, albeit in different volumes and different project types,” says Eric Stavriotis, a senior vice president at CBRE in Chicago.

Eight of the top automakers, ranging from Ford to Hyundai, all have major manufacturing facilities in the South, namely in the states of Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Those major auto manufacturing hubs continue to fuel growth among major OEMs and suppliers. For example, Korean tire manufacturer Hankook Tire Co. announced in October that it would invest $800 million in a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Clarksville, Tenn., that will create 1,800 new jobs. The company is expected to break ground on the new plant by the end of 2014 and begin tire production by 2016.

That announcement comes on the heels of another announcement earlier this spring that Tokyo-based Yokohama Tire Corp. will locate a commercial truck tire plant in West Point, Miss. The company plans to invest $300 million in the initial project that will create 500 new jobs, with potential future expansion that could bring total employment at the plant up to 2,000 jobs. Automotive has helped to shine a spotlight on the region for other industries and emphasized area strengths such as the employment base and transportation infrastructure. In addition, companies also have had the chance to see how the states have put together incentive packages and worked with companies on expansion and relocation projects, says Stavriotis. “Those types of investments do become a catalyst for other industries downstream,” he says.

Targeting Advanced Manufacturing
Automotive — along with a broader focus on advanced manufacturing jobs — continues to be a top focus for the region, including industries such as aerospace, metals, and chemicals. Notably, aerospace is a thriving niche, and Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana are all members of the Aerospace Alliance. Those three states join with Florida to promote the region as an aerospace corridor. Those states are home to major manufacturing and testing operations, as well as NASA facilities.

For example, France-based Eurocopter announced in September that it would start work on expanding its plant in Columbus, Miss., to serve as a final assembly and test site for its AS350 helicopters, the top-selling civil helicopter in the U.S. market. The plant is expected to be ready for assembly operations by Q4 2014.

“We are targeting aerospace, and we are working across state borders to promote the region, and we are finding success in winning some of those projects,” says Adam Murray, a target market specialist for the Tennessee Valley Authority Economic Development.

The entire site selection process is getting more nuanced and more case-by-case depending on a particular business and its unique requirements. “If you were to draw a gross generalization around manufacturing, the Southeast continues to win more than its fair share of projects because of the pro-business environment and lower overall operating costs and high incentives structure that [these states] have set up,” says Stavriotis.

In addition to the myriad of tax credits and financial assistance packages available to today’s businesses throughout the South, there is a distinct emphasis on providing resources to support worker training and development. Louisiana is certainly recognized for its efforts in this area with its FastStart program, which is a customized employee recruiting, screening, and training service that is available to eligible companies at no cost.

Another notable initiative to further expand advanced manufacturing in the region is an effort being led by the University of Alabama-Huntsville to land one of 15 regional Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation (IMIs) that are proposed by the Obama administration. President Obama has proposed the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) to promote advances and growth in the industry, and he is proposing funding the network with a one-time $1 billion investment.

The University of Alabama-Huntsville is specifically focusing on creating an institute that would promote digital manufacturing and design innovation. If that effort is successful, it could help to establish the area as not only a manufacturing hub, but also an R&D hub for digital manufacturing and design, notes Murray. “That is one example of how we are working across state borders to promote advanced manufacturing,” says Murray.

Pursuing High-Tech Jobs
States throughout the South are continuing to court advanced manufacturing businesses, but there also is a concentrated effort to diversify that business base and attract more higher-paying jobs in industries such as technology.

Louisiana has been very aggressive in pursuing technology, software development, e-commerce, and media companies. Those efforts have paid off with the major coup of landing IBM. The firm selected Baton Rouge as the home of its new IBM Services Center. The $55 million project, which includes an office building and residential tower, broke ground in September, with completion set for mid-2015. The new facility is expected to create 800 new direct jobs by the end of 2016.

Most people don’t consider Baton Rouge to be a hotbed for technology but, clearly, the state put some significant resources behind the project, says Stavriotis. Those resources extend beyond assistance related to constructing the facility to focus on developing the educated work force that IBM will need: the state of Louisiana will provide $14 million over 10 years to expand higher-education programs designed primarily to increase the number of annual computer science graduates. At least 65 percent of those funds will be provided for expansion of the Computer Science Division of the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Louisiana State University.

Basically, the state has said that if we can get IBM to show up, it will build that technology cluster around them, notes Stavriotis. “That takes a lot of time and resources, and it is pretty impressive that the state could package something like that, and that IBM would be willing to take them up on that offer,” he adds.

Data Centers & E-Commerce
Another target industry for the Southern States is data centers. The South is emerging as a strong player in this market because the fiber and IT infrastructure is getting built to give companies the connectivity and speed that is very important to the data center industry. In addition, companies are becoming more comfortable with the existing work force.

“We have had quite a few success stories, both in the Valley and the South in general, of companies that have come and tested the market and been successful,” says Spencer Sessions, a target market specialist for TVA Economic Development. For example, UBS announced in August that the company would establish a new shared services center in Nashville that will represent a $36.5 million investment and create 1,000 new jobs over the next five years. The new UBS Nashville business solutions center will offer expanded business services in support of UBS’ wealth management and investment banking divisions. UBS currently provides operations support in Nashville through over 200 employees, in addition to its full service Wealth Management office.

To further entice large data center projects to locate in Alabama, the state passed new legislation last year that enhances its existing sales, use, and property tax abatements available to qualifying projects. Both Louisiana and Mississippi also offer incentives specific to data center projects.

The South also continues to garner attention for distribution and e-commerce. For companies that are looking to fulfill a major distribution or warehouse component, Louisville and Memphis automatically jump to the top of the short list because of their ability to get product to their end destinations very quickly. Louisville is a major distribution hub for UPS, while Memphis is a key hub for FedEx. The UPS Worldport Louisville is the largest automated package handling facility in the world. It can handle up to 3.6 million packages per day, and more than 140 companies have located in Kentucky just to be close to the UPS hub.
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