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Alabama Report: Aerospace and Technology Provide Economic Optimism During Recession

Web Exclusive/Feb 09
Despite the keen awareness of a global economic recession, Alabama is faring better than its neighboring states. The state's unemployment rate is 6.1 percent, less than the national average. Forbes magazine named Huntsville the "Best Place to Live During Recession," and CNN named Alabama "Best Southeastern State in Keeping People Employed During an Economic Crisis."

"All of this demonstrates how important what we've done in economic development over the past decade has been to the state," says Neal Wade, director of the Alabama Development Office. "It sends a great message about how important projects and growth in existing industry are." Although Wade admits he's seeing some companies postpone projects, many new projects are still moving full speed ahead, and Wade reports new deals should be announced soon.

One of the highlights is the $71 million Advanced Technology Robotics Research and Development Complex broke that ground in December 2008. The center will have the capability of training 450 people per year to operate robot machines when it opens in two years, making Huntsville a world leader in robotics. Meanwhile, in Andalusia, Vector Aerospace opened a new 38,000-square-foot facility in the South Alabama Regional Airport Industrial Park last November. Vector is one of more than 300 aviation companies operating in Alabama. And SSAB is locating a new heat training facility in Mobile, a $460 million investment.

Wade says Alabama "hasn't recruited much on the R&D and biotech front in the past," but the state has made alternative energy a major focus, awarding grants totaling $1.1 million to six local governments to harness fuel and energy from renewable resources. Biotechnology is also a new focus as the state seeks industries to stave off the potential fallout from difficulties in the automotive sector. "Automotive is still a target, but we are going to diversify our economic development base." In the automotive sector, parts supplier Royal Technologies announced in February a plastic injection, molding, and assembly plant in Hanceville that is expected to create 300 new jobs.

Vital to Alabama's future is the Hudson-Alpha Institute for Biotechnology. The institute's mission is to use biotech to improve human health, stimulate economic development and inspire Alabama's youth to seek careers in science. "What we're doing at the institute is not just good for Alabama's economy, it's good for the nation's economy," says O'Neal Smitherman, vice president of the Hudson-Alpha Institute for Biotechnology. "We have the visionaries. We have the concentration of engineers and scientists. And we have the financial support from our state government."

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