A major Mercedes-Benz supplier investing $46.3 million and creating 222 jobs is big news for any community. But when MöllerTech chose a site near Woodstock in Bibb County for its new plant, it brought added horsepower to an already big announcement.
Bibb County borders Tuscaloosa County and has industrial sites within six miles of the $4.5 billion, 5 million-square-foot Mercedes-Benz plant. However, Bibb County has been unable to land a top-tier supplier to the automaker.
There are a number of reasons why.
Jefferson County, Tuscaloosa County and cities like Birmingham and Tuscaloosa have had economic development entities focused on luring Mercedes suppliers since the German automaker announced plans for the plant in 1993. Bibb County, which is mostly rural and has a population of just over 22,000 people, found it hard to compete.
In its 2015 annual report on economic development, the Birmingham Business Alliance – which covers the seven-county Birmingham metro area – only had one county with just one project announcement. Bibb County’s Cahaba Veneer had a 15-job expansion with no additional capital investment.
In 2014, Bibb County was the only county in the BBA report without a single project announcement.
“For Bibb County itself – not having had a track record to speak of in economic development, not having had developments of this type, industries announced for literally decades – you can just imagine first that this is relatively large, certainly by Bibb County standards,” said Brian Hilson, president and CEO of BBA. “Then you start thinking about the people who are going to occupy those positions and the impact that these jobs, one by one, will have on those individual families, it’s really important.”
Not to mention the money going into local and county government.
“From a public standpoint, the capital investment and the investment made through the salaries of the individuals – all of that combined will have a significant economic impact as well,” Hilson said.
Another big obstacle for Bibb County was having suitable industrial sites that could compare to those in surrounding counties.
The Scott G. Davis Industrial Park was built less than five years ago with the goal of closing that gap.
Land was donated by the Davis family and improved by the county to create the park near Woodstock. In 2013, ThyssenKrupp Materials North America opened a $13 million materials processing and distribution facility in the park and has been the only tenant until the MöllerTech announcement.
“We find that you have to have product in order to get a look,” said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce. “So, Bibb County’s ability through the Davis family and their foresight in making that land available creates a great opportunity for this county. Often, activity begets activity. I know the people of Bibb County and I know that the Department of Commerce are eager to see if the announcement of MöllerTech today creates an impetus for additional growth and opportunity for this area.”
Getting to Bibb County wasn’t easy. Jeff Traywick, senior project manager with BBA, began working with MöllerTech earlier this year when the effort was known secretly as “Project Castle.” The project expanded to include Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia, and became known as “Project Helios.”
MöllerTech went from looking at existing buildings to larger buildings to green field sites in the three states before focusing on Alabama.
“The Scott G. Davis Industrial Park is a wonderful fit,” Traywick said.
He said improvements to the park that began with ThyssenKrupp will be enhanced with MöllerTech.
“This project will result in upgraded power, new infrastructure, gas, sewer into the park, which are utilities that right now are at the main road but not in the interior of the park,” he said. “That just opens up the rest of the park and the domino effect to continuously develop on into the interior. It’s going to leave us with over 500 acres in the park, so we’ve got plenty of room to grow there.”
Steve Jordan, North American CEO for MöllerTech, said Bibb County competed with sites in Jefferson, Tuscaloosa and other Alabama counties to win the project.
“When we started looking at green field sites, the Scott G. Davis Park was a fantastic place to go, coupled with a fantastic county,” he said. “The people who were helping us make this decision were really, really good. Very helpful.”
Canfield said the new state incentives designed to help rural and targeted counties compete with larger counties were used to help Bibb County lure MöllerTech. The company is eligible for an annual cash refund of up to 4 percent of its previous year’s gross payroll for 10 years. In non-targeted counties, the refund is capped at 3 percent.
“This is a big announcement. It’s a big announcement for not only the state of Alabama, but I think it’s really a bigger announcement for Bibb County,” Canfield said. “Bibb County is one of our 26 targeted counties. We started a program three years ago trying to pass an Alabama Jobs Act, and July 2015 the Jobs Act went into effect and an element of that was the targeted counties program that recognizes that there are some counties like Bibb County that have been challenged in terms of new employment and economic investment opportunities that come from good companies like MöllerTech.”
Watching the MöllerTech announcement was why Canfield said that component of the Jobs Act was important.
“Two hundred and twenty-two jobs in Bibb County is huge,” he said. “It creates great career opportunities and it really has great meaning for the families of Bibb County.
“When they make a decision to locate in a county like Bibb County, it’s a testament to the people of Bibb County, it’s a testament to the local leadership, it’s a testament to the partnership that we have across the state that includes everybody from BBA and Alabama Power to the Department of Commerce and AIDT and the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama all coming together and making things happen,” he added.
MöllerTech supplies automakers around the world. Could that be in the cards for its Bibb County plant?
“One step at a time,” Jordan said. “We’re here for Mercedes. That’s the contract we have. What’s to say that in coming years we can’t (explore more business). We’re here to stay.”
The plant will initially produce plastic injection molding interior parts for the next generation of Mercedes-Benz SUVs.
Jordan said site work will start next week and the building will be ready in March 2017. Equipment will be installed, tooled and tested to be ready in time for Mercedes’ 2018 start of new production.
Jordan said the 20-acre site in the industrial park gives MöllerTech room for about 50,000 square feet to expand in the future.