June 30, 2017

Blue Origin: The Art of the Deal

We were able this week to celebrate a major announcement that will benefit not just Huntsville but I think will have a ripple effect across the state of Alabama. Blue Origin, an aerospace company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, plans to build rocket engines in Huntsville in a new 400,000-square foot facility.

This puts us in the position to truly become the Propulsion Capital of the World, with the work that takes place at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, at the United Launch Alliance facility in Decatur and with many other companies connected to that effort. When the United States sends rockets into deep space and to Mars, Alabama is where the lift-off will begin.

People have asked me “What’s your secret?” when it comes to attracting a major company like Blue Origin, or others like Remington, Polaris and Toyota Motor Manufacturing that have joined our business community in recent years.

Well, if it was a secret, I couldn’t tell you. Really, it’s just teamwork and hard work, and a little bit of history thrown in.
When Blue Origin reached out to us, we knew they were looking at up to 30 different communities. Then, as everybody else who approaches us asks, they wanted to see what it would cost them and what incentives we could provide.

We took a group to see Gov. Bentley and expressed to him the importance and potential in a company like Blue Origin coming to our area, and he agreed. The state made a good offer of incentives, which we must do to remain competitive against other parts of the country.

Then, specific to Huntsville, we proved we were a place where they could attract a millennial workforce. What we had just committed to do with our MidCity development, where people could work, live and play, piqued their interest because Blue Origin would be located close by.

We showed them that we had the technical expertise, meeting with people at UAH and at NASA. They met with the Chamber of Commerce and other civic leaders. It was a true team effort. Every segment that touched the propulsion industry came together.

Huntsville has the reputation of having rocket scientists and PhDs as the only workforce in the area, and we’re proud of them and the integral part they play in our nation’s defense and space programs. But many of the new jobs are 21st Century manufacturing jobs, and with the right leadership, we can bring advanced manufacturing to all areas of the state.

We touted our two-year colleges to Blue Origin, and we brought in Dr. Jimmy Baker, the chancellor of the Alabama Community College System. We showed that we had the expertise to produce rocket engines, whether it’s a welder or machinist or tool-and-die worker, through graduates from our two-year colleges.

The hard work, once they named us as their choice, was to come up with the development agreement to protect the taxpayers. There is a “clawback” mechanism in place where our investments are returned if the company doesn’t fulfill its promises. The good news: In nine years of bringing new development to Huntsville, our administration has never had to use that clause.

I talked earlier about history. The deal with Blue Origin was built on the foundation blocks put in 20, 30 even 50 years ago with the arrival of NASA and the creation of Cummings Research Park and UAH. What we’re doing now is planting foundation blocks for the next 20, 30 even 50 years.
Partnering with Blue Origin will launch all of Alabama to even greater heights.