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Originally published December 18, 2013 at 6:49 PM | Page modified December 21, 2013 at 9:20 AM

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Bidding for Boeing’s 777X: Huntsville is full of rocket scientists

Huntsville, Ala., a Boeing town since 1962, has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of engineers, who build rockets and missiles. Huntsville thinks it can build the 777X, too. The Seattle Times reports this week on several contenders for Boeing’s new plane.


Seattle Times Washington bureau

How Boeing might size up Huntsville

Pros

• Deep pool of aerospace talent and a good engineering school

• Low taxes and cost of living

• Right-to-work state with little union presence

• Enough land for 777X

Cons

• Little existing money for incentives

• Lack of direct access to seaport

Seattle Times

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. —

Huntsville lies unmistakably in the Deep South.

Here, the Dixie drawl registers tangier than vinegar-based barbecue sauce. Political ideology runs from Right to Really Right. Breaking ground for a new highway interchange doesn’t get going until the Methodist pastor finishes praying for prosperity.

Yet this striving city in northern Alabama — as close to Nashville as to Birmingham — shares a heritage with Seattle, the birthplace of Boeing.

Huntsville is where Boeing and other NASA contractors designed the Saturn V rockets that first carried men beyond Earth’s orbit to the moon. Boeing remains a major employer, and this small city has one of the highest concentrations of engineers in the nation. If a stranger in a bar tells you he’s a rocket scientist, you’ve just met one.

And, as Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley tells it, Huntsville was one of the first alternative sites Boeing executives made a beeline for after Puget Sound-area Machinists nixed the company’s November contract offer.

Alabama has nearly exhausted the $750 million bond authority under which it has lured Airbus, Toyota and other companies with financial giveaways.

Bentley, in an interview with The Seattle Times during an appearance in Huntsville earlier this month, acknowledged Alabama’s incentives handicap and did not disclose how much the state has offered to shell out.

Still, Bentley said, “Money is important for a company, but it’s not always the most important thing.”

Bentley has a personal interest in the 777X sweepstakes. He is refusing his $121,000 salary until Alabama’s unemployment rate reaches 5.2 percent. It stood at 9.1 percent when he was sworn in in January 2011; it’s fallen to 6.5 percent.

Bentley and Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle both rejected the notion that Boeing was using Huntsville and other cities as pawns in its negotiations with the Machinists union.

To them, Huntsville is a logical alternative. Boeing has been here since 1962. The company has some 2,600 people on payroll in the Huntsville area, doing mostly defense and space work.

Boeing’s Strategic Missile & Defense Systems division is headquartered in Huntsville’s Cummings Research Park. Nearby are outposts for Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems and 300 other companies drawn to the area by defense customers, including Redstone Arsenal, a mammoth U.S. Army research, materiel-management and engineering complex.

Huntsville is where Boeing engineers and researchers work on deep-space exploration. They are helping to design and build parts of NASA’s heavy-lift launch vehicle, to carry astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft into the solar system and, ultimately, to Mars. Boeing also provides engineering and other support for the international space station, the orbiting lab for which Boeing oversaw the primary design and construction.

Missile defense is a key focus. Boeing, among other projects, is developing interceptors to destroy long-range ballistic missiles and provides engineering and modification for the U.S. Air Force intercontinental ballistic missile force.

Though much of Huntsville’s know-how is with rockets and missiles, locals are confident the skills will translate to passenger jets.

Richard Hall, a mechanical engineer who works for WestWind Technologies, an aircraft-engineering and modification company, deals with sheet-metal parts integration for the Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters.

The engineering principles, Hall said, are the same for commercial jets. Some 600 Boeing engineers and other employees in Huntsville over the years have worked on development of the 787 Dreamliner, which is assembled in Everett and in North Charleston, S.C.

Hall said the sheer number of defense contractors in Huntsville fuels keen demand for engineers. At age 45, Hall earns “just under six figures” and estimated that an experienced engineer with composites background could command $125,000.

“Most people don’t stay unemployed for long," he said.

Doing business in Alabama costs relatively little. A poor state, Alabama has one of the nation’s lowest property-tax rates, with homeowners in many counties paying less than $250 a year. Its corporate, individual income and unemployment insurance tax rates are also below average. Huntsville is cheap — and sleepy — enough that you can park in a garage downtown for 35 minutes for a quarter.

Boeing already owns some 530 acres at or near the Huntsville airport. A swath of that is undeveloped land between and adjacent to the two parallel runways. A Norfolk Southern rail spur links to the International Intermodal Center, a busy rail and highway cargo hub located less than two miles northeast of Boeing’s main facility.

Huntsville’s main drawback may be its lack of a seaport, which Boeing lists as a “desired” feature and which was the reason Airbus chose to locate its first U.S. assembly factory on the other end of Alabama in Mobile, on the Gulf Coast.

Boeing uses the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway to float its Delta rockets — produced at its plant in Decatur, just west of Huntsville — to the Gulf of Mexico for delivery to launch sites in Florida or California. But the Tennessee River flows south of the Huntsville airport, five miles away.

Even before Boeing and the Machinists union revived their contract talks, some Huntsville residents wondered if they were being played. Patricia McCarter, communications director for Chamber of Commerce of Huntsville/Madison County, noted Boeing’s deep ties to its hometown and the company’s admission from the outset that it would prefer to produce the 777X in Everett.

“If you add one plus one, you really have to wonder,” she said.

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.com. Twitter: @KyungMSong



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