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Tiny town of Kiln could hit the big time by landing air tanker refueling plant

Mississippi site in running for $600-million facility

Kiln — Right now the claim to fame for the small town of Kiln, located north of Bay St. Louis in Hancock County on the Coast, is that it is the hometown of football star Brett Favre. But Kiln, population 2,000, is in the spotlight now as the potential location for a $600-million manufacturing facility for air refueling tankers for the military.

The European Aeronautics, Defence and Space Co. (EADS) already has a toehold in Mississippi with the subsidiary Eurocopter AS350 helicopter manufacturing facility located in Starkville. And now at the other end of the state, Kiln is being considered as a site for what would be one of the largest economic development projects in Mississippi since Nissan — a $600-million plant to build air refueling tankers for the military.

Gov. Haley Barbour said the announcement by EADS North America, the subsidiary handling the project, that Mississippi is one of the four finalists for its newest U.S. facility speaks volumes about the state’s growing competitiveness for economic development projects. Barbour has been working closely with U.S. Senators Thad Cochran and Trent Lott on the project.

The European company that is the second-largest defense contractor in the world has promised to build a plant in the U.S. if it wins a contract to supply the U.S. Air Force with aerial refueling tankers. In addition to Kiln, other sites being considered include Mobile Downtown Airport, Ala., Charleston International Airport, S.C., and Melbourne International Airport, Fla. About 70 locations in 32 states initially vied for selection for the plant.

Guy Hicks, vice president of communications for EADS North America, said the Mississippi site made the top four finalists for a number of reasons: a 9,000-foot runway at Stennis International Airport, access to a deep water port, more than a million square foot of room to build a facility and the availability of workforce training at specialized educational institutions.

“What we were looking for is a value package of several of these variables,” Hicks said.

Potentially about 1,000 workers would be employed at the facility, which would also house a new Airbus Long-Range Aircraft Engineering Center. The center would employ 150 aerospace engineers to support the KC-330, as well as the company’s Airbus A330, Airbus A340 and Airbus A350 commercial jetliners. Hicks said aerospace engineers earn on average about $70,000 per year. EADS owns 80% of its Airbus subsidiary.

EADS North America is proposing the KC-330 to the U.S. Air Force as a replacement for the KC-135 refueling fleet, which EADS said is nearing the end of its operational life and will soon need replacement. The plant is scheduled to begin operations in 2006 with the establishment of an aircraft engineering center.

According to the company’s Web site, www.usatanker.com, “the KC-330 advanced tanker is the world’s most modern and capable in-flight refueling system that meets or exceeds tanker capabilities as outlined by U.S. Air Force and Joint Service doctrines. The KC-330 also offers mission flexibility for cargo, passengers and aeromedical evacuation while providing a very cost-effective solution for the Department of Defense and American taxpayers.”

The four locations being considered for the factory have been asked to submit requests for proposals (RFPs). The selection process for the project is being managed on behalf of EADS North America by The Staubach Company, which is headquartered in Dallas.

Ralph D. Crosby Jr., EADS North America’s chairman and CEO, said he was extremely pleased with the number and variety of responses received in the competition’s first phase.

“Each proposed site reflected the high quality of industrial capability in the United States, and reinforced our commitment to establish a major aircraft assembly center in the United States to produce tankers for the U.S. Air Force,” Crosby said. “After careful evaluation, four locations emerged as the sites most capable of meeting the transportation, personnel and manufacturing demands of large military aircraft assembly.

The project is being fast tracked in order to align EADS North America’s industrial activities with the potential acquisition schedule of the U.S. Air Force. The four states will have only three weeks to respond. EADS North America is expected to select the winning location by July of this year.

Jerry Hemphill, marketing manager for the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission, said the proposed EADS facility would be located on the west side of the runway from the Stennis International Airport. The site would be home to giant hangers and other industrial type buildings.

“Certainly the fact that we already have in place the type of airport they needed is a big advantage,” Hemphill said. “Any community that said ‘If you pick us, we’ll go out and expand the runway,’ was eliminated from being considered. Companies can’t wait around for you to do something like that on their behalf. Stennis Airport already handles the Air Force C-5 and the Russian Antonov. These are the two largest planes flying, and they regularly call on Stennis Airport to carry out either air cargo or military missions. Stennis is already an all-weather airport, and we have an air traffic control tower presently under construction.”

Hemphill said he believes they made the short list for two reasons. One, Hancock County had a lot of what the company needed already in place. Two, the proposal has support from Mississippi’s strong congressional delegation in Washington. Cochran is currently chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Components of the airplane would be manufactured elsewhere, and then shipped by water to the site. Hemphill said an advantage was its location near two deepwater ports, the Port of Gulfport and Port of New Orleans.

“They will ship their components to one of those two ports and then, depending on the size of the component, it will either be trucked, carried by rail or barged to the airport site,” Hemphill said. “We have an existing barge dock on the east side of Stennis Space Center. This barge dock was built for movement of the advantaged solid rocket motor that at one time was scheduled to be built in Iuka and barged to the Stennis Space Center for testing. That project was cancelled, but the dock was built.

“This dock located five miles west of the airport is where the oversize airplane components would either be carried on a dedicated road, a distance of five miles in the Stennis buffer zone, or we will build a short railroad and take the components over by rail. The Port and Harbor already operates a short line railroad for our industrial park, Port Bienville. The construction of the rail or haul road will all be items within a package that will be presented by the Mississippi Development Authority to answer all the questions and put forward all the information we can in a package for consideration of the company.”

Hemphill said the county has been involved in the preliminary process since January.

“That got us to the short list,” Hemphill said. “Now we will be answering far more in-depth questions.”

A team including representatives from EADS North America and the site selection company will be visiting within the next few weeks.

Hemphill said the primary benefit to the area from the plant would be its payroll; the facility would provide a place where citizens from South Mississippi could go to work and make a very attractive wage.

“These won’t be low-paying jobs,” Hemphill said. “They would probably be paying some of the highest wages in the area.”

EADS North America has 12 operating companies in 39 cities and 21 states.

Other competitors for the air refueling tankers include BAE Systems, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Awarding the project to EADS North America would have to overcome opposition of giving the contract to a European company with manufacturing facilities in France, Germany, the UK and Spain. Some Congressmen have advocated boycotting French products because of that country’s lack of support for the war in Iraq.

If EADS wins the Air Force contract, it is expected to team with a U.S. defense contractor to build the factory. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Northrop Grumman met in France with representatives of EADS to discuss joint bidding for the refueling tanker contract.

EADS representatives said the company contributes more than $6 billion to the U.S. economy annually, and supports more than 100,000 American jobs through its network of suppliers and services. It has 11 operating companies located in 31 cities and 16 states.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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