Coast counties work regionally to promote Aerospace Corridor

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Published: April 6,2009

For the past five years the three Coast counties have been actively engaged in recruiting aerospace industries. Designated the Aerospace Corridor, Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties are targeting this economic development segment along with four others that include advanced materials, marine science, geospatial and shipbuilding.

“The I-10 corridor has several research entities due to the many federal projects that occupy this corridor, extending from the panhandle of Florida through Alabama, Mississippi and into Louisiana,” said Larry Barnett, executive director of the Harrison County Development Commission. “The commercial assets in Mobile have grown and Mississippi is very fortunate to have NASA’s Stennis Space Center, Keesler Air Force Base and Northrop Grumman’s Unmanned Systems Center.”

He adds that the growing Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport continues to be recognized as an outstanding facility with improved commercial service, a vibrant and critical flying training mission with the Air Guard, an expanding private aircraft hub for corporate travel and a growing air freight business.

“With the diversity in all these different entities across the Mississippi Gulf Coast, when combined, we have an excellent corridor,” he said.

Jack Zink, executive director of the Hancock County Port & Harbor Commission, points out the importance of the critical infrastructure in place in the west end of I-10.

“We have Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, the Michoud complex just over the state line in Slidell and the Stennis International Airport with its capability – all clustered on the west end of I-10 and all centered around aerospace,” he said. “All of that opens up excellent activities.”

When Northrop Grumman began building Fire Scout helicopters and set up its Moss Point Unmanned Systems Center, Jackson County became part of the aerospace industry.

“The county had no background in aerospace but the Unmanned Systems Center project expanded even before breaking ground, and the operation included fuselage assembly for the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft,” says George Freeland, executive director of the Jackson County Economic Development Foundation. “It was then clear we were set to become a high-growth segment of the aerospace industry.”

The 101,000-square-foot Unmanned Systems Center was the first tenant in the Trent Lott Aviation Technology Park.

“Interest in unmanned aircraft has continued to rise here and abroad, and orders keep coming in,” Freeland said. “Particularly impressive is the workforce in the region. It has been noted they are dedicated and have a sense of pride in their work, which is invaluable to Northrop Grumman.”

This success along with having a prepared technology park and nearby rocket and jet engines, composites, remote sensors and satellites, positioned Jackson County on the aerospace industry map, he says. The western part of the county has work in defense communications/electronics and optics at Sunplex Light Industrial Park.

The economic developers in South Mississippi work closely to promote the entire region. “We have represented Mississippi at international air shows for the past three years and will participate in the Paris Air Show in June,” Barnett said. “The cooperation does not stop at the state line.

“We have worked closely with Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. The bottom line is that we have to work regionally if we expect to make this a true aerospace corridor. We are strongest when we look at our assets in totality, rather than a single focus”

Zink also touts the regional alliance along with a newly formed group that includes parishes in Louisiana.

“For years, we’ve had Partners for Stennis Space Center. Now, we’re expanding. It makes sense to think regionally,” he said. “All of the state’s universities have a presence at the space center and people come from all over to work there.”

He believes Hancock County’s location is great for targeting aerospace industries. “Anything can land at the Stennis Airport,” he said. “With the opening of Texas Flat Road, large cargo can now be brought into the airport and go directly into Stennis Space Center without getting on I-10. Rolls Royce has a facility at the airport for testing large engines, and they plan to bring in more.”

Industries like the available space, because there is room to expand, he said. There is also a new terminal building being designed to include more ramping area, and a new hangar will replace one destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Stennis’ Infinity Science Center will educate the next generation of scientists, engineers and other specialists needed in the aerospace industry.

“We’re quite pleased with the way things are going as we recover from the storm and update the master plan for the Airport Technology Park,” Zink said.

In Harrison County, Barnett points to the Gulfport-Biloxi Airport as a provider of infrastructure critical to all industries, not just aerospace.

“In addition, Keesler Air Force Base has provided highly technical training for decades, which provides a base for a technical workforce,” he said. “The Medical Center at Keesler provides a critical service to the retired military population that retains and attracts this talent and helps to make the Coast home.”

Freeland looks just over the state line at plans for an EADS’ aircraft plant in Mobile, Ala., and the subsequent Air Force decision to award the aerial refueling tanker project to the Northrop Grumman/EADS team as promising signs for the Coast’s aerospace corridor.

“Results will likely spill over into Mississippi from the aircraft plant,” he said. “Also, the first product flight test over South Mississippi will be a significant event for Northrop Grumman. These will be unmanned, high-tech helicopters that represent the future of aviation, both military and civilian, built at the Unmanned Systems Center in Moss Point.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at lynn@lynnsdesk.com.

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