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Archive for Friday, February 25, 2011

Loss of Air Force tanker contract another letdown for Gulf Coast

February 25, 2011

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— Out-of-work carpenter Anthony Wayne Lamar had planned to be one of the first people in line for a job building new Air Force refueling tankers on the Gulf Coast. Like many others, he is struggling through hard times in a region beset not just by the sour economy but by an oil spill and hurricanes.

"God knows we need it," said Lamar, 53, sitting in a downtown park.

Now, however, Lamar must look elsewhere for work.

The central Gulf Coast took another hit Thursday as the Pentagon turned down a bid by European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., or EADS, which wanted to assemble the planes in Mobile, and instead awarded a $35 billion contract for about 180 aircraft to Boeing Co.

The decision was a reversal of fortune for Mobile. EADS had initially won the tanker project, setting off celebrations on the coast, but then lost it after the government upheld a protest by Boeing in 2008. A review uncovered irregularities in the contract process and the project was rebid. Boeing came out on top the second time.

Bitterly disappointed over the Pentagon's decision, Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile, suggested the fight may not be over.

"This competition has been challenged before and it's not unlikely it will be challenged again," Bonner said.

The announcement also drew deeply disappointed reactions in Europe, where the aircraft manufacturer promised to discuss the decision with the U.S. military.

In the meantime, rather than drawing workers from places like sleepy Coden or Tillmans Corner on the Alabama coast and Pascagoula across the Mississippi line, Chicago-based Boeing plans to send thousands of jobs to Washington state and Kansas, where much of the work will be done.

The news was especially hard for unemployed residents who had hoped to find a job if the plane had been built in Mobile by EADS. The project was expected to create as many as 2,000 jobs at the airplane factory itself and another 50,000 positions at parts suppliers and other support businesses.

Had EADS won, the tanker would have been assembled at Brookley Field, located at a now-closed Air Force base that employed some 13,000 people when it shut down in 1969. Many had hoped to see the site become a major employer again.

While the boost would have been biggest in Mobile, people all along the Gulf Coast were counting on the project coming to Alabama. Economic promoters in Pensacola, Fla., even organized a party to watch the official announcement at a Panhandle restaurant.

The mood at Pensacola's Fish House Restaurant rapidly turned to disappointment as word spread that the work was going to Boeing, not EADS.

"We've had hurricanes, we've had oil, we've (had) all these. What we need now are jobs," said Collier Merrill, chairman of Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce.

Pockets along the coast are still recovering from back-to-back strikes by hurricanes Ivan and Katrina in 2004 and '05, and last year's BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico delivered major hits to the region's tourist and seafood industries. Seafood markets are still lagging, and no one knows how many visitors will return as winter turns into spring.

The latest jobless rates released by the state showed unemployment in Mobile County in December at 9.9 percent, well above the state's overall rate of 8.9 percent. Neither rate was seasonally adjusted.

On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where many lots are still empty after businesses and homes were bulldozed following Katrina, the executive director of the Jackson County Economic Development Foundation said losing the tanker work left him "terribly disappointed."

"It would have meant a great deal economically, not just to the Mobile (area) but the entire Gulf Coast region," George Freeland said.

Mobile attorney Jim Patterson, a retired Navy helicopter pilot, said he hoped the loss wouldn't damage the reputation of area workers.

"It's not going to kill us to not get it. The rest of the country needs to understand this isn't a cow pasture down here. We have a pretty educated work force. Look at the car plants. We're building a naval ship in Mobile. That's pretty sophisticated stuff," Patterson said.

Losing the project wasn't a complete catastrophe to Bill Sisson, executive director of the Mobile Airport Authority.

"Certainly it's a loss and we are very disappointed. But these were jobs that were not here yet," Sisson said.

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