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Flashback: Chip Carter, Grits and Economic Development

Ed Mitchell overlooks a model of the intermodal cargo handling facility under development in 1986 at the Port of Huntsville.

Ed Mitchell overlooks a model of the intermodal cargo handling facility under development in 1986 at the Port of Huntsville.

Photo by Dave Dieter

“We had been quietly told that nothing short of White House intervention would get this application off dead-center,” said Huntsville Airport Authority Chairman Ed Mitchell, recalling the little hope the U.S. Customs Department gave him for getting his little patch of former cotton fields approved as a foreign trade zone.

FTZ designation gives user companies a major savings on customs duties. Alabama had no FTZs at the time, 1980.

In the run up to what would become a failed 1980 bid for re-election, President Jimmy Carter sent his son Chip to Huntsville on a vote-trolling junket, Mitchell recalled, in our first issue of Business Alabama, January, 1986.  

Chip Carter sat down with Mitchell “in an orange plastic booth at Gibson’s Barbecue, over eggs, grits and biscuits” and promised to put Mitchell’s FTZ proposal on the bedside reading table of the president. 

Ten days later, U.S. Customs officials approved Mitchell’s application, provisionally. Huntsville had two years to meet a minimum trade volume.

Still lagging in 1982, the Alabama congressional delegation lobbied for a one-year extension. A strong sales effort boosted usage in 1983 by 50 percent, enough to win final approval. 

Mitchell said FTZ status was key to a comprehensive development plan for the airport that included an intermodal cargo handling facility and industrial park, as well as passenger service. All three elements are part of today’s bustling Port of Huntsville. And the FTZ, which extends over the 1,300 acres of the industrial park, makes the Huntsville FTZ, the 51st authorized in the U.S., one of the larger zones in the country.

Teledyne Brown Engineering and Boeing Co. were two of the earliest tenants of the park. Two years later, Chrysler Corp. chose it as the site for a 3,000-employee electronics plant. 

Chrysler Electronics City did not outlast the century. The sprawling plant, however, became a major asset in recruiting Remington Outdoor, now overhauling the site for occupancy by more than 2,000 workers.  

Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.

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