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Magnificent Dreams and Harebrained Schemes

Not every great notion pans out to gold. The ones that do, we too quickly take for granted, forgetting the risks involved in their inception. The great visions that fail are too quickly forgotten, skipping over some memorable folly.

 Talladega Superspeedway

 

 

It was no great surprise when NASCAR founder Bill France, who was always looking for new challenges, decided in the late 1960s to build a race track bigger and faster than his crown jewel creation, Daytona International Speedway. What was surprising was his choice of location: a soybean field in rural Alabama, more than 40 miles from the nearest large city.

“Being out so far from anything was questioned by a lot of people,” current Talladega Superspeedway Chairman Grant Lynch says. “They wondered how you could have that size of a facility in the middle of nowhere.”

But France was convinced that if a track that big were built, then people would come no matter where it was located. So he teamed up with local officials to secure a 2,000-acre site just off I-20 near the town of Eastaboga. France then oversaw the construction of a 2.66-mile trioval with 33-degree banking in the corners. A track that was longer, wider and—most importantly—faster than Daytona.

It was so fast, in fact, that drivers questioned whether the track was safe, and many of them boycotted the first race in 1969. But France held that race with replacement drivers, and eventually Talladega Superspeedway became one of the most popular tracks in NASCAR because of the high speeds and close competition. The track has enough grandstand seating for approximately 140,000 people, and the expansive infield can accommodate thousands more. —CE

Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail 

Photo by Michael Clemmer

Roger Rulewich was in Ireland when he received an urgent call from golf course architect Robert Trent Jones saying, “There’s something going on in Alabama. I think you’d better get there.”

And what could possibly be so important to entice Rulewich to leave Ireland, where golf is woven into the national fabric, and go to Alabama? Well, it seems the CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, David Bronner, had come up with the idea of creating not 18 holes of golf but 18 courses, built on seven sites stretching from Huntsville to Mobile. A literal trail of golf. Nothing quite like it had ever been attempted, and Alabama seemed like a curious place to try.

“There was some disbelief that (Bronner) wanted to build as much golf as he did,” recalls Rulewich, who was Jones’ lead course designer at the time. “This was absolutely an incredible, incredible dream.”

Twenty years later, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail has expanded to 26 courses on 11 sites. It is widely considered to be one of the most successful achievements in the golf industry and has become one of the state’s top tourist attractions. Approximately 540,000 people played golf on a Trail course in 2010.

“It’s so difficult to do things that people want to criticize,” Bronner says. “This is something other states don’t have, and it has provided Alabama with the ability to expand tourism and recruit industry.” —CE

Riverchase Galleria 

You know you are dealing with an ambitious project when you take an idea that originated in Texas—where they say everything is bigger—and decide to make it even larger.

That is what Jim Wilson & Associates did in the 1980s with the creation of the Riverchase Galleria mall. The facility was modeled after two sprawling structures in Texas that were also called The Galleria—the original in Houston and another in Dallas. Both were mixed-use developments that combined retail stores, office space and a hotel.

While those two Gallerias were originally less than a million square feet in size, the Riverchase Galleria clocked in at 1.2 million square feet when it opened in 1986, making it at the time the largest mall in the Southeast.

“The sheer size of the project was daunting,” says Carl Bartlett, executive vice president for Jim Wilson & Associates. “No one really understood just how big it was going to be.”

Even the clay model of the project was huge. When Bartlett and other executives traveled to pitch the idea to potential tenants, the model had to be transported in a refrigerated truck. “That was the biggest model I’d ever seen, and we carried that thing all over the country,” Bartlett says.

The Riverchase Galleria has since expanded to 2.4 million square feet, with more than 200 stores and restaurants.

“If you tried to build that today, the cost would drive you crazy,” Bartlett says. “Nobody is going to build another one like it in Alabama.” —CE

The Summit 

It was a plot of land at one of the busiest spots in Alabama, the interchange of U.S. 280 and the I-459 bypass south of Birmingham. Developers had long eyed the property but never could figure out what to do with it. That’s because it was perched high atop a steep hill, with limited access points. What could be built there that would generate enough revenue to justify the costs?

When a barely 10-year-old company called Bayer Properties proposed placing an outdoor mall on the site, there were considerable questions. How were they going to build a mall of any significance on the side of a hill? Who was going to shop outdoors? And perhaps most importantly, could a young company that had never attempted such an ambitious project actually pull it off?

“There was a great deal of skepticism. We heard a lot of comments about whether this was going to work,” recalls Bayer principal David Silverstein. “But we had a dream, and we held true to what we believed in.”

Bayer commissioned a traffic engineer to study the impact that creating a four-lane boulevard through the middle of the property would have on access. He concluded that it would open things up enough that the site could conveniently handle a million square feet of retail. That enabled Bayer to convince the city of Birmingham to build the public infrastructure.

The end result was The Summit, which opened in 1997 and remains the flagship development in the Bayer portfolio.—CE

Alabama Shakespeare Festival 

In 1985, construction magnate Wynton Blount gave Alabama “such stuff as dreams are made on” with the creation of a $21.5 million facility to house the Alabama Shakespeare Festival on 250 acres of property he owned in Montgomery.

The original ASF was located in a high school auditorium in Anniston. Founded in 1972 by Martin Platt, the first Festival offered little more than six weeks of summer theater. It survived for more than a decade, but by the mid-1980s was facing bankruptcy.

At the urging of his wife, Carolyn, Blount provided what was at the time the largest donation ever made to an American theater and relocated ASF to Montgomery. The 100,000-square-foot facility includes two theaters with a total of nearly 1,000 seats, as well as production shops and rehearsal halls.

“There was no focus group, no study,” current ASF Chief Operating Officer Michael Vigilant says. “It was just this beautiful building that he gave and said, ‘Here it is. Take care of it.’”

The ASF has thrived in its new home, with more than 300,000 visitors every year. The Festival presents 14 productions annually, from Shakespeare and other classical plays to modern musicals and new productions.

“We’re like the Green Bay Packers of theater,” Vigilant says. “We’re in a small market, but we’re a big-league team. All of us who work here feel as if we’re caretakers of something very special.” —CE

Cummings Research Park 

Photo by Dennis Keim

If your goal is to reach for the stars, literally, then no dream seems too big. That was the attitude Wernher von Braun had while heading up the fledgling space program in Huntsville in the 1950s. With an influx of true rocket scientists and other aerospace experts coming to the area, von Braun envisioned a place where all these technological minds could work together.

The eventual result was Cummings Research Park (originally Huntsville Research Park), a 4,000-acre campus that opened in 1962 near the Marshall Space Flight Center. Today the park is home to nearly 300 companies that employ approximately 25,000 workers. It is one of Huntsville’s crown jewels, though initially there were plenty of skeptics.

“This was an agricultural community, not a high-tech center,” says John Southerland, current director of CRP. “Dr. von Braun was talking about changing the world, and how every rocket launched should have a sticker saying, ‘Made in Huntsville, Alabama.’  That was just crazy talk to a lot of people around here.”

But not to Milton Cummings, president of Brown Engineering. He helped secure the original tract of land, and Brown Engineering was the park’s first private company. After Cummings died in 1973, the park was renamed in his honor.

“We have communities all over the country asking us how Cummings Research Park was set up. They all want to do one now,” Southerland says. “But it takes a lot of vision and patience to be able to do something like this.”  —CE

Tennessee Valley Authority 

The United States government has owned land along the Tennessee River in northern Alabama since World War I, when it planned to build two nitrate plants powered by an adjacent hydroelectric facility to produce a key ingredient for explosives. But the war ended before the facilities could begin production, and for the next 15 years debate ensued about what to do with the property.

Henry Ford made an offer for the land and promised to make Muscle Shoals the Detroit of the South, a proposal that intrigued many locals. But Sen. George W. Norris of Nebraska wanted the public sector to control the development of the region’s many natural resources. So he proposed a plan to unify development all along the Tennessee River.

But debate continued until the Great Depression and President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal prompted an increase in federal projects. Roosevelt declared, “We will make Muscle Shoals a part of an even greater development that will take in all the Tennessee River from the mountains of Virginia to the Ohio River. … We will tie industry, agriculture, forestry, and flood control into one great development.”

And so in 1933, the Tennessee Valley Authority Act was passed. Today the TVA is the nation’s largest public power company and one of only a handful of New Deal agencies still in operation. TVA currently employs 2,800 people in Alabama. Since 1995, it has invested nearly $32.2 million in economic development loans to Alabama industries. —CE

Foley Beach Express 

Every second counts when the beach is so close travelers can literally taste salt in the air, and that’s how Tim James knew his vision 16 years ago to create an Alabama Highway 59 bypass in southern Baldwin County would succeed.

“It always made sense to us that if people could save time (driving), they’d pay for it,” says James, the Greenville businessman and former gubernatorial candidate, who with his brother and business partner entered into an agreement with Orange Beach in 2004 to build a toll bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway.

The trio had long discussed a project of such magnitude, but it didn’t coalesce until James’ brother was stuck in beach-bound traffic on 59. That’s when he and his partner sat down and sketched out what would become the Foley Beach Express and eventual toll road on a $3 Baldwin County map “over a cup of gumbo and a beer.”

Today, the 13.5-mile limited access four-lane route links Foley to Orange Beach, Gulf Shores and Perdido Key. James and his team constructed the bridge and approaching 5.5-mile stretch with private funds, while $7.5 million in federal transit funds was used by the city of Foley to construct the 59 bypass.

“Our biggest obstacle was fighting a time in the market with very little appetite to lend to new toll roads. But we pulled this together and built it in 13 months from start to finish,” says James, who sold the private toll bridge portion in 2006 for about $70 million. —KD

Redstone Gateway 

Redstone Gateway, after complete buildout, will look something like this Pentagon area park by COPT.

The 2005 Base Realignment and Closure changes are bringing thousands of jobs to Huntsville and developers are reacting in kind — with a $1 billion, 486-parcel development called Redstone Gateway that will offer 4.6 million square feet of office space, two hotels, limited service-based retail operations and an academic campus, when it’s complete in 15 to 20 years.

Montgomery-based Jim Wilson & Associates LLC has teamed with Corporate Office Properties Trust, based in Maryland, on the project.

“Redstone Gateway did not necessarily have nay sayers,” said Carl Bartlett, senior VP at Jim Wilson, “but it was recognized as a complicated development process. The number of steps, coupled with the number of parties whose involvement was required, made the work challenging... Now, several years later, after a lot of extra effort by everyone involved, the project has a definitive first building and an outstanding future.” —KD

Bankhead and Wallace Tunnels 

Photo from collection of the Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of South Alabama.

Most of what they built over at the Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Co. was designed to float—commercial and military ships that were the pride of Mobile for years. But two big projects were sunk from the beginning—the Bankhead and Wallace tunnels that run beneath the Mobile River, connecting the city with its neighbors over the Bay.

The Encyclopedia of Alabama tells how the first of the two, the Bankhead that carries U.S. 90, was built as a Works Progress Administration project back in the late 1930s. Seven 300-foot chunks of tunnel were built in the company’s dry docks, hauled into place, sunk, connected underwater, sealed and pumped dry.

After World War II and several years of ship repair, workers at ADDSCO turned back to tunnel construction, building the wider Wallace tunnel that carries Interstate-10 beneath the river and onto a bridge to the east.

Built with federal dollars and employing Mobile workers, the projects fulfilled big dreams without so much local risk. And now the locals are dreaming again—this time of a bridge that would span the Mobile River, linking Mobile and Baldwin counties. —KD

Dauphin Island 

Photo from collection of the Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of South Alabama.

Dauphin Island’s permanent residents have been thumbing their noses at pesky little annoyances such as hurricanes and oil spills for centuries.

“We talk a lot about controlled or managed growth because the people here want (it) to pretty much stay like it is. It’s been here for more than 300 years, and these are some of the most resilient people you will ever meet,” says Mayor Jeff Collier.

Although the town itself wasn’t incorporated until 1988, the barrier island’s sporadic inhabitation began centuries earlier.

The 14-mile island’s dizzying development in the 1950s set the stage for it to become a modern-day tourist and nature lover’s respite, with the Mobile Chamber of Commerce putting 1,500 island lots up for sale in 1953 to raise the funds for a bridge to connect the barrier island with the mainland. The connecting bridge was completed in 1955, and the following year the Isle Dauphine and Beach Casino were completed. By 1962, the first nine holes of the golf course opened, just four years after the Riviera Motel—later purchased by Holiday Inn—opened its doors.

Mother Nature, however, has toyed with the grand plans—wiping out the bridge that’s since been rebuilt, breaking the island in two and commonly shifting the sands into new configurations. And BP’s oil wasn’t much help. But the island continues to draw homeowners and tourists who are content to enjoy their slice of paradise without the traffic of their more developed Baldwin County counterparts —KD

George C. Marshall Space Flight Center 

Marshall Space Flight Center oversees hardware design and science missions on the International Space Shuttle. 

Standing in the exact spot where only nine months earlier cotton fields had been traded for ambitions of reaching the cosmos, President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke the following words on Sept. 8, 1960, solidifying Huntsville’s rightful place as the future Rocket City:

“All that we have already accomplished, and all in the future that we shall achieve, is the outgrowth not of a soulless, barren technology, nor of a grasping state imperialism. Rather, it is the product of unrestrained human talent and energy restlessly probing for the betterment of humanity…In this fact is proof once again that hard work, toughness of spirit, and self-reliant enterprise are not mere catchwords of an era dead and gone. ”

Few facilities in Alabama can boast such ringing endorsements on opening day, but Eisenhower’s commissioning of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration sealed the role of Huntsville’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in everything from the space shuttle program and cutting-edge launch vehicles to spacecraft development and 21st-century scientific probes.

Marshall historian Mike Wright says the facility’s fate was actually determined nearly 11 years earlier when two German-born and five American rocket scientists spent “four days rummaging through a nearly abandoned government arsenal” that would ultimately support the development of the U.S. Army’s “first heavy ballistic missile…, rockets that would launch America’s first satellite…, and the first American…into space.” —KD

Alabama State Port Authority/State Docks 

Photo from collection of the Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of South Alabama.

Mobile has been the conduit for Alabama trade for centuries—round about 1850 it ranked second only to New Orleans as a port shipping cotton to Europe. But it took a shipload of convincing to get the state to pitch in on the cost of improvements that could keep Mobile competitive when the last sternwheeler had paddled its way into retirement.

The state created a port authority in 1922, providing capital for improvements like new wharves, terminals, grain elevators and docks.

The next year, they brought in Gadsden native William Sibert, fresh from his Army chores on the Panama Canal, service in World War I and leadership of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Now a civilian, Sibert was asked to create a modern port in Mobile.

Nearly a century later, the Port did some more serious risk taking. Since 2005, more than $500 million has been pumped into overhauling the facilities, with an eye to capturing more and bigger ships once the Panama Canal expansion is complete in 2014, says Jimmy Lyons, director of the Alabama State Port Authority.

Recent Docks upgrades include:

  • The $110 million Pinto Terminal that moves raw steel upriver to ThyssenKrupp, a key to the steelmaker’s selection of Alabama.
  • $110 million investment at the McDuffie Coal Terminal that helps Alabama coal producers compete in the global economy.
  • International Shipholding Inc.’s $28 million rail ferry terminal that moves goods to Mexico some 20 days faster than overland routes.
  • The $33 million, 1,175-foot turning basin that allows larger vessels to access the Port, which received it’s first Post-Panamax container ship in June. — KD

Container Ships 

State Docks.

Photo by Dan Anderson

Credited with revolutionizing the shipping world in 1956, Mobilian Malcolm McLean was ironically thinking “outside the box” when he conceived the idea of container shipping—putting goods inside a box and leaving them there—that has become a hallmark of modern-day logistics.

The shift began after McLean spent 20 years as a trucker, negotiating the awkward loading and unloading of irregular shaped pallets and crates. He bought Waterman Steamship Co. and revolutionized cargo transport by developing containerized shipping—loading stocked containers directly onto ships rather than unloading the transport trailers and reloading the vessels.

More than 50 years later, the Alabama State Port Authority operates a $300 million marine container facility that—when opened in 2008—quadrupled capacity to more than 130,000 containers and contributed to the creation of more than 67,000 jobs.

And construction is under way for a $112 million intermodal rail facility in McCalla, designed to capitalize directly on the port’s five Class-1 railroads. Specifically, under a deal with Norfolk Southern, containers will move into the proposed McCalla facility on an existing Norfolk Southern rail line that originates at the state’s port instead of along Interstate-65 via truck.

According to the World Shipping Council, containerships by 2006 carried about 60 percent of the value of all goods shipped via sea.

It’s no wonder, then, McLean was honored by the International Maritime Hall of Fame as the “Man of the Century” in 2000. —KD

Memorable Alabama follies—starting with one that swept the nation…ending with one that could have put us on the map in China.  

 Henry's Got a Deal for You!

 

 

When the First World War came to an end in 1918, the U.S. War Department had spent $130 million on two unfinished nitrate plants to make explosives. They were on the Tennessee River near Muscle Shoals and were to be powered by two hydroelectric dams.

Complete the job and build a national war stockpile, said some. Turn swords into plowshares—nitrates into fertilizer, not bombs—said others. 

Then, in 1921, came President Warren G. Harding, an enthusiast for the privatization of public assets and head of one of the most corrupt administrations in U.S. history. The Muscle Shoals site was up for sale, he announced.

Quick to answer the call was industrial icon Henry Ford, who rolled into the Shoals on a much ballyhooed train junket. “The destiny of the American people for centuries to come lies here at Muscle Shoals,” Ford proclaimed. Then he announced what he was willing to pay for America’s destiny: 3.5 cents on the dollar, $5 million.

Full terms of the deal were that he would complete the plant and dam projects, hold a lease on them for the rest of the century, and produce fertilizer for American farmers at a profit of no more than 8 percent. Speculators began carving up the Shoals farmlands even before Ford’s formal proposal hit the desk of the secretary of war.

Sen. George Norris, a progressive Republican Senator from Nebraska—head of the Agriculture and Forestry Committee—saw Ford’s offer as a rip. He said it was the worst real estate deal “since Adam and Eve lost title to the Garden of Eden.”

In 1923 Harding died in office after a bout of food poisoning and gut wrenching scandals by his Ohio Gang of political cronies.

In 1924 Ford withdrew his Muscle Shoals offer. A bill by Norris to complete the Shoals projects as a public investment got nowhere, until 1933, when legislation by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt turned the dream into the Tennessee Valley Authority. —CM

Fleeting Ferries on the Bay

Austal-built, 69-meter fast ferry sold to Saudi Arabia

The notion of cutting the travel time of commuters crossing Mobile Bay by providing them with modern car ferries traveling at high speeds was first and most fervently promoted by former Mobile Mayor Mike Dow. The four-term mayor (1989-2005) was inspired by the handiwork of Australian shipbuilder Austal, whose North American headquarters are on the Mobile River in downtown Mobile. Austal makes large, catamaran-style high speed ferries that it sells around the world.

The problem for a middling-sized city like Mobile is that these 40-meter and larger vessels cost upwards of $5 million, and it would take several to put a dent in the surface flow of traffic between Mobile and Baldwin counties along I-10.

In 2004, the South Alabama Regional Planning Commission found that the concept would qualify for federal transportation funding, but Mobile couldn’t get a city on the other side of the bay to commit to the funding for further studies.

In 2008, stimulus dollars might have funded the fast ferries, but cities balked again at coming up with the expensive environmental impact study that was required. And cities by then were running out of money.

Dow bowed out of mayoral politics in 2005, leaving the high-speed ferry concept still a part of the city’s long-range plans. In 2006, the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce included the concept as part of a regional summit called Envision Coastal Alabama. But the great recession has made it seem an elusive dream from a more irrationally exuberant age. —CM

Great Air Bubble 

Birmingham leaders have long hoped the state’s largest city could become an airline hub. The thinking went: Big hubs like Atlanta or Memphis can’t handle projected growth in air travel, so a network of subsidiary hubs will have to evolve.

Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington put airport expansion and planning for hub status on his list of aspirations in the mid-’80s. Gov. Guy Hunt latched onto the idea shortly after he took office as governor in 1987.

Bill Armistead, Hunt’s top economic advisor, was point man for the project. He got the FAA to agreed to pay 80 percent of $430,000 the state had spent for a feasibility study. Finished in 1989—the year Hunt was running for re-election—the study found there was enough potential to keep on studying.

After four years of resistance, the Legislature established the Alabama International Airport Authority in 1991. The next year, the authority landed $800,000 in FAA funding for a site study, the scope of which was political magic: 10 possible sites, reaching out and touching most of the state.

The list was narrowed to two sites in 1993: Buxahatchee, in Chilton County, and a site near Gadsden, in St. Clair County. That same year, Hunt was convicted of illegally using campaign and inaugural funds to pay personal debts and was plucked from office.

Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. took over as governor and airport decider.

The city of Birmingham, sore losers, began boosting a big airport expansion that could put them back in the race—a scheme that included bulldozing 2,000 homes and businesses and building a tunnel to run 1st Avenue under a runway.

In 1994, Folsom announced the site selection winner was St. Clair County. The Airport Authority came up with a master plan calling for the new airport to begin as a 21-gate facility costing $470 million, then expanding, by 2015, to 125 gates, for another $996 million.

Just months later, the FAA burst the Alabama airport bubble. There was no need for a new or expanded international airport in Alabama, they said. Federal funds stopped and the vision vanished. —CM

A Mighty Sports Dome Decreed 

The idea that Birmingham could float a half billion dollar domed football stadium started being pumped back in the mid-’80s, after a conversation between Alabama football coach Ray Perkins and state Rep. John Rogers.

That’s how Rogers recounted it to Business Alabama in November 2004, as the almost 20-year-old pipe dream floated up for a final reality check.

“Perkins thought it was a great idea but he wanted it between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. I never thought it should be anywhere but downtown Birmingham, because I saw it right away as an economic development tool,” Rogers told the magazine in 2004.

Rogers introduced several bills in the Legislature to get state backing in the ’80s, but nothing budged. Not until the Southeastern Conference announced, in 1994, that it was moving the SEC Championship game and its $20 million economic impact from Legion Field in Birmingham to Atlanta’s shiny new Georgia Dome.

A four-year campaign to whip up local support for a Birmingham dome climaxed with a 1998 referendum by Jefferson County voters on a tax package that showcased the domed stadium as the centerpiece of the Metropolitan Area Projects Strategy (MAPS). Voters’ rejection was overwhelming.

Dome boosters then went underground, quietly rebuilding enthusiasm among civic and business leaders and trying not to raise headlines and taxpayer hackles. As late as 2004, the Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau was pushing for the domed stadium as the biggest component of an expansion of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.

That grand vision has since been reduced to a $70 million public investment adjacent to the adjacent to the convention complex. —CM

Côte d’Azur on the Bayou 

In April 2005, Tim James—co-developer of the Foley Beach Express—surprised a lot of folks with a proposal to turn Bayou La Batre into a “coastal French village.”

The 226-year-old little city in south Mobile County does have a French name and a French colonial heritage. But it’s a working stiff backwater, not a Mediterranean beach resort—shipyards, shrimp boats, processing sheds, canneries crammed along a black water bayou.

Erase that and sketch in motor yachts and stucco condos. That’s what James and his partners had in mind when they went around buying up options, stirring the waters.

Then nature and the natives intervened.

Hurricane Katrina hit in August that year, giving the locals pause for thought and an influx of disaster relief. No longer was the Bayou so poor as to depend on an outside developer for an upgrade to the sewer system. Federal disaster funds covered the ticket.

A group of residents solicited a study by the Urban Planning Institute that ended up advising a softer approach. It advised the Bayou to cultivate ecotourism and support traditional fishing enterprises.

James told the Mobile Press-Register he wished the Bayou residents the best but the think tank plan was “pie in the sky.”  “What Bayou La Batre needs isn’t grand schemes, but capital. Money,” he said.

James has let the idea slide since then, though he said again, in 2006, he thought his project was still a good idea.

And that other dream for Bayou la Batre—the dream of being an ecotourism destination—got dispersed, too. At least till the last of the BP oil spill is gone for good. —CM

Automotive Vapors 

In September 2009, Hybrid Kinetic Motors Chairman Yung Yeung announced plans for a $1.5 billion plant in Baldwin County that would employ 6,000 workers producing some 300,000 hybrid cars a year by 2014.

Gov. Bob Riley and state and local economic development officials duly saluted and greeted the Hong Kong automotive mogul.

Officials in Mississippi did the same a few months earlier for GreenTech Automotive, another Hong Kong company with ties to HK Motors, that announced plans for a $2 billion plant near Tunica—a plant with 4,500 workers making 250,000 hybrid cars a year.

Neither plant ever broke ground. Industry analysts said from the start the promises were too good to be true. The U.S. market for hybrid vehicles is only 2 percent, and the world’s number one hybrid manufacturer, Toyota, had just shelved plans for a hybrid plant in 2007.

Charles Child, an editor with Detroit-based Automotive News, said HK’s proposed Alabama plant was “a visa factory” designed to let wealthy Chinese invest as little as $500,000 in return for a permanent green card.

The Baldwin County Commission got stuck with a 3,000-acre industrial site it had optioned. —CM

Kelli Dugan and Cary Estes are a freelance writers for Business Alabama. Kelli lives in Mobile and Cary in Birmingham. Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.

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