Inside Story: How Huntsville landed the nation’s top job-creation project

single-meta-cal January 10, 2018

Mayor Tommy Battle won’t likely forget the past holiday season any time soon. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, for hours on end, he and his economic development team were tethered to cell phones, huddled in conference calls and spent many a night reading laborious technical documents until the wee hours before dawn.

You could say they were waiting for a Christmas miracle.

At stake was the deal of the decade. Toyota and Mazda’s national search began in August to select a site for their newest joint venture, a $1.6 billion investment in a shared automotive manufacturing facility. It would bring 4,000 jobs with an annual payroll in excess of $200 million.

Santa Claus couldn’t have brought a better gift.


Huntsville was one of eleven locations to make the short list among an elite group of cities in much wealthier states, and the pressure was on to select a finalist before the end of the year.

“A project of this size would typically take 12 to 14 months to complete, but we had about four months to come up with all of the requisite information,” said Shane Davis, Director of Urban Development for the City of Huntsville.

Added Davis, who has managed numerous successful projects for the City, “It was one of the most intense negotiating periods I have experienced.”

Even so, Davis says Huntsville was prepared for the pitch, and he correctly surmised that only a handful of cities would be able to compete for a project of this magnitude.

“It’s an orchestration of players that stepped up when needed. Instead of saying ‘no, we can’t do that,’ they looked for solutions. When there were questions, they brought answers.”

“We already had a game plan to attract a landmark regional workforce production project,” Davis said. “We had taken the long view and invested in our western growth corridor so that when an opportunity like this came knocking on our door, we’d be ready.”

A big part of Huntsville’s game plan centered on creating a TVA-certified megasite on 1,252 acres of farmland in the City’s annexed portions of Limestone County. Davis credits the vision of Mayor Battle for leading that effort.

“The Mayor saw the possibilities in this rapidly expanding area and understood what it could mean to have a shovel-ready site as an economic catalyst for jobs in North Alabama,” said Davis.

The art of preparation

Even without the megasite, recruiters say a community must have the following essential ingredients to attract business: good schools from kindergarten through post-graduate; strong infrastructure in roads, utilities, and more recently, high-speed broadband; skilled workforce; and a robust quality of life.

Industries tick off the boxes on that checklist before they will even consider a community. Huntsville’s strength in all of the necessary sectors has resulted in tremendous success in recent years with company announcements from Aerojet Rocketdyne, Blue Origin, Remington, Polaris, and GE Aviation.

“All those companies have come here because we can provide them with an educated workforce and a place where people want to be,” said Mayor Battle. “We can also make sure they can profit, not only this year but in 5, 10, 15 and 20 years because we have put in all of the foundations and building blocks for their future to be a success.”

For the Mayor and his team, it’s not just about sealing the deal. It’s about having business-friendly processes in place to support a company’s need to be up and running as soon as possible.

When negotiations concluded in early January on the Toyota-Mazda project, the site had doubled to 2,400 acres. The companies expressed a target date of 2021 to be operational. There are development agreements to be finalized by respective governments, design and architectural plans reviewed and approved, and a mind-numbing list of needs that will keep Huntsville’s team hopping for months to come.

“Getting permitted, constructed and to market with the speed a company desires is critical,” said Davis. “We have a good team in City Hall that has proven time and time again how to get business to market. This is another one of Huntsville’s great strengths.”

Return on investment

Attracting an automotive Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) is considered the gold medal in industry recruitment. With this project, Huntsville earned two OEMs.

Even with the typical incentives and tax abatements permitted by law, a standard expectation on any given project site, Alabama’s Department of Commerce projects the Toyota-Mazda plant will contribute nearly $1 billion in net revenue to the state over the next 20 years – a 284 percent return on investment (ROI).

“In two and a half years, once the cars start rolling out, the economic impact is immediate,” said Davis. “This is far more than revenue from property taxes and wages. There are dozens of impacts, including suppliers that are still to come. The tentacles of this project will reach deep into the region and across the state to create a tenfold multiplier effect.”

Limestone County Commission Chair Mark Yarbrough agrees. “I’m a mathematician, and even I can’t calculate the tremendous long-term impact this project will have on North Alabama,” he said.

There’s no ‘i’ in teamwork

Huntsville’s economic development team, led by Mayor Battle, includes the Chamber of Commerce and regional and state partners. He believes their dedication and willingness to set egos aside and work as a team sets them apart from other cities.

To finalize a project of this magnitude is very complex, according to City Attorney Trey Riley.

“There are dozens of facets to deal with and it’s imperative to have a team that understands all those facets and can act quickly,” said Riley. “The public must have the confidence that they have elected leaders that know how to work together, negotiate and protect their interests while still bringing something special to the community.”

An obsessive attention to detail is critical throughout the negotiation process because the margins between finishing first and coming in second are razor thin.

“It’s the difference between winning and losing. It’s the reason we willingly sacrificed time with our families over the holidays to get it right,” said Davis.

All those involved in the time-lapsed negotiations over the past months describe the process as both demanding and challenging but also one forged by deep bonds and connections.

“It’s an orchestration of players that stepped up when needed. Instead of saying ‘no, we can’t do that,’ they looked for solutions. When there were questions, they brought answers,” said Mayor Battle.

In the end, it takes a regional team of counties and municipal governments pulling the wagon in the same direction without caring who is up front.

“Everyone says let’s go,” said Davis. “There aren’t a lot of areas across the country that can do that. Governments are competitive across districts lines, and when it comes to large government projects in Huntsville, we don’t see any lines.”

READ about the Toyota-Mazda announcement