|Paris: Leveraging the assets
Economic development officials from the region left the Paris air show optimistic that
all the work elevating the Gulf Coast’s aerospace profile on the international stage is
Nathan Sparks couldn’t help but feel a huge rush of pride when he saw the cutting-
edge F-35 roar skyward during its first public aerial demonstration at the Paris Air
Show in June.
To Sparks, the fifth-generation stealth fighter that wowed the international crowd at
the historic Paris airport represented not only the United States and its military
prowess, but home.
Sparks leads economic development efforts in Northwest Florida’s Okaloosa County,
home of Eglin Air Force Base, which trains F-35 pilots and maintainers and has two F-
35 reprogramming labs. The first F-35 arrived at Eglin in 2011, and Sparks can’t help
but feel an affinity for the fighter that’s now part of the fabric of Okaloosa County.
The 2017 Paris Air Show, held June 17-23, drew 2,381 exhibitors from 48 countries.
There were 140 aircraft exhibited and 45 performed flying displays. There were 290
official delegations from 98 countries and 3,450 accredited journalists from 67
countries. The activities drew 180,000 general public visitors and 142,000 trade
The air show is an international stage where companies hawk their products and
services and where economic development professionals go to pitch their city,
county, metro area, region or state as a great place to do business.
The whole exercise is understandable. Economic development officials target
aerospace and aviation because it’s a multibillion-dollar sector with international
players. Workers in the field are highly paid, and they’re involves in a host of
occupations, from engineers and pilots to mechanics and baggage handlers. And
Paris, as well as the Farnborough Air Show in London on alternate years, provide an
opportunity to meet with a wide range of company officials at a central location.
Sparks was one of the officials from the Gulf Coast I-10 region who went to the show
with the aim of growing their aerospace footprint. In addition to Northwest Florida,
there were representatives from South Alabama, South Mississippi, Southeast
Louisiana and their respective states.
Sparks, executive director of the Economic Development Council of Okaloosa
County, doesn’t just have the F-35 at Eglin to brag about. The base also has a huge
RDT&E operation that focuses on air-delivered weaponry. It hosts operations from
some of the biggest names in aerospace and defense, including Lockheed Martin
and Boeing. The county is also the home of Hurlburt Field, home of the U.S. Air
Force Special Operations Command.
Sparks, who went to his first aerospace trade show in 2000, said that early on it was
still a matter of getting the word out about Okaloosa County. Now the county and Gulf
Coast region are much better known, and the investment appears to be paying off.
“This was, I believe, our most successful event. The way I define success is, if we
have the opportunity to interface in a meaningful way with decision maker and if we
get a favorable response … so absolutely yes, it was successful,” he said.
The meetings were with high level executives, and even board chairmen. They were
receptive to learning more about Northwest Florida, he said.
“It’s clear that all of the effort that our region has gone through over the last several
years appears to be resonating,” he said, noting there’s already a good deal of
awareness about the region. “While they didn’t all have projects, many of them did
give us some insight which could have a bearing on our region,” he said. “Some were
pretty direct … Some have already resulted in proposals.”
Bill Cork also has significant aerospace activities in his South Mississippi county,
where he’s the head of economic development. Hancock County hosts NASA’s
Stennis Space Center, the largest rocket engine test facility in the country. The
center is drawing the interest of a new breed of commercial space companies
attracted to the idea of using assets that are already in place. So he was busy.
“I had 20 prearranged meetings spread out over three days,” said Cork, executive
director of the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission. A third of his meetings
were with aerospace businesses already working in South Mississippi or elsewhere in
the state; the rest were with prospects.
Of those, half were commercial space companies, in particular the companies that
are involved in heavy lift activities. The others were an assortment involved in parts
and aerospace supplies.
In addition to hosting SSC, the county also has an airport just outside the gates of
SSC. Stennis International Airport is used by many SSC operations, including Rolls-
Royce, which uses it to transport jet engines it tests at its outdoor facility at SSC.
The airport is also the location of the Joint Airborne Lidar Bathymetry Center, which
does airborne littoral mapping, Optech, which builds advanced lidar, and Tyonek, the
former Selex Galileo, which does avionics work.
While Cork didn’t leave with any signed deals, he left optimistic about the potential for
Hancock County, which is just across the state line from NASA’s Michoud Assembly
Facility in New Orleans.
“Our existing companies have significant growth plans,” Cork said. “With respect to
commercial space, it’s the Wild, Wild West right now. There’s a lot of activity, a lot of
investment and movement.”
And suppliers? “What we’re seeing, I think most significant, is the flight to a low-cost
environment. Many are looking at relocating from high-cost areas to the Southeast.
We seem to be meeting favorably with their needs.”
He understands events like Paris are part of an investment in the future. The
Mississippi Gulf Coast Alliance for Economic Development, which represents three
coastal counties -- Hancock, Harrison and Jackson -- has had a presence at the air
shows for more than a decade.
“We not only pitch Hancock County, but all of South Mississippi. It’s a continuous
The county has had some recent wins. Aerojet Rocketdyne, a long-time tenant at
SSC, in July 2016 said assembly and testing of its AR1 rocket would be done at its
Center of Excellence for Large Liquid Rocket Engine Assembly and Test facility at
SSC. More recently, Relativity Space began testing engines at Stennis Space
Center. And Cork hinted at what may come down the road.
“There’s more like it in the market. We can’t talk about a lot of the activity, but there
are limited test facilities,” he said, and SSC has plenty. “Our optimism is well above
average,” he said.
Don Pierson, Secretary of Louisiana Economic Development, headed up the team
from his state at the Paris Air Show. He said it’s “always one of our key international
events for LED and our economic development partners in Louisiana.”
The reason the state is so active in aerospace circles - it also has a presence at the
Farnborough air show and MRO conferences - is because it’s one of nine key
industries where the state has a strong presence or strong growth opportunities.
“In the case of aerospace, it’s both. We’re strong now, and we see great potential for
the future of aerospace in Louisiana,” he said.
In Paris, Louisiana pursued major and minor component suppliers for aircraft,
rotorcraft and space flight. Two representatives of Michoud Assembly Facility were
part of the Louisiana group, and there were attendees from Chennault International
Airport as well as the Shreveport Airport Authority.
“Michoud Assembly Facility continues to impress, with Boeing ramping up production
of SLS components. Michoud has some green space available that provides
excellent growth potential,” he said.
“We have an intriguing pipeline of prospects that we’ve been accruing over time, at
many air shows and prospect-specific visits to headquarters and operational sites,”
“We came back from Paris enthused, and ready to hit the airstrips and hangars and
the corporate boardrooms that power them,” he said.
Bill Sisson, president and CEO of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, is in a city
that has had a string of successes when it comes to attracting aerospace companies.
The effort to attract aerospace to Mobile, particularly the former Brookley Air Force
Base that closed in the ‘60s, was well underway when Airbus said in 2012 that it
would open an A320 final assembly line at the former base, now called Mobile
Aeroplex. Suppliers followed.
The assembly line was the third Airbus operation in Mobile. Earlier the city landed
Airbus Military at Mobile Regional Airport, where it operates an MRO. Mobile later
landed an Airbus Engineering center, which is located at the Mobile Aeroplex.
And Mobile is far from done.
Sisson was among 15 people who went to the air show to represent Mobile and
Baldwin counties. He said that in the past they had to pull out a map to show where
Mobile is located, but that’s not the case today.
“That’s always the most pleasant thing to experience,” said Sisson, who was the
executive director of the Mobile Airport Authority during the bid to land Airbus. “We
are a known entity now because of Airbus.”
He said there is still room at the Mobile Aeroplex, as well as other locations in and
around Mobile. Nearby Baldwin County, where UTC Aerospace does engine pod
work for the Mobile-built A320s, also has room to grow.
On the Tuesday evening of the trade show Mobile and Baldwin counties hosted a
Mobile Bay reception. Sisson said that more than 100 people, including high level
executives, attended the event at Musee Jacquemart-Andre. He found the great
turnout to be very encouraging.
Roger Wehner, who leads Global Resource Group in Birmingham, Ala., a
management consulting firm, was in Paris again this year. Wehner is the former
executive director of the Mobile Airport Authority who followed Sisson in that position.
He was at the helm of MAA when Airbus opened its final assembly line and when
suppliers began flocking in. Even before that he was on loan to MAA from Alabama
Power during the effort to build Airbus tankers in Mobile. He said that’s when he
learned about recruiting suppliers.
Wehner was engaged by the team from Northwest Florida to lead its effort at the
Paris Air Show this year.
Wehner said that if you are a known entity and have built a reputation of credibility by
delivering on what you say, “then when companies have opportunities, you’re going
to hear about it” and will be part of the conversation. “It allows you to be successful
down the road.”
Wehner said the Northwest Florida team’s conversations started with a discussions of
what they call the “aerospace crescent,” an area of aircraft manufacturers from
Airbus in Mobile to Boeing in South Carolina. It runs east along Interstate 10 from
Mobile to Jacksonville, Fla., then up to North Charleston.
The crescent includes Brazil’s Embraer in Jacksonville, which manufactures the A-29
Super Tucano attack plane, and General Dynamics’ Gulfstream Aerospace in
Savannah, Ga., manufacturer of business jets.
“From my perspective, over 15 years of going to these type events, I don’t think I’ve
ever been part of a more successful business trip. There’s a lot of exciting activity, I
think a lot of great opportunities.”
Rick Byars, community and economic development manager with Pensacola-based
Gulf Power, was the one who reached out to Wehner to lead the team from Northwest
“Under Roger’s leadership we put together a packet of information, talking points,
starting with where we are in relation to final assembly lines,” he said. They also
talked about workforce training and the quality of life that Northwest Florida offers.
“It was the best trip we ever had,” said Byars. They had 36 confirmed appointments,
with most of them large companies. He described them as Tier 1 and 2 companies.
The meetings included talks with organizations that had “10 to 12 active projects.”
“We met with companies that would have interest because of our proximity to Airbus,
Boeing and Gulfstream,” said Byars, who made it a point to highlight the availability of
sites certified as shovel-ready in Gulf Power’s Florida First program.
They also emphasized the strong military presence in Northwest Florida, pointing out
that 6,000 trained personnel exit the military after 20-year careers and are still young
and looking for a second career with skills that can adapt quickly.
They also emphasize that Florida is a pro-business state, No. 4 in the Tax
Foundation report. And aerospace is big in the state. Northwest Florida alone has a
large aerospace cluster with other 500 companies operating in aerospace, aviation
and related fields, he said. On top of that, there are also unique opportunities to
diversify the region’s economy thanks to the millions that will pour in from Triumph
Gulf Coast dollars - money resulting from the 2010 oil spill.
Becca Hardin, president of the Bay Economic Development Alliance in Panama City,
Fla., said she’s gone to events like the Paris Air Show for 14 years, and “this year in
my opinion was the most productive and successful I’ve ever done.”
She met with more than 20 companies and received eight real leads that the county
is following up on.
“Aviation is a big target for us,” she said. Bay County hosts Tyndall Air Force Base,
home of the Air Combat Command’s 325th Fighter Wing, including the 95th Fighter
Squadron and its fifth-generation F-22 Raptors.
It’s also the location of Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, which opened
in May 2010. In early 2017, GKN Aerospace said it would establish a production
center at VentureCrossings near the airport.
That decision has been a boost for the county’s effort to get more aviation players.
There are 3,000 acres available around the airport, and other shovel-ready sites,
according to Hardin. She said MROs, painting facilities and anything that would
complement GKN are possible for the county.
Hardin said that when she mentioned GKN Aerospace during her Paris trip, “ears
perked up.” She said it’s a marquee project, the type economic development
professionals strive to get, and she feels “lucky and blessed.”