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1,800 jobs seen at Shoals-area rail-car facility
Welders to start at $15-$18 per hour; higher pay scale for other employees

By Kristen Bishop · 340-2443

FLORENCE — How does 1,800 new jobs in North Alabama sound?

That dream became a reality Wednesday when Gov. Bob Riley announced a Canada-based rail-car company’s decision to build a $350 million manufacturing facility at the Barton Riverfront Industrial Park in Colbert County.

He said National Steel Car Limited’s agreement with state and area officials is “one of the largest projects to be announced in America this year” and will one day be considered a “defining moment for North Alabama.”

A banner hanging over the stage at the press conference with Gov. Riley, state legislators and local officials silently announced the good news before the governor enthusiastically shouted it to the crowd.

“We welcome National Alabama Corporation! 1,800 new jobs!” it read.

National Steel Car officials decided to put Alabama in the name of the new facility after being graciously welcomed by the community and its leaders, said Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Greg Aziz.

“We are proud to bring National Alabama Corp. to this sweet home,” he said.

National Steel Car, the leading North American rail-car manufacture since 1912, is landlocked at its plant in Hamilton, Ontario, and decided about two years ago to expand its presence in the Southern United States, said Aziz.

After visiting more than 150 sites in 12 states, company executives began negotiating with state and county officials in September 2006.

Aziz said the site’s strategic location at the crossroads of the nation’s railways, state and local officials’ willingness to negotiate and the warm welcome convinced him it was the perfect place to expand.

Officials signed the final paperwork for the deal Wednesday at the Shoals Conference Center in Florence.

The new facility will be a 2 million-square-foot building on a 650 acre lot, said Aziz. At full capacity, about 1,800 employees will be required to manufacture up to 10,000 freight cars annually.

National Alabama officials plan to break ground on the facility in August and hope to complete construction near the end of 2008. Aziz said manufacturing should begin in the first quarter of 2009.

Most of the jobs at the facility will require welding skills. The state is currently training residents through the Alabama Industrial Development Training program in order to meet the company’s manpower requirements, said Aziz.

Welders will start at $15 to $18 per hour. The company will use a higher pay scale for computerized robotics technicians and other employees, he said.

Because of the facility’s planned location near the Colbert and Lauderdale county lines, most employees will likely live in those counties, but surrounding areas will also benefit from National Alabama, said Lawrence County Industrial Development Board Director Evon Zills.

She said she expects many jobs to go to Lawrence County residents. The county already has 414 residents working in Colbert County and 180 in Lauderdale.

Zills submitted information about Lawrence County sites to be considered by National Rail Car but wasn’t sure if company officials had visited any of the sites because they don’t identify themselves during preliminary negotiations, she said.

She said a mega-project win for Lawrence County would have benefited residents and future growth there but recognized the impact on a larger scale.

“(Economic-development officials) have been looking more at regional development for the last few years,” said Zills. “That used to apply to counties working together, but now we’re even looking across state lines. We’re competitors, but when it comes right down to it, we work together and benefit from each others’ success.”

U.S. Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Huntsville, agreed. During the press conference, he praised Colbert and Lauderdale county officials for working as a team to help the entire state.

“Both sides of the river worked hard to make this happen,” said Cramer. “I’ve been representing you for 18 years, and this is as good as it gets. We’ve been on a roll.”

He was likely referring to a recent string of big industrial announcements in the state. In March, Hyundai unveiled plans for a second engine plant in Montgomery, with an investment of $270 million and 520 jobs. In May, German steel maker ThyssenKrupp announced it would build a $3.7 billion plant north of Mobile that is expected to employ 2,700 workers.

The state passed an amendment in June that increased Alabama’s borrowing power from $350 million to $750 million to finance incentive packages for companies considering building plants in Alabama.

Riley declined Wednesday to disclose how much in incentives the state offered National Steel Car to build the plant here but said “Alabama gets an excellent return.”

Kerry Gatlin, dean of the College of Business at The University of North Alabama in Florence, said the plant should contribute about $200 million annually to the area’s economy.

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