The Shoals had landed the big one. Or so it seemed.
On July 17, 2007, officials announced National Steelcar would build a massive railcar plant and bring 1,800 jobs to the Barton Riverfront Industrial Park.
They got it half right. The 2.2-million-square-foot plant is there. Unfortunately, the jobs are not.
A slumping economy and slow railcar demand eventually brought an end to the company’s plans. Fortunately, the Retirement Systems of Alabama and Executive Director David Bronner had a vested interest in the plant.
RSA, which has committed $625 million in the facility, obtained 100 percent equity in the plant in 2010.
A year later, things were looking up again when Fortune 500 company Navistar Corp. leased the facility from RSA and announced plans to bring in 1,800 workers and build trucks. State officials envisioned as many as 2,200 jobs could come from the plant.
Today, no trucks have been built and only 180 workers are at the site.
Will Tuesday’s announcement that FreightCar America will lease one-fourth of the plant finally reverse fortunes at the facility?
Officials say there are many reasons to believe it will, including the fact that two well-established companies — FreightCar America and Navistar — are partnering on the venture.
“These are two companies that have been rooted for more than a century,” said Lauren McFarland, corporate communications manager for Navistar.
Navistar will assist in maintenance and production of the railcars, which will be produced on two of the plant’s four assembly lines. The plant was designed to build a variety of railcars, which fits FreightCar America’s vision of diversifying its product line.
FreightCar also comes into the venture debt free, said Terry Heidkamp, senior vice president of operations for FreightCar.
“We’re impressed with the local community and with the possibilities this provides,” Heidkamp said.
Muscle Shoals Mayor David Bradford said the plan brings together the two companies and Bronner, who is considered one of the state’s top financial investors.
“It’s going to be a good marriage,” Bradford said. “RSA, Navistar and FreightCar America are three proven corporations and that positions the plant for good things for tomorrow.”
Tuscumbia Mayor Bill Shoemaker said FreightCar and Navistar will focus on teamwork for the railcars, while still leaving much of the plant open for Navistar’s truck production.
Ray Koopman, director of manufacturing and business development for Navistar, pointed out Tuesday that his company never gave up on plans to operate and invest heavily in the Shoals throughout the recent national recession.
“One important point is Navistar didn’t run,” Koopman said. “We’ve had some issues but the goal has been ‘how can we make this work within the context of the business climate?’ ”
He said Navistar has enjoyed positive partnerships with the Shoals and RSA since first looking into the Barton plant, and has the fortune of carrying on those relationships while also working with FreightCar.
“Now we’ll be able to work with another great partner,” Koopman said.
Bernie Delinski can be reached at 256-740-5739 or bernie.delinski@TimesDaily.com.
May-June 2006: Initial inquiries from National Steel Car consultants were made to the Alabama Development Office, Economic Development Partnership of Alabama and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The agencies notified the Shoals Economic Development Authority.
March 2007: A request for a half-cent sales tax increase to fund economic development projects was approved by the Colbert and Lauderdale commissions and sent to the local legislative delegation. “Project Tiger,” as the National Alabama railcar plant effort was known, was a major reason for the proposal, although the tax revenue is designed for any industrial project that adds jobs.
May 31, 2007: The Legislature passes the tax increase.
June 2007: Colbert and Lauderdale commissioners pass resolutions enacting the sales tax increase.
July 18, 2007: Officials and National Steel Car representatives announce plans to build the National Alabama facility at the Barton site, with visions of employing up to 1,800 workers.
Feb. 22, 2008: Construction begins.
Nov. 27, 2008: The initial goal to produce the first railcar is delayed because of the economic downtown.
Feb. 27, 2009: The Retirement Systems of Alabama lends the company $275 million for 15 years to finish construction and equip the plant. RSA already had lent the company $350 million in 2007 to help build the plant.
Aug. 20, 2011: With only 120 workers at the plant, National Alabama CEO Greg Aziz resigns his position on the company board and RSA obtains 100 percent equity in the plant.
Sept. 7, 2011: Company officials announce a contract to provide railcars to a nationally known operation that leases them to a business in the oil and gas drilling industry.
Sept. 27, 2011: Officials announce Navistar’s plans to obtain the facility, effective Jan. 1, 2012.
Feb. 19, 2013: FreightCar America officials announce plans to sublease a portion of the plant from Navistar to build up to 700 railcars annually.