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The City of Mobile has always played an important role in the U.S. shipbuilding industry. Most recently, the U.S. Navy commissioned its newest combat ship, U.S.S. Mobile, in the city it was built, Mobile.

In Episode 3 of BOOM! The Southeastern Commerce Podcast, Bradley Byrne, former U.S. Representative for Alabama's 1st Congressional District, joins Chris Kane for a discussion on the U.S.S. Mobile, the economic incentives it brought to the Gulf South region, and what’s next for the shipbuilding industry in the United States.  

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Transcript and Show Notes

Christopher Kane: Welcome to this episode of Boom! a podcast sponsored by Adams and Reese. I am your host Chris Kane. We’ve got an exciting topic today. I’m joined by my colleague Bradley Byrne, who is based out of our Mobile office, and we’ve got some big announcements coming out of that office later this afternoon and tomorrow. Bradley is the former U.S. Representative for Alabama’s First Congressional District, and he just rejoined our law firm earlier this year. We’re excited to have him. And while he was in Congress he was very busy, and this is one of the exciting announcements we’re going to be talking about.

But during his term in Congress, Bradley was a strong advocate for our nation’s shipbuilding industry, and in less than 24 hours Bradley and his wife Rebecca will be attending the commissioning ceremony of the U.S.S Mobile, which is the newest Independence-variant Littoral Combat Ship, LCS as it’s referred to. And it was built right there in Mobile, and we’re going to talk today about how this project came about, and particularly this ship, got built in its namesake home city, which is somewhat unusual or special about the project. But also some of the economic incentives it’s brought to the region and how it’s supported the shipbuilding industry. Bradley, I’ll turn it over to you.

Bradley Byrne: Well, thanks and it’s great to be with everybody. It is indeed a very exciting time. Not just for me and my family, but for this entire community. So I’m sitting in our offices in Mobile and I’m looking over the Port of Mobil. And off of one of its many yards is the beautiful U.S.S. Mobile that will be commissioned into the United States Navy fleet tomorrow.

Now there’s several stages that a ship goes through before it goes into the fleet. The first one is when they lay the keel, and the second is when they christen it, when it gets its name, when you put the champagne bottle across the bow, et cetera. And the last one when it actually becomes a part of the Naval fleet is when you commission it. So we’ve already done the keel laying. Ship’s been finished. It’s been named. That was about a year and a half ago. And now we’re going to commission it. Tomorrow it will actually become a part of the fleet, which is exciting for the Navy as well.

So this ship is called Littoral Combat Ship, as you said. It’s a little over 300 feet long. It’s actually made all of aluminum, and it’s a trimaran that’s powered not by propellers but by jets. So think like a very large jet-ski. And the significance of it is, is that it goes extremely fast. Can turn on a dime, and it can perform in very shallow water. Which makes it an incredibly versatile ship. It has three different missions. One is small surface combatant to small surface combatant. The second is anti-submarine, and the third is anti-mine.

So with different modules, it can perform all of that and others. On its rear deck, it can hold not one but two helicopters. It does have a pretty significant gun on its bow, and it can be fitted out for missile tubes. That’s not presently what they’re considering doing with it, but it can be fitted out in missile tubes.

So this is the 13th of these ships that we have made in Mobile. The other variant is being made up in Marinette, Wisconsin, and it’s got the odd-numbered ships. So we started two down here, and Mobile is hull number twenty-six. Now we’ve been building now for over ten years. It’s been pretty exciting to watch this program blossom. And if you look at the production of this ship plus another ship that we produced for the Navy here, called the Expeditionary Fast Transport vessel, if you add those two ships to the ships that are being built at Huntington Ingalls in Pascagoula, Mississippi, just an hour away, between those two shipyards we’re building 80% of the surface fleet for the United States Navy.

Now surface fleet does not include aircraft carriers. It doesn’t include submarines. But still, a pretty darn significant part of the Navy is being built right in this general vicinity. Shipbuilding has been big here for generations. This is not new. But the type of ships that we’re turning out now as compared to the past is new, and it’s exciting watching this industry mature along with the ever-evolving needs in the United States Navy. My wife is the sponsor for the ship. That means that it’s her spirit as they say that will be with the ship for its entire life. She will keep up with the ship and the ship with her for its entire life in the fleet. We got to watch her bang that champagne bottle across the bow a year and a half ago, and it’s been a big thing for our family to be involved with.

But what’s far more important is that we’re producing great ships for the sailors of the United States Navy who put themselves at risk at sea for us. And so we’re delighted to be a part of that and delighted to see this ship being named after Mobile where I was born and raised.

Christopher Kane: Well, Bradley, this is one of those instances where it’s personal but professional, and it’s neat when those intertwine. I know both you and your wife are excited about the festivities coming up this weekend and how just remarkable it’ll be to see the commission move forward and your personal tie to the vessel. You mentioned really Mobile, it’s rooted in a history of shipbuilding. And we do along the Gulf Coast as well. But really Mobile has done an incredible job of building this industry. And now with the last ten years of doing this sort of vessel construction, tell us, how did Mobile – how was it able to attract and maintain and keep this business in Mobile, and how did that become a success story?

Bradley Byrne: Well, long before I came to Congress I was involved with economic development efforts here in this area. And we were able to catch the eye of an Australian shipbuilding company called Austal. And what they were primarily known for over in Australia is making high-speed ferries and using primarily aluminum construction. And so they wanted to have a United States presence, so they were looking at several different areas. We have a very aggressive and I think very effective economic development effort going on here, and we were able to get to be one of the finalists. And then we got to the area they choose for the shipyard.

Now when they started out as a high-speed ferry company here, it wasn’t that big. Let’s say 300 or 400 employees. And then the Navy came along and said, we want shipyards to bid on building these Littoral Combat Ships that are going to be smaller than a destroyer. Certainly smaller than any aircraft carrier. But we want them to be very fast and to be able to operate in shallow water.

Two shipyards were picked to do it, the one in Wisconsin that’s a subsidiary of a detaining company called Fincantieri and our one here. The interesting thing about this is that in order to get to the point where we’re meeting not only the Navy’s expectations on quality but how many of these things they wanted us to turn out and how quickly they did. One of our biggest challenges was to make sure that we could provide the sort of incentives that this company needed to build their shipyard much bigger than it had been. But also to make sure that they had the workforce. Because they were going from 300 or 400 employees to 4000.

So a big part of that was building for them and the rest of the shipyards in this area a training building, a training program. So by that point in time, I had become Chancellor of Postsecondary Education for Alabama. We were in charge of workforce development for the state. And through a state agency called AIDT, we built a building very near the shipyards that provides the sort of training that you need to produce that workforce on a continuous basis. Because there was this turnover.

So we’re talking about very high-end welders, very high-end pipefitters, very high-end electronics, and electrical folks. And so we have that program ongoing today, and it’s a continuous effort to produce that workforce. And that’s very important to not just a shipbuilder, but it’s important to the Navy. The Navy understands that those shipbuilders, and to the extent that they have to do ship repair, those ship repairs are very important to the functioning of the Navy.

So a big part of what we had to do to help Austal get this contract was to make sure we could show to the Navy, hey, we can produce the workforce that will turn out these ships at the quality level that you have every right to demand and as fast as we can get them out. And we not only built that program, built that building, but we have never failed to produce the workers that they need, despite the challenges as you can imagine as you go along.

So this was a community-wide effort and very important to not just Mobile but this entire region. When I got to Congress the big thing was, okay, what’s going to happen to this program as the Navy evolves? And the Navy has evolved, and we’re coming to the end of building these Littoral Combat Ships, and we’re coming to a new era of shipbuilding. I think this shipyard in Mobile will become one of the primary if not the primary shipbuilders for unmanned ships. Now that’s hard to wrap your head around, but we’re talking about Navy ships. Not boats, Navy ships that don’t have any people on them. And there are all sorts of things that the Navy has planned that they can do with those ships.

So it’s going to be interesting to watch our shipyard as it evolves through these other ships and the future of the Navy. And I’m just excited to sit and watch how they do that.

Christopher Kane: Well, for anybody that travels along the coast on I-10, Mobile for a long time, at least from when I was a little kid, the icon of the battleship right there in the bay resonates. And it’s neat to see that it’s not just there for show. That it’s a really significant history and component of Mobile and the type of workforce developed over the course of the life of these different generational changes and what we’re looking at from vessel construction and now talking about unmanned vessels. Really it speaks volumes to the success that Mobile has achieved relative to this sort of economic development boom. And it’s very much impactful to the whole region.

You mentioned workforce development, and I think for our audience sake, for those who are not maybe in the day in and day out economic development world, really that is a key that gets lost in the discussion when people are talking about just economic incentives, right. A lot of folks say, well, I just want money. Just give me the financial monetary incentive to help me reduce my risk. The people that do good projects start with, who’s my workforce, and what universities or technical institutions can I partner with to develop a training program to make sure that I can accomplish what we’re doing. And we see that with automobile manufacturers that come in and large refineries, whatever it might be. If it’s going to be a significant investment, that’s really the first question I always – I know the people we’re dealing with understand the big game, right?

Bradley Byrne: Absolutely. In Alabama, we see it as our number one incentive, that we bring in this agency AIDT, and we’re able to tell the most sophisticated type prospects in the world that we can produce the workforce at the quality level and at the numbers of people level that they need and that we never fail. Now that’s easy to say, but sometimes you see that beautiful sleek goose going across the water, you don’t see all those little feet underneath the water paddling away. And it is a hard thing to do and do right. But it’s something that we put money in here. Something that we make as a huge priority. And it was key to having these ships made here, and the ships we’ll be making here in the future.

And seeing what it does to the people of this area because think about it, that’s 4000 people, but it’s 4000 families who are making pretty darn good money doing this kind of work. And I run into them all the time. When I was in Congress, I was so associated with the shipyard and these ships, that the workers there all know me, even though I don’t know all of them. And they would stop me and we’d have great conversations. And to see the quality of life that they’re able to have because of the wages that they’re making, really makes me feel good about this whole thing.

Christopher Kane: Yeah, and it’s a waterfall effect too. I mean, you were talking about standing up, whatever the exact workforce training component is. But that generates another set of jobs. You’ve got all the component parts and component aspects of those 4000 direct jobs that are another whole set of indirect jobs. And that’s what these mega wins do for a community. And really, as you said, it brings high-sustaining wage jobs to an area.

Bradley Byrne: Oh yeah, I mean, I run to the contractors for Austal all the time.

Christopher Kane: Right, exactly. So we spent a lot of time talking obviously about the U.S.S. Mobile, and we’ll talk a little bit more about it here in a second. But give us a snapshot of what else is going on in Mobile in your home town and in your region that you’re seeing on the economic development front.

Bradley Byrne: Well, I can tell you, even though we, like everybody else got hit by COVID, we’ve been in a golden age for the last ten years just about. And being able to track all sorts of diverse businesses and industries here. So I’ll hit a few of them for you. About 20 years ago, well maybe 30 years ago, let me say that right, we didn’t have a single steel plant down here. We now have three. Once again, it’s a question of making sure that you position yourself to be attractive to them. And once again, you got to tell them you can produce the sort of employees they need to make steel.

We do have the only facility that Airbus has in the Western Hemisphere for assembling large jets. So we make the A320 here for Airbus, which is the single-aisle jet that a lot of us fly on all the time, probably don’t even know we’re flying on Airbus jet. Not necessarily on transcontinental type trips, but on trips around America. You’re on those jets a lot. And for the last several years every one of those jets that’s being flown in America has been made here in Mobile.

Recently we added the A220, which is a smaller single-aisle jet. That’s really for the one-hops. Like, if you’re flying from Mobile to Atlanta, for example, you would be on an A220. So, we have not only the Airbus plant over there turning out those two different types of airplanes. But as you just said with regard to our shipyard, there are all sorts of components that go into that. And as they ramp up their production in numbers, there’ll be more and more of the people that make those components moving here because it makes sense financially.

We’re also a port, and we’ve seen substantial growth in our container port over the last ten years. And that’s given us some real opportunities. We have one of Walmart’s mega distribution centers here now. Gigantic facility. So the stuff comes in by ship at the Port of Mobile. They put the container on the back of a truck. It goes to this huge facility. The stuff that was on the truck is taken off. They have a way of segmenting it by whatever it is. And then other trucks come by and pick it up and take it to the other smaller distribution centers before it goes to the stores.

We’re beginning to see more and more interest, people that want to use this area as a logistics area. We just had another announcement on that. But we think that that’s sort of a sweet spot for us.

And then finally we have a medical center here. The University of South Alabama has had a medical school for some time. But they’re in the present planning stages of making a significant step up with that medical center. And so we’re excited about what that’s going to mean for us. Not just in the direct delivery of healthcare and the training of new doctors, but all the research that’s already come with that. We expect there’ll be even more.

So if you think about it, for a city Mobile’s size to have that level of new projects coming in, it’s a real testament to the leadership of this area. And it’s been exciting for me to have been a part of that, first before it was ever anything. And then of course when I was running the two-year college system and doing the training for them, and then when I went to Congress and was an advocate, not just for ships, but for all the rest of these things. So we’re excited about where we are in Mobile, and we believe that despite the pandemic, as we get over it, we think that our golden age will just keep on going.

Christopher Kane: Yeah, you mentioned logistics and being the global trade and logistics team leader for the firm. One of the things we really see in our footprint in a southeast market, across the whole market, is really how our economies are driven by the logistical benefits that we have. You got the port. You’re centrally located there in Mobile. It’s similar here in New Orleans where we’ve got the Port of New Orleans and the Port of South Louisiana as well as some energy ports.

And you go to Texas, you see that. You go to Tampa and Jacksonville. And really our footprint thrives on our geographical location and taking advantage of that. It’s been referred to, particularly on the Gulf Coast side, as the third coast. There’s been a lot written about it, and Mobile’s at the front of this, right. We’re starting to really see the real benefits and long-term planning of direct foreign investment. And as people are looking for where to invest and states that are going to be growing and are going to see their economies growing, Alabama is right in the middle of that. And I think you guys are well-positioned and postured to see a lot more significant wins. I don’t know if you got any thoughts on that and kind of the long-term horizon.

Bradley Byrne: Well, I do have some thoughts about that. One of the interesting things is that while Alabama, Panhandle of Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana are in some respects competitors. We also cooperate a lot, because if you locate a plant in the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, some of those people are going to live over here in Mobile. A good number of the people that work at Huntington Ingalls in Pascagoula live here in Mobile.

So there’s some benefit up and down the coast. What’s helping Mobile out besides our ability to deliver as I said we do, is that we’ve got I-65 that runs from here almost all the way to Chicago and five different rail lines. So we can get stuff out of here and up into parts of the country where we need to take stuff. And stuff’s coming down from there into our port.

But some of the stuff that’s happening here is where they’re tying into other industries that are nearby. So we have a number of chemical plants north of here. I know you all do over in Louisiana. A lot of them sell their stuff to one another. It’s interesting to see how they do that. Sometimes it’s the byproduct that you’re selling. The steel plants here are really supplying two main industries. One is the automotive industry, which is growing rapidly in Alabama. But the other is the energy production industry, steel pipes.

So it’s sort of one industry is helping another, is feeding another. And it’s not just within Alabama. It’s all up and down the coast. And I think that’s one of the cool things here, that we can partner together. For example, we have a four-state coalition on aviation that goes to the Paris or London air show every year. And we make a real impact up there, and we’re talking to the most sophisticated aerospace companies in the world at these big air shows. And to be able to show them that we’re working together, not just as a state, but as four states. I think that sends a pretty loud message to these international companies, that we got our act together down here. And we do have our act together down here. I’m really proud of what I see up and down the coast.

Christopher Kane: That’s an interesting thought and something that I think a lot of times gets lost in the day-in and day-out side of economic development work. A lot of times we’ll have a client call us and they say, look, we want you to work with our site selector on incentive packages in four states. And so we approach it, it’s almost – each of us, Britton Bonner and myself, we’ll almost take it like, okay, we want to get the best deal we can for our client. But I want them to be in my state. You want them to be in your state.

It becomes an unnecessary competition a lot of times. But on the flip side of it, from the government component of it, the smart approach is exactly what you’re talking about doing. Which is having a cooperation amongst a geographical area because a state line may change jurisdictional statutory type incentives. But people can walk across state lines, can work across state lines. I think we’re going to see with COVID a lot more need to be thinking regional because people can live in a lot of different places.

I mean, the Amtrak train between Mobile and New Orleans is going to be a thing we believe, and the connectivity between the southeastern network if you will, we haven’t seen that connectivity yet. And I think there’s a lot of things that can grow and we can work together to not cut up the same old pie, but to make a much, much bigger pie.

Bradley Byrne: Oh, absolutely. When I was in Congress I put together a group we called the I-10 Caucus. And it was the congressmen that represented areas all along the I-10 Gulf Coast. And there were multiple times when we could work together to advance things that were important because there’s some things that aren’t specific to a particulate state. They’re just an industry that’s all over. Take seafood, I mean, making sure that we’ve got regulation from the federal government that makes sense for the seafood industry helps everybody up and down the coast.

Making sure that we have the ability to recover from a storm up and down the coast, and these storms tend to affect all of us. And we’ve got a $4 billion tourist industry down there in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. And if you drive on I-10 you see that tourism industry is there in the Panhandle of Florida. It’s there in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach and Dauphin Island. It’s over there with all the casinos in the Coastal Mississippi. And of course New Orleans there has been a Mecca for tourists for a long time. But we need to make sure we’re working together on all that.

So we can compete in the fall in SEC football games, and occasionally we will be competing against one another for economic development projects. But I see more and more cooperation and more and more benefits from cooperation.

Christopher Kane: Well, and we have a lot in common along the coast. Before we started our podcast I got an alert that there’s our first tropical disturbance out there. It’s May 21st, and we couldn’t even get to hurricane season before we had to start looking down the coast. Hopefully, it’s not like last year and it felt like, whether it was Mobile or New Orleans, we were in a cone of uncertainty for, like, two months straight.

The other thing you guys obviously share with my hometown in New Orleans is Mardi Gras. And I appreciate you guys are going to have a Mardi Gras-style parade this afternoon for the U.S.S. Mobile, and I’d imagine you and your wife Rebecca are going to be participating in that huh?

Bradley Byrne: Oh, absolutely. Now I’m going to say this and I know New Orleans people get sensitive about this. But the first Mardi Gras was in Mobile because we were the first capital French Louisiana. And if you read the history of Mardi Gras, there’s been a lot of sharing between Mobile and New Orleans about Mardi Gras, and I think that’s pretty neat. We will have 29 floats in the parade tonight. I don’t know how many bands. But marshals and the whole nine yards. Because we didn’t get to do Mardi Gras a few months ago, and you didn’t get to do Mardi Gras. And the demand is so pent up with the weather as nice as it is, we think we’re going to have a – and I know we’re going to have a huge crowd tonight. And it’s a lot of excitement to that.

And that’s its own industry. People don’t think about it, Mardi Gras is its own industry. And I didn’t appreciate that till I started talking to some of the people who were in it, and it’s got its own economy. And just drawing out as many people as – of course New Orleans draws a lot more people than we do, but we draw a lot of people down here for the two or three-week period of time that we’re having these parades. And it’s a business, but it’s a fun business, absolutely a fun business.

Christopher Kane: Well, I was planning on being in person with you today and celebrating with you. And had I known there was a Mardi Gras parade I would have tried to finagle my way even more so. But my daughter has a golf competition this afternoon that I’ve got to go to. So I’m going to miss seeing you guys in person. However, I’m jealous that you get to celebrate a Mardi Gras parade, and I’m really – Bradley, I could not say this more. I’m proud that you’re my colleague, and you’ve worked on this project. You and your wife should be very excited and proud that you have helped bring this home to Mobile. And I hope you guys enjoy the festivities this evening. And as you said, I think the spirit of the vessel and your wife’s spirit will be with the vessel for here and eternity. That’s pretty cool.

Bradley Byrne: It is really cool. All the pageantry the Navy built around this and the connection we’ll have with this ship for 25, 30 years, it’s really exciting for us. And my daughters and my daughter-in-law are – I think they call them maids of honor for the ship. So it’s a family thing. It’s not just Rebecca and me. And the family is all here. We’ve got 25 some odd people in town for this. And we’re going to celebrate this, but we’re going to celebrate this with a whole lot of other people who built this ship, who man this ship, and a community that has got this great tradition of building ships.

My grandmother worked for one of those companies back during World War II. And she lost a son who was lost at sea, a merchant mariner and they made her the sponsor of one of the ships that – we would turn out a ship a week back then. These were the transport ships that transported stuff to and from Europe for the war effort. And so I’ve got those pictures of my grandmother bashing that champagne bottle against the ship that she was a sponsor for. And I’ve got a picture of my wife doing it. So that tradition, that carrying on, generation to generation, that’s pretty meaningful to us.

Christopher Kane: That’s awesome. It makes it all that much more special. And again, I hope you guys get to have that nice family time and enjoy and celebrate really an awesome accomplishment. But look, thank you again Bradley for joining.

Bradley Byrne: Absolutely, I appreciate being here, and let’s get together and work on some stuff.

Christopher Kane: Sounds good. Well, look, thank you to our listeners for listening, and be on the lookout for our next episode of Boom!