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Sunday, May 18, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Several states lining up to land Boeing 7E7 contract

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Less than an hour after Boeing issued its minimum requirements for the future home of the 7E7, the nation's most attractive suitors were trumpeting their virtues.

"We've got the infrastructure, extremely competitive utility rates, a strategic location," Jeff Moseley, executive director of the Texas Economic Development Agency, said Friday. "We believe we have what the site-selection team is looking for."

By yesterday, at least seven states, from California to Alabama, were cranking up their marketing machines, sharpening their pencils and promising to do whatever it takes to woo Boeing's next new airplane away from the Puget Sound region.

For nearly nine decades, Washington has been the birthplace of Boeing's latest and greatest commercial airplanes. But if it wants to retain that distinction, the state will have to fend off some seriously robust competition.

Since unveiling plans for the 7E7 in December, Boeing has promised to find the most economical place to build it. Friday, it confined the search to the United States but made no indication it would give Washington special consideration.

Boeing's historic ties to the Puget Sound area likely will mean little in the battle to retain the core of commercial-aviation assembly work here — and the economic spinoff that comes with that work. Local politicians, workers and facilities will secure the project only if the region proves it will meet Boeing's needs better than everyone else.

"We are in search of the site that will allow us to meet our needs most successfully and deliver to the world a safe and efficient airplane," said Mike Bair, Boeing Commercial Airplanes senior vice president of the 7E7 program.

While no one has yet made a formal bid for the 7E7, four states — Texas, California, Georgia and Alabama — are expected to offer fierce competition to Washington's efforts to keep Boeing at home. At least three others — Mississippi, Arizona and Colorado — also have expressed interest.

Texas: Once-and-future competitor

As home of longtime Boeing nemesis Lockheed Martin, Texas has a storied history of aerospace competition with Washington. The rivalry escalated in 2001 when Boeing considered moving its headquarters to Dallas-Fort Worth before deciding on Chicago.

That experience gives Texas an edge in the courtship of the 7E7, says Moseley, Republican Gov. Rick Perry's point man for economic development and a leader of the state's efforts to attract Boeing Chairman Phil Condit and his leadership staff two years ago.

"We think it's really helpful to have been a part of that process," Moseley said. "It gives us a sense of working with Boeing corporate officials and their expectations."

Perry will lead the process, as he did during the headquarters search, Moseley said. Texas state officials will serve as a clearinghouse of information for communities that believe they can contend for Boeing. It will then craft a coordinated state pitch to Boeing.

Though there had been only modest communications among local economic-development officials about the 7E7 before last week, Moseley said the state is eager to kick its efforts into high gear.

"We are just very excited about receiving the criteria," he said. "We can't wait to get to work."

California: Wounded giant

California for decades has watched its once vast army of aviation workers dwindle. The state's aerospace employment, which peaked at about 300,000 in 1986, fell 43 percent to 170,000 in 1995 and has continued to erode.

Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and his economic-development team consider the 7E7 a chance to reverse the trend. Little wonder, then, that California officials already have spent a large chunk of time plotting their strategy for the Boeing sweepstakes.

"California will definitely be putting its hat in the ring," said Jason Kimbrough, spokesman for California's technology, trade and commerce agency.

A group of state leaders that Kimbrough declined to identify has been meeting for several weeks in anticipation of the Boeing criteria. The group will spend the weekend digesting the material and then convene a meeting Tuesday to begin formalizing California's response.

Boeing already has extensive commercial- and military-airplane-manufacturing facilities in Long Beach, acquired when it merged with McDonnell Douglas in 1997. Long Beach also has one of the busiest deep-water ports in the country.

But Long Beach has drawbacks, such as the notorious traffic and the logistical challenges of moving large parts to Long Beach airport from the port.

A former McDonnell Douglas engineer said that when the company was building the DC-9 in Long Beach, the lack of a rail link between the port and the plant caused headaches when dealing with large fuselage barrels.

"They could only ship those at nighttime, with police escorts, at 2 or 3 in the morning. They totally obstructed traffic," said the engineer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Kimbrough said the state will conduct an internal review of the sites best suited to build the 7E7, and Long Beach is not the only option.

Georgia: Ambitious newcomer

It is doubtful many people outside the aviation business think of Georgia as a player in the U.S. aerospace industry.

Marietta, Ga., gave its name to aerospace firm Martin Marietta before the company became part of Lockheed Martin, and it remains the assembly site for Lockheed's F-22 fighter (one-third of which is produced by Boeing in the Puget Sound region).

Gulfstream builds many of its small planes in Savannah, which also boasts one of the East Coast's busiest deep-water ports.

And the aerospace engineering school at Georgia Tech University is among the best in the nation. Boeing values the school's expertise so much it created the Boeing professorship of advanced aerospace-systems analysis there.

Rick Duke, director of the Economic Development Institute at Georgia Tech, said he has been in touch with the Georgia Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism, and the state believes it can leverage those strengths to make Boeing an attractive offer.

"Unique assets such as Georgia's ports and the Georgia Institute of Technology (at Georgia Tech) would be integral to Georgia's many work-force development and operational competitive advantages," Duke said. "Boeing is a valued corporate citizen of this state, and any opportunity to expand our relationship with them would be of interest."

Alabama: Hopeful underdog

Any Boeing watchers that consider Georgia a dark horse to land the 7E7 would probably disregard Alabama as a 100-to-1 longshot.

Such hasty dismissiveness would be short-sighted.

Boeing's space and satellite units have a large presence in both Decatur and Huntsville, on the northern edge of the state. Though well inland, both cities are in close proximity to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway that allows large cargo ships to connect from the Gulf of Mexico.

At the same time, Mobile's southern port is the 14th busiest in the United States.

"I don't think there's any question Alabama is going to have one or more sites that will meet (Boeing's) criteria," said Neal Wade, director of Republican Gov. Bob Riley's Alabama Development Office.

Wade had not seen Boeing's criteria Friday afternoon, but he said Alabama, like other states, wants to conduct its own evaluation of potential 7E7 locations before submitting a proposal so it does not waste the company's time.

If Riley does throw his support behind an Alabama bid, he can count on assistance from the nonprofit Economic Development Partnership of Alabama. The partnership has already helped entice Mercedes-Benz and Honda to locate major manufacturing facilities in Alabama.

Indeed, Steve Sewell, spokesman for the partnership, said the automotive and aerospace industries have been Alabama's top two business-recruitment targets since the early 1990s.

In addition to the cluster of space-related companies in Huntsville, Sewell said that Singapore Aerospace has a large maintenance and repair facility close to Mobile.

But like a shy high-schooler who has received an unexpected invite to the prom, Wade humbly said Alabama is going to put its best face forward so it can win Boeing's heart by the time the dance ends.

"There is already a very nice Boeing presence in Alabama, and we could not be more proud to have them in our state," Wade said. "We certainly are going to do everything we can to be in that competition."

David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724, or dbowermaster@seattletimes.com

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