Business roundup: headlines from across the state

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Here’s a roundup of some of the top business headlines from across the stat you might have missed this weekend: Uber cars on Mobile streets, but not yet legal

You could say Charles McCann is the prototypical Uber driver: He has a day job managing a storage facility and gives rides in his spare time. Since the company began operating in Mobile recently, McCann, 68, has raked in about $391 during more than 30 trips. And he doesn’t want his new line of work to disappear.

A committee of the Mobile City Council will examine next week an amendment that could allow driver’s like McCann, who work for so-called “transportation network companies,” to operate legally in Mobile. But in the meantime, there’s little certainty about where Uber drivers fall in existing law.

“I don’t mind doing whatever they want us to do, really,” McCann said Friday from the driver seat of his beige-colored Buick LaCrosse. “I would hate for them to throw us out now because I’ve (started) going.”

Uber representatives say communities simply need to catch up with innovation, and some existing transportation companies — shuttle services, taxis and limousines — believe they’re both one and the same. Councilmembers will begin parsing the difference at the public safety committee meeting, which was moved one week earlier than planned, on June 23 at 3 p.m.

But the Uber cars remain unmarked and roaming city streets. That fact has already irritated some nerves.

On its website, the company said Friday that it will make all Uber rides free “for the short term” to demonstrate its willingness to create new rules in Mobile.

An amendment to city law, creating a distinction for companies like Uber and Lyft, which operate primarily through smartphone apps, was introduced this week.

During a June 11 press conference, Mayor Sandy Stimpson said the law he sponsored with Councilman Levon Manzie would allow Uber to operate “in a manner that is safe, convenient and best serves the citizens of our city.” Peace offerings aside, some council members feel the company has already chosen to skirt municipal law.

An email exchange revealed a rift between the mayor’s office and some council members concerning Uber’s operations without council approval. The mayor’s office has said that the company is operating pending approval of the ordinance changes, a model that’s been done in several cities before. And if the law doesn’t pass, they’ll consider regulating them like all other vehicles for hire.

An attorney representing Mobile Bay Transportation Company has called into question the practice, sending a sternly-worded letter to the City Council and its attorney; the mayor, police chief and city attorney.

In the letter provided to, attorney Jarrod White said the company owned by state Rep. Margie Wilcox, R-Mobile, could “immediately go to court and obtain a temporary restraining order against Uber and its drivers” putting a stop to their operation. “However, we see litigation as a last resort and are not going to take such action at this time.”

Negotiating elsewhere

If past examples are any indication for what the debate could be like, then the outcome could go one way or the other. Uber says it operates in more than 300 cities around the world.

There have been some successful regional examples in cities like New Orleans, Chattanooga, Tenn. and Pensacola, Fla. But for every one of those, there are some not-so-positive cases like the outcomes in Tuscaloosa, Auburn and Birmingham.

As the chair of the transportation and communications committee, Councilwoman Kim Rafferty led negotiations with Uber in Birmingham. They were careful, she said in a recent interview, about altering their code as so much about the digital ride-hailing business model is still unknown.

“We decided instead of saying yes or no and starting to modify our code…what we could do is define them as a transportation company and define their drivers as taxis drivers,” Rafferty said.

Representatives for both Uber and Lyft, she said, would later say the law was too “antiquated” and “cumbersome” for them to operate in Alabama’s largest city. That was almost one year ago.

“We invited them in. They said no,” Rafferty said. “We passed the definitions; never heard from them again.”

Mobile wants to be the exception, the mayor has said, finding a way to let them in. Many Mobile council members, too, have expressed a willingness to keep an open mind and consider all the facts.

Drivers in Mobile

Kaitlin Durkosh, an Uber spokesperson, said the company has “dozens of local drivers partnering” with it, but declined to give a precise number. In an email, Durkosh said she could not divulge the number of rides completed in Mobile either.

Durkosh said: “…what I can tell you is that we’ve seen an overwhelmingly positive response from residents and visitors of Mobile.”

At least one of those drivers is McCann, who was trolling for rides early Friday. Many of his trips so far have been around downtown Mobile; but also trips to the airport and one woman who needed a ride to the courthouse after her car gave out earlier Friday morning.

McCann said he signed up to be a driver months ago, but wasn’t sure of the city’s prospects. “I finally gave up. I figured they’ll never get in Mobile, either the cab lobby is too tough or Mobile doesn’t want them,” McCann said.

He forget about them, until about two weeks ago when he got a call from Uber. McCann said they told him they were close to a launch and asked if he was ready to drive. “And I did it,” he said, “and I’ve never met any of them. I just get with them on email.”

Update: This story was updated June 19, 2015 at 8:09 p.m. to include information that Uber will give free rides temporarily.

Alabama Newscenter: Economic development alliance in East Alabama sees potential along I-20 

For years, economic development partnerships have been forming along regional “corridors” in the state. They include the I-85 Corridor Alliance, the Coastal Alabama Partnership in Mobile and Baldwin counties, and the “C3” alliance in Northwest Alabama.

Now, there’s a new partnership, CORE4, bringing together four East Alabama counties – Calhoun, Cleburne, St. Clair and Talladega – that share a connection to Interstate 20.

CORE4 area leaders, developers, and other officials from East Alabama recently received an update on economic activity in the region during a meeting of the Cheaha Economic Activity Zone, held at the Cleburne County Mountain Center in Heflin. The meeting was held in partnership with Jacksonville State University’s Center of Economic Development.

Julia Segars, Alabama Power Eastern Division vice president, was on hand to help spread the news about the new economic development alliance, which has been working since November to establish itself as a viable, collaborative partnership. Segars serves as co-chair of CORE4 alongside Larry Deason, chairman of the Calhoun County Economic Development Council.

During the meeting, they encouraged regional stakeholders to get involved in the branding and promotion of the east Alabama section of the I-20 corridor. Partners in CORE4 include the region’s major cities and economic development authorities, businesses and major employers, the East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission, utility and energy companies, and one of the region’s major attractions, the Talladega Superspeedway.

“This regional marketing effort is a continuation of the regionalism efforts we began in 2013,” Segars said.

She said CORE4 hopes to forge a unified approach to highlighting the region’s best attributes, with the goal of expanding economic development in the area. “We want to make sure that we do our part to bring business and growth to East Alabama. We know that economic developers and site selection consultants are in favor of regions who work together to bring in new opportunities.”

Economic development professionals from each of the four counties are leading the effort. One of their first tasks is conducting an analysis of the region’s workforce – a key step in the process of creating an inventory of the region’s assets.

Alabama Newscenter: Airbus Alabama workforce gets hands-on training in Europe

The first fuselage sections for Airbus’ maiden “Made in America” aircraft have arrived in Alabama, but the company’s workforce has been working quietly for months getting ready to launch assembly at Airbus’ new, $600 million facility in Mobile.

Airbus reports that more than 100 members of its Alabama workforce have spent up to six months at the company’s manufacturing centers in Hamburg, Germany, and Toulouse, France, for training and skill development before assembly begins in Mobile.

Production work is expected to begin in a few weeks, now that the major components arrive arrived overnight at the Port of Mobile for the first Alabama-made aircraft – an A321ceo bound for JetBlue. That initial customer delivery is expected in 2016.

Altogether, Airbus said it has hired 280 people for the operation at the Mobile Aeroplex, with the number expected to rise to 1,000 as the facility reaches full production.

“I think the opportunity for the Americans who are on the job training in Hamburg today, the opportunity is to learn a broad set of skills,” says Ulrich Weber, vice president of the Airbus A320 family assembly line in Alabama. “This is our philosophy of having people skilled not only for one particular piece of work but for a broader range.”

AIDT, a division of the Alabama Department of Commerce that functions as the state job-training agency, has assisted Airbus with pre-employment screening and training services at a new, $7 million center established at the Aeroplex. So far, AIDT has held more than 130 classes for hourly and salaried workers.

Airbus said many of those hired so far have experience working in the U.S. aviation industry, particularly in the defense sector. Others were recruited at jobs fairs staged at military bases.

In a new video, several new members of the Airbus Alabama workforce hires talk about their experience at the company’s European facilities. Jennifer Milligan is one of them, and she says she is eager to get started assembling aircraft at the company’s only U.S. manufacturing facility.

“My mom has blasted over Facebook to all her friends that I work at Airbus, that I am in Germany and I am doing so great,” Milligan says. “My dad is the same way. And every time I talk to them they say ‘I am so proud of you.’ I’m very excited. I can’t wait to get back home and produce the first aircraft in the U.S., I think it will be great, a great feeling.”

The Alabama plant will be one of only two Airbus manufacturing centers outside of Europe, with the other being in Tianjin, China.

Now that the major components for the first Alabama-made Airbus aircraft have arrived at the Port of Mobile, the city is planning to mark with occasion with a parade. The components will be transported from the port to the Airbus facility at Mobile Aeroplex on Sunday.

“The transit from the port to the FAL (final assembly line) is a huge milestone,” Roger Wehner, executive director of the Mobile Airport Authority, operator of the Aeroplex, said this week at the Paris Air Show.

Birmingham Business Journal: What the Alabama legislative session means for businesses

The Alabama Legislature recently completed its regular session for 2015.

Lawmakers left Montgomery without a budget, which means they’ll be heading back to the statehouse later this year for a special session to address the state’s finances.

While some of the most controversial proposals – like Gov. Robert Bentley‘s $541 million tax hike – didn’t get approved, there were some key laws passed that will impact Birmingham businesses moving forward.

I recently spoke with Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP’s Bruce Ely about the session and what it means for businesses. You can read about others in his firm’s recent legislative recap. Here are some of the big changes:

New incentives structure. As we noted in a recent Cover Story, Alabama’s incentive structure was desperately in need of an upgrade.

Lawmakers passed one in the form of the Alabama Jobs Act, which moves the state from a debt-based incentive program focused on capital credits to a pay-as-you-go approach that rewards actual job creation. The change will put Alabama in line with competing Southeastern states and the shift away from a heavy focus on capital investments could pay dividends as Birmingham courts high-tech employers.

The Alabama Veterans and Targeted Counties Act also provides additional incentives for projects that create jobs for veterans or are located in rural counties.

According to Ely, the Alabama Reinvestment and Abatements Act also expands the list of projects that may qualify for sales, property and mortgage recording tax abatements. It also extends the maximum property tax abatement period from 10 to 20 years.

Education changes. In addition to passing a law to bring charter schools to Alabama, lawmakers also made changes to the Alabama Accountability Act, which was designed to provide tax credit and scholarships to students transferring out of a failing school.

One change raises the cap on individual donations for the tax credit scholarship program from $7,500 to $50,000. Lawmakers also increased annual amount of tax credits from $25 million to $30 million.

Future of flat tax. According to Bradley Arant’s recap, lawmakers also passed legislation creating a commission to study “simplifying and lowering Alabama’s statutory and corporate income tax rates” by creating a flat tax.

A few other bills that could have impacted Birmingham businesses didn’t pass, including bills that would have authorized the governor to establish an additional allocation of up to $60 million under the Alabama New Markets Development program.

The bill to extend the Alabama Historic Tax Credit, which is scheduled to sunset in 2016, did not pass this session. The tax credit has been cited as one of the driving forces behind the renovation of buildings like downtown Birmingham’s Florentine Building and the Pizitz Building. Lawmakers will have another chance to extend the program in early 2016.

“A number of developers are renovating buildings and are doing so with historic tax credits and new market tax credits, the dangerous thing is that both of those bills are up for renewal and we didn’t pass them this time,” said Ely. “If they don’t get approved soon, these renovation projects will come to a screeching halt.”

Dothan Eagle: Group aims to identify challenges, solutions for local manufacturing and distribution industry

Manufacturing and distribution companies are among the top employers in the Wiregrass.

Officials said a new brainstorming team, the Wiregrass Industry Group, has been created through the Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce to address issues affecting those companies.

About 35 representatives from manufacturing businesses throughout Alabama, Georgia and Florida met at the chamber earlier this month. Mary Beth Reynolds, a Dothan chamber member and Region 10 Workforce Council member over the manufacturing cluster, said the group is currently not established with official bylaws but is instead a “free forum” that offers the flexibility to openly discuss issues and act on them. She said the most pressing issues at the group’s first meeting were staffing, workforce development and skill shortages.

She said the group also talked about the stigma associated with getting children to pursue technical careers as opposed to four-year degrees.

“We want to get the message out that there are fantastic opportunities already existing here inside the world of manufacturing and logistics,” she said.

“We want to connect with people that have the attributes and desire to work inside this arena and to show them that it’s possible.”

According to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were more than 4,000 jobs in manufacturing and more than 15,000 jobs in trade, transportation and utilities in Dothan alone in April.

More than 8,000 manufacturing jobs were available in the city in May 2005, which dropped to nearly 6,000 in 2009 during the recession.

Reynolds said the overall mission of the Wiregrass Industry Group is to achieve the following three goals:

  • provide an opportunity for manufacturers and logistics professionals to network and share best practices in order to synergize business efforts.
  • keep the companies apprised of existing, new and pending legislation that impacts the industry
  • and solve problems affecting the industries by partnering with necessary officials and education professionals that could help.

Reynolds said it was necessary to put something together that worked with existing companies.

“While it’s easy to get excited about new companies coming to town – which is great for our community – we wanted to make sure we are doing something to protect the existing industry here,” Reynolds said.


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