The year was 1993. Econ-dev mouths watered over a Mercedes factory. With North and South Carolina nipping at its heels, Alabama went to comical lengths to get the deal. The state offered incentives worth more than the plant itself, and even got the University of Alabama to teach German to the children of plant employees. It worked.
Or did it? Despite a plant expansion and several more foreign car factories, Alabama is a poor state with one of the worst business climates in the nation. Manufacturing is the quintessential middle-class industry, yet Alabama’s middle class remains quite weak. Partially due to huge incentives offerings, the state is a fiscal basket case. Mercedes aside, Alabama’s policies can fairly be judged to have failed.
The attentive ear hears sirens singing again. This time, a Boeing factory and 8,500 jobs are stealing recruiters’ hearts. The Triangle Business Journal speculates we may lose out again. That might not be such a bad thing.
Boeing wants a giveaway of genuinely extraordinary proportions. Word is that the winning bid will have to exceed $1.7 billion. In constant dollars, that’s more than three times what Alabama forked over to Mercedes. In further contrast, many NC political observers were amazed that we paid $35,000/job to MetLife. Boeing wants $200,000.
The resulting 8,500 jobs sound like a “game-changing” event, and for the workers who get them it is. Statewide, it is not. According to my rough calculations, the Boeing deal would cut our unemployment rate from 8% to 7.78% if realized today. The jobs won’t even materialize until 2015, when the rate will already be lower. Further, the plant will probably be built where growth is already solid. (Sorry, Global Transpark.)
Even local developers–especially in Greensboro–have reason to think twice. Officials there see Boeing as an anchor firm around which to develop a new cluster. It is dangerous to bet everything on one investment. The Piedmont-Triad Park would do better to divide money between several projects, so another “Dell” episode doesn’t cripple the ecosystem. The cost of “winning” Boeing makes more recruitment implausible.
You can make a legitimate case for chasing these airplanes. One might argue, for example, that unemployment’s so dire the normal rules don’t apply. But those rules exist for a reason. $1.7 billion is a lot of money, 8,500 is fewer jobs than meets the eye, and an arms race with Missouri is a dangerous precedent to set.