TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Among the many people who helped bring Mercedes-Benz to Alabama was Dara Longgrear, longtime executive director of the Tuscaloosa County Industrial Development Authority. He’s been with the agency since 1986, and was added to the team, dubbed Project Rosewood, consisting of governmental, public and private figures dedicated to selling Alabama to the Germans.
Here, Longgrear recounts the dynamics that led Mercedes to choose the Tuscaloosa County town of Vance as the location for its first U.S. assembly plant 20 years ago:
Q: Few industry watchers considered Alabama even in the running for the Mercedes plant. What kept them from taking the state seriously?
A: None of (the site search committee) had any experience with Alabama. They might not have come for vacation, not come for our colleges. Maybe they just knew Alabama from national news media.
Q: So when did a glimmer of hope first appear?
A: They didn’t come with preconceived notions that Alabama couldn’t be it. In some respects, the expectations were low enough that we exceeded them, at every point. At some point, they had to start reconsidering if Alabama was actually in the running.
Q: Early on, some on the Project Rosewood team saw this project as training, “something to build on.” How did that mindset affect the process?
A: The incentive package was huge, at that time, but I think everybody realized it was not just to incentivize job creation, but that it had a public relations value. Mercedes had sparked international interest (through the ’93 Detroit auto show announcement). I had been working economic development, so I certainly knew some of the headwinds. My goal was that Tuscaloosa was going to be Alabama’s site. And if this didn’t work, we’d be better placed for the next project.
Q: It’s been mentioned that the German team, visiting the University of Alabama’s Moody Music Building, felt cheered by the idea that a city this size had its own symphony, and world-class performance spaces, that UA played a tipping factor in offering improved quality of life. What were some other ways UA’s presence affected the search?
A: UA had some pluses, and some minuses. There were worries: Would the UA students be socially active in such a way that they might protest? I told them the only lines would be those applying for jobs.
Q: What differed between what Alabama felt it had to show, as opposed to its competitors, for the Mercedes plant?
A: Demonstrating that we had a trainable, capable workforce to support those kind of projects, where our competitors were spending more time on ‘Here’s the site, here’s the quality of life.’
Q: What’s the biggest change Mercedes brought about overall, in your profession?
A: Among other sister states who are dealing with the same demographics, the same cultural and poverty limitations; even with that, now we’re tending to be competing in high-profile projects.
Information from: The Tuscaloosa News, http://www.tuscaloosanews.com