By Mark Kelly
By the time Alabama achieved statehood in 1819, Mobile had been a vital shipping and commercial center for well over a century. Located at the confluence of the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers and the Gulf of Mexico, the Port of Mobile has been integral to the state’s growth and development, says James K. “Jimmy” Lyons, who retired as director and CEO of the Alabama State Port Authority in June 2020 and is now its director emeritus.
“Mobile, and all of South Alabama, developed from the rivers outward, in all directions,” Lyons notes. “That started in the time of the earliest settlers, more than 300 years ago, and the port continues to create jobs, attract business, generate investment and have economic and cultural impacts that benefit the entire state.”
Today, from its base in Mobile, Alabama’s Port Authority owns and operates port facilities and dock lands comprising approximately 4,000 acres along and near Alabama’s 30-mile coastline, including more than 570 acres at its main complex in Mobile. The ninth-busiest port in the United States — and one of the most versatile and diverse in terms of facilities and traffic — Mobile is the hub of an entity that moves 56 million tons of cargo annually. Accounting for nearly 135,000 direct and indirect jobs, the ASPA generates a total tax impact of $487 million and a total economic value of $22.4 billion.
Looking to the future, the value and impacts of Alabama’s port system will continue to grow. In recent decades, investment in the expansion and enhancement of port facilities has been “continual,” according to Lyons. Most recently, that includes a $450 million investment in container facilities, as well as gaining federal approval of a project that will deepen and widen the shipping channel in Mobile Bay, allowing larger ships to utilize the port. Scheduled to begin by the end of 2020, the project — estimated at two to three years for completion — will make the Port of Mobile one of the nation’s deepest.
“The port keeps a close eye on the needs of the markets it serves,” says Lyons. “That means working constantly to develop and maintain facilities that will support those industries and the state of Alabama.”
One of those industry groups is the chemical sector. Chemicals are Alabama’s second-leading export, with the Mobile area contributing greatly to that status. Chemical companies employ approximately 4,000 Mobile area residents — nearly 40 percent of total chemical industry employment in Alabama — and contribute $1.7 billion per year to its gross regional product. The total chemical industry payroll in the area is about $500 million annually.
“The chemical industry has had a huge impact on the economy of Mobile and the entire state — and on the growth of our port facilities,” Lyons says. “It also provides some of the better-paying production jobs in the state, and the products they make are vital to virtually every aspect of our lives, from agricultural goods to aspirin.”
The prominence of the chemical industry and its projected future growth underscore the importance of the MAST Initiative, says Lyons. The effort to promote the skilled labor base, well-integrated transportation infrastructure and abundance of available sites is key to ensuring the continued success of Mobile and the surrounding area — the “MAST” acronym refers to the corridor north of Mobile that includes the communities of McIntosh, Axis, Saraland and Theodore — as a leading chemical hub.
“MAST is a grand idea whose time has come,” Lyons declares. “Increasing communication and coordination for the mutual benefit of those communities and the chemical industry will yield great fruits for years to come.”
Looking back over more than 20 years as the point person for the growth of Alabama’s port system — and forward to the future under new director and CEO John Driscoll — Lyons sees a process of continued evolution. He says the primary objective of creating high-paying jobs and helping to drive economic growth and expansion remains the same.
“Alabama’s industrial profile is changing rapidly,” Lyons says. “We have only begun to fulfill our potential in advanced manufacturing, while also working to keep our traditional industrial base strong and vital. As it always has, the Port Authority will continue to be responsive to the needs of industry in doing its part to ensure a prosperous future for Alabama.”