The Southern Road: The Next Bend In The Road

In Alabama, they say that Huntsville has the intellect; Birmingham has the money; Montgomery has the power; and Mobile has the bay.

Soon enough, Mobile also will have airplanes, which will be built at a factory that Airbus plans to open in 2016. And from there, the same folks that brought you the southern auto industry hope they can develop a southern aviation corridor.

And while it’s still going to be a leap to get from here to there, the South is where the Wright Brothers flew their first flight (Kitty Hawk, North Carolina), where countless thousands of Air Force pilots have been trained, and where there’s already a small but growing aviation industry, in places like Columbus and Batesville, Mississippi.

But let’s get back to Mobile. I drove down on an August Saturday from Birmingham, a four-hour drive that’s legendary in Alabama for its tedium. (Actually, if you break it up with a visit to Peach Park, and you stop for green boiled peanuts and to see Hank Williams Sr.’s birthplace in Georgiana, it isn’t that bad.)

Compared with the rest of the Deep South, Mobile is a city apart. For one thing, it’s on breathtaking Mobile Bay, which is shaped like an inverted U, with Mobile sitting at the top of the upside U.In appearance, and atmosphere, Mobile is much more like New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities than it is like other places in the South. It has the same shotgun homes as New Orleans and the same kind of tall buildings in its downtown. Like New Orleans, Mobile is an important port, and it’s also more Roman Catholic than Bible Belt.

But Mobile shares something with the auto towns across the South: determination. Airbus’ announcement this spring that it would build the A320 in Mobile was the culmination of more than a decade of work to attract an airplane factory. “We’ve had a long time to get ready,” says Bill Sisson, the executive director of the Mobile Airport Authority, who joined a big cadre of local, state and national officials to attract the Airbus plant.

Originally, Mobile thought it was going to be home to tanker planes, built for the U.S. Air Force, a contract that Airbus won and subsequently lost to Boeing. Then, when all hope was gone, Airbus came through with a project that will be built not far from downtown, at Brookley Field. (My friend George Talbot, political editor of the Mobile Press-Register, is the authority on all things Airbus. You can read his archive here.)

Brookley opened as a commercial airfield in 1929, attracting notables such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. In 1938, the Army Air Corps bought the property and established a base that remained open until 1969, when it was the largest closure at the time in military history.

Brookley became a private and cargo aviation complex (commercial traffic is handled by Mobile Regional Airport, a few miles away). There are 4 million square feet of industrial space, and 70 companies at the aeroplex, with nearly 4,000 people working there. But Airbus, needless to say, will be its biggest prize.

We rode up a tiny elevator and then climbed up to the control tower to survey the scene. The view is breathtaking. The runways and green fields spread out below us, the bay to our right, downtown on the horizon, and the ocean in the distance behind us. It was too hazy to see very far, but I was assured that when the skies are clear the view stretches for miles.

In front of us was the site where the Airbus factory will be built. It will be using the runways at Brookley to test its planes, which it will be able to deliver to customers such as Jet Blue and Delta without having to ferry them across the Atlantic. It’s likely that passengers will be flying on these American-built Airbus jets by the end of the decade.

Already, Mobile is seeing an influx of Airbus personnel, French and German, who have come over for meetings and to take a look around the South. They’re a subject of curiosity for restaurant staff like Justine, our server at Felix’s Fish Camp, who told us she’d noticed some Airbus business cards being passed around by some of her customers.

“It’s going to bring a lot of business,” she said. “I think that’s awesome. I’ve been waiting tables for a long time. Wherever the money is at, I guess.” She was excited to hear she could already submit her job application at AirbusAmerica.com.

Airbus already has an engineering center not far from Brookley, which opened back when it looked like Mobile would be getting the tanker plant. Many of the newcomers are drawn to the quaint towns around Mobile, such as Fairhope, which sits on the other side of Mobile Bay.

I spent an evening and the following day exploring Fairhope, and it gave me the same sense of peace and contentment I feel when I’m on Cape Cod.

Along with its charming downtown, decorated with flowers that change year around, Fairhope, population 15,000, has a quarter-mile long fishing pier where families gather to catch fish and crab, and watch the stunning sunsets.

Marvin Johnson, a retired school principal from Mobile, invited me to fish with him and his family. I hauled in a fish too small to keep, while I basked in the vivid colors of the sky, watched pelicans fly across the horizon, and looked at the motorboats humming quietly past.

Soon, that sky will also feature gleaming Airbus jets. Perhaps Justine will be building them rather than waiting tables. And if it’s anything like the impact of the automobile industry on the rest of the South, Mobile will find itself in a new league. Says Sisson: “The world will be looking at Mobile, instead of Mobile looking out at the world.”

Micheline Maynard is a writer and author based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She previously ran the public media project Changing Gears, and was Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times.

The Brookley Aeroplex: http://www.brookleyaeroplex.com/index.php

Fairhope: http://beautifulfairhope.com/

The Southern Road: Traveling Through The New Industrial America

If you’re not from the American South, you probably have an image of it in your head. It might have squealing pickup trucks and Daisy Dukes. Or hoop skirts and cotton plantations from “Gone With The Wind.” Maybe the streetcars of New Orleans, or the twang of Paula Deen.

What if I told you that the American South has become a land of opportunity, where people no longer have to leave home to find their fortunes? What if you knew that more than a third of all the cars sold in the United States are made there? And that its population is no longer just white, black, and Hispanic, but European and Asian?

In August, I traveled 4,000 miles over two weeks across the New Industrial South. I plotted a road trip that took me to all the car and truck plants between Mississippi and South Carolina that have been built in the past two decades. I talked to autoworkers and managers, chefs and mayors, university officials and farmers, wait staff and retirees.

And I came away thinking that people up north have no idea what’s happened below the Mason Dixon line. Thanks to the auto industry, and everything that came with it, the South is full of cities where there’s been growth, where people buy new cars and homes, and send their kids to new schools and to play on new skate parks. Towns have new city halls. Instead of selling the past, economic developers are salivating over a new future.

If you only visit one of these places, say, Birmingham, Alabama, you see some of this, but not all of it. Driving the entire region, however, fills in the picture in a complete way.

Over the next weeks, we’ll be exploring the impact of the South’s new industry in “The Southern Road: Traveling Through The New Industrial South.” We’ll have lots of tips to help you plan your own southern road trip.

Most of all, we’ll provide impressions. And this was my main one.

Traveling the Southern Road made me think this is what it must have been like in Detroit, and Cleveland, and Gary, Indiana, and Pittsburgh for our parents and grandparents. While those cities are striving to write their next chapters, you can go see the story of the new American economy playing out right now, all across the South.

%Gallery-164205%The contrasts are striking, beginning with terrain. My trip began in my hometown, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Once I passed Lexington, Kentucky, en route to Greenville, South Carolina, I found myself driving around sweeping curves and up and down hills. As I crossed Tennessee and North Carolina, I was in mountains. And the geography stayed interesting as the miles clicked up, reminded me quite a bit of New England, only lush and verdant in a different way, with live oaks, moss and pines.

The variety was staggering. If you prefer to stay in luxury hotels and dine at some of the country’s top-rated restaurants, you can do that in Chattanooga, Tennessee, now the home of Volkswagen’s new plant. Or in Birmingham, Alabama, which has Mercedes-Benz just west of town and Honda within an hour’s drive to the east. Downtown Greenville, South Carolina, bustles at night, in no small part due to the BMW plant right by the airport.

Do you want to couple history with your auto town visit? Then head for Montgomery, Alabama. That’s where Hyundai built its first American factory, only 10 minutes from the spot where Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. Near Tupelo, Mississippi, there’s a brand new Toyota factory a few exits down from Elvis Presley’s birthplace and the hardware store where he bought his first guitar.

Perhaps you’d like to see what happens to a small southern town when a car plant becomes its neighbor. Canton, Mississippi, fits that bill. So do Lincoln, Alabama, and West Point, Georgia. These towns also have gorgeous lakes and recreational areas only a stone’s throw away.

Many of the plants are open for tours, and the most elaborate, like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and VW, have visitor centers where you can drop in even if you’re not going to see how the cars are built. Several of the plants have gift shops, where you can buy golf balls, shot glasses, T-shirts and picnic baskets. (Too bad Kia’s gift shop isn’t open to the public because it had the cutest souvenirs – the toy hamster and sock monkey that have appeared in its ads.)

Other plants don’t allow the public to visit, but even if you don’t set foot in one of the factories, it’s easy to spot what happens when one of these big auto plants comes to town.

The first thing you might notice is new highway exits, new overpasses and new roads around the plants. They’re often part of the incentives that the states paid to land these factories.

The next thing to look for is development. Fast food restaurants and new hotels are the first signs of growth. But you’ll also see billboards for new subdivisions, and you’ll notice even more in the way of smaller factories – these have been opened by the suppliers to these big car companies. Often, they’re set next to the freeway a few miles down, because they often sell parts to more than one automaker.

What I found on the Southern Road is that the impact of these factories goes a lot deeper than what you can see on the surface. When you have newcomers from Germany and Japan and Korea, their culture comes with them.

That’s why you’ll find the makings for a Japanese breakfast, like miso soup and steamed rice, on the breakfast buffet at the Lexington, Kentucky, Residence Inn. That’s why you can now rent a loft apartment for business entertaining at Soby’s, the popular restaurant in Greenville – because BMW and other European companies wanted a private place for a small group.

To be sure, the South hasn’t become one big Manhattan, and no one would mistake any of these cities for Los Angeles. Southern culture is still widely apparent, from men automatically holding open doors for women, to gas station lunch counters and lots of fast driving. Divert from your Mapquest directions, and you’ll find long stretches of farmland and dusty roads.

But you can stop for Starbuck’s on the way to your plant tour. And you might even wonder, “What would it be like to live here?”

Micheline Maynard is a writer and author based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She previously ran the public media project Changing Gears, and was Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times.

Setting Up Your Trip:

These are some of the car companies that have public tours or facilities for visitors.

BMW Zentrum, Greer S.C. (plant tours, customer delivery center, and more). Open Monday-Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Call 1-888-TOUR-BMW or www.bmwzentrum.com

Mercedes-Benz Visitor Center, Vance, AL (museum and plant tours). Museum open daily, tours given Tuesday-Thursday. Call 888-286-8762 or www.mbusi.com

Volkswagen, Chattanooga, AL. (gift shop and tour) Eight tours a week, Tuesday through Friday at 9 a.m. and 1:30 pm. Inquiries: tours@vw.com

Hyundai, Montgomery, AL (visitors center and tour). Tours given Monday, Wednesday, Friday, also a Thursday evening tour. Call 334-387-8019 or www.hmmausa.com

Nissan, Canton, MS (gift shop and plant tour) Tours by reservation. Call 601-855-TOUR.

Honda, Lincoln, AL (plant tour) Tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. By reservation at www.hondaalabama.com/

India Tiger Population Increasing Says Ecotourism Guide

bengal tiger populationIndia’s threatened tiger population, once on the verge of extinction, has increased by 20 percent in the last four years. As the Albany Times Union reports, wildlife officials and naturalists report most tigresses in the central India reserves either have or will have their cubs soon. This information makes 2012 a good year for eco-travel to India.

“These days in the course of a 10-day tiger safari people may see five, 10 or more tigers, and often with close-up views,” says Dr. Will Weber of Journey’s International. “This is partially due to increasing skill and knowledge of the guides, but there are more tigers.”

In the past, viewing a tiger was rare. In 2010, India’s Bengal tiger was classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Now, the total population of Bengal tigers is probably still under 2,000. A nationwide census carried out in 2011 estimated a total of 1,706 up from 1,411 from the previous count in 2007.

“If you know where, how and when to look, you will certainly find pleasant surprises,” says Avi Sakhrel, noted Indian birder, naturalist and wildlife guide who leads India wildlife tours. Sakhrel notes, “The Indian conservation community is very pleased to see positive results of efforts to save our wildlife. Even some of the lesser known parks now offer regular big cat sightings.”Thinking of travel to India for tiger viewing?

Journeys International
of Ann Arbor, Michigan offers some unique travel options for small groups that travelers can join or they can “request a private journey or custom plan for yourself, your family, your student travel group or your organization. Journeys promises immediate, enthusiastic and meticulous attention to your international adventure travel needs,” says Journeys on their website.

We like Journeys International because the company was born out of the experiences of its founders in the Peace Corps as teachers, conservation workers and travelers in Nepal in the early 1970’s. They learned how inspirational and satisfying that environmentally-sensitive travel can be. Today, Journeys International is the longest standing family-owned global ecotourism company in the United States offering full-service exotic, guided cross-cultural explorations, nature safaris, treks and eco-tours in remote corners of Asia, Africa, the Americas and the Pacific.




Looking for more information on travel to India? Check Gadling’s three-time India visitor Sean McLachlan’s recent posts on the topic

Flickr photo by Graybeard763