Courtland kids

Zakenndia Petty, 8, and Isiah Vinson, 10, enjoy playing at the fountain on the Courtland square Wednesday afternoon. Courtland residents hope the recently announced expansion of the Lockheed Martin plant here will bring new vitality to a town that has struggled since the 2014 closure of International Paper. [MICHAEL WETZEL/DECATUR DAILY]

COURTLAND — With a short-term financial infusion from construction activity and a long-term bump in employment coming from an expansion of the Lockheed Martin plant here, residents of Courtland hope to witness a reversal of the town's financial woes.

Lockheed last week announced it will construct a 22,000-square-foot “hypersonic manufacturing facility” that will generate 72 jobs over three years, with more jobs possible after that. The company won a $347 million defense contract to help develop prototypes of a long-range missile that will travel more than five times the speed of sound, and much of the work will take place at the expanded Courtland plant.

The initial benefit for Courtland will be from construction crews, who have already started their work expanding the Lockheed facility, which opened in 1993. 

Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Lori O’Donley said the construction cost of the production facility is expected to be about $10 million and it should be completed in March 2020. 

The additional employees for the hypersonics expansion will more than double Lockheed's Courtland workforce, and Lockheed officials said they have hopes that a successful prototype will lead to more expansions at the facility as the weapon becomes a permanent fixture for the military.

O’Donley said most of the jobs coming to the county with the new hypersonics production facility are technicians, manufacturing, quality and test engineers, and support staff. She said the median annual salary for Lockheed employees is $67,000. When the positions are filled, Lockheed Martin will have about 150 workers at the county-owned Lawrence County Industrial Park, just south of Courtland.

“We’re excited about it,” said longtime resident and Courtland council member Farrell Hutto. “It could generate a spinoff business or two and help us get some people moving in. It’s bound to help our economy. It could mean a few more jobs.”

Lawrence County Commission Chairman Bobby Burch applauded the Lockheed Martin news. 

"You've got the nation's largest defense contractor building cutting-edge technology that doesn't exist yet in Lawrence County," Burch said. "I don't know how you can't be excited."

The backdrop for that excitement can be traced to the 2014 closure of International Paper's 1,100-employee Courtland plant. It was the lifeblood of a town that now has a population of 590 and a median household income of about $37,000, almost $10,000 below the statewide median household income.

The town has fewer than 10 sales-tax generators and owes more than $1 million on the town-owned golf course that closed in August 2017. County records show the town must pay nearly $12,000 per month on the golf course bond through 2029.

Scott Maxwell, district manager of Sibley Food and Fuel, also known as RKM, on Alabama 20 in adjacent North Courtland, said the Lockheed Martin expansion has his company entertaining the idea of bringing back a third shift and expanding its deli. He said when International Paper closed, RKM went from being open 24 hours a day to 17 hours a day.

“We could easily add five to six employees and will continue to upgrade and remodel our store,” he said.

A cashier at the store last week said she is already noticing an uptick in construction workers visiting for fuel and food.

Courtland Library Director Sherry Hamilton, 73, welcomed the high-paying jobs headed for her town.

“Hopefully, people will start opening businesses around here,” she said. She recalled in the 1970s when the town housed a movie theater, restaurants, clothing stores and even a bowling alley.

Linda Peebles, a longtime Courtland promoter, said her town ranks high in walkability. 

“You can walk to the grocery store, downtown square and other businesses that would locate near the square,” said Peebles, who owned an antique store on the square from 2001 to 2006.

“There’s no reason we can’t be a bedroom community for the tech employees over in Madison and Huntsville. We’ve got some real estate available and certainly would love to have new people move in to our town.”

North Courtland Mayor Riely Evans Sr. said Lockheed Martin’s expansion shows the corporation has faith in the local workforce.

“Lockheed could have gone anywhere, but they must like what they have here," Evans said. "There’s no reason we can’t grow with more revenue sources once Lockheed Martin reaches those extra workers. People are going to need more places to shop and eat. I’d love to see RKM bring back its third shift."

He said RKM and Dollar General are North Courtland’s top two sales tax generators.

“I think it’s great for Lawrence County and even better for Courtland," Evans said. "What’s good for them is good for us.”

Courtland’s Kennedy Byrd was picking up a fried chicken meal from RKM’s deli last week when he heard about the plant expansion.

“That’ll mean extra tax money for our schools,” said Byrd, whose daughter is a senior at R.A. Hubbard High. “Anything that will help our schools, I’m for.”

mike.wetzel@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2442. Twitter @DD_Wetzel.

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