Defense Spending Boosts Huntsville’s Economy

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Many state and local governments are struggling to cut services as they try to head off billion dollar deficits. But new research suggests there may be truth in one old political standby. As WBHM’s Tanya Ott reports, military spending may boost a city’s bottom line.

It’s been a busy year for business in Huntsville, Alabama. Tommy Battle is the mayor.

“We were counting up the other day. We had 159 ribbon cuttings in this community this past year. I don’t think any other community in the U.S. had that.”

Many of those ribbon cuttings have ties to bio-tech and engineering. Huntsville is known for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. But it’s also home to the Army’s Redstone Arsenal and the nation’s second largest research park.

“Military spending is one of the most recession proof sectors in all of the economic system because there’s a constant demand, not only because we’re fighting a war, but we have a constant need to improve our technology.”

That’s Casey Borch. He’s a sociologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His research shows that states with high levels of defense spending have lower unemployment and higher family incomes. But Borch says the type of military spending makes a difference. Towns that revolve around military bases don’t fare quite as well as cities like Huntsville, where the focus is on defense contracting. In Huntsville, this is the sound of money: A beetle – a really big beetle – flaps its wings in response to electrical charges sent through a wire. We’re in the office of the technology firm CFD Research Corporation. Sameer Singhal shows me his company’s latest project: a bio-battery that would convert sugars like the beetle’s own glucose directly into electrical energy.

“And you can use that energy to power cameras or sensors and essentially make unmanned aerial vehicle where it can fly into a war zone or a burning building ahead of a human and it can signal back if there’s dangerous chemicals in that area.”

If it works, the bio-battery wouldn’t just power an insect-borg. It could also help charge human pacemakers. CFD’s executive vice president Sami Habchi says this mix of military contracts and technology aimed at the general public is key to his company and the city’s success. It ensures a steady stream of engineers and scientists.

“There is a wealth of talent here in Huntsville. It’s easy to recruit talent and the customer is just next door.”

And the riches trickle down. Sociologist Casey Borch says for every one military or defense contracting job there are 2.5 spin-off jobs.

Jenny Lane works for the Huntsville Museum of Art, which recently opened an eight million dollar expansion. Lane says it was surprisingly easy to raise the money, even with the difficult economy.

“You live here and you’re almost kind of cushioned from part of the horror that everybody else was seeing. I don’t think we got hit as bad as the rest of the country and for that I’m incredibly thankful.”

And sociologist Casey Borch says that’s why politicians lobby so hard for military spending.