Amazon satellite contract bringing more jobs to Decatur

Dec. 9—A massive contract landed by United Launch Alliance to launch Amazon's planned Project Kuiper constellation of broadband internet satellites, already triggering hundreds of millions of dollars in construction, will also add 158 jobs to ULA partner Beyond Gravity in Decatur.

Zurich-based Beyond Gravity USA, formerly RUAG Space, plans a $42 million expansion of its operations at a Red Hat Road facility that will increase the size of its Decatur workforce from the current 166 employees to 324 employees. The additional employees, who the company said will be hired over the next three years, will average $65,000 in wages per year, Decatur Industrial Development Board attorney Barney Lovelace said Thursday. The current employees average $79,200 per year.

The company will lease a 260,000-square-foot building for its expansion from ULA, which is now constructing the $80 million structure. ULA is also building a $60 million, 300,000-square-foot warehouse. The city recently issued building permits for both projects.

Daniel Caughran, ULA's vice president of production operations and supply chain, said Turner Construction is already working on the buildings' foundations. The building pad is complete for the Beyond Gravity facility and the contractor is driving 60-foot pylons into the ground to support the ULA warehouse.

ULA plans to launch the Amazon satellites on its new Vulcan Centaur rocket, which is slated to have its first launch early next year.

Beyond Gravity's role in Project Kuiper is to manufacture and provide carbon fiber aerospace components for the Vulcan Centaur rocket. The company will build payload fairings, which are nose cones used to protect the satellites from high temperatures, solar radiation, dust, noise vibrations and moisture during launch and the first minutes of flight.

ULA and Beyond Gravity representatives outlined the expansion at a meeting Thursday of the Decatur Industrial Development Board, which approved tax abatements for the project.

The project is scheduled to begin in January and reach completion by May 1, 2024. Beyond Gravity attorney Jeff Choplin said production would then likely begin in early 2025.

The Industrial Development Board approved Beyond Gravity's request for an estimated $1.72 million in non-educational property and sales tax abatements on Thursday. This includes a waiver of an estimated $950,650 in property taxes over a 10-year period, as well as $256,439 in Decatur sales and use taxes and $512,876 in state sales and use taxes during construction.

The Beyond Gravity project is expected to create $1.1 million in property tax revenues over a 10-year period for the Decatur, Hartselle and Morgan County school systems, Lovelace said, as well as $305,845 in sales and use taxes for the school systems during construction.

The IDB in August granted abatements for ULA's portion of the project. In addition to the added Beyond Gravity jobs, the Amazon contract is expected to add 51 jobs at ULA and 50 jobs at M&J Industries. — ULA granted code exception

The city's recently re-formed Construction Industries Board on Tuesday granted ULA's request to allow it to deviate from the city building code on the two buildings.

Kerry Osborne, architectural manager for Barge Design Solutions, told the board that they couldn't meet the requirement that an exit door be located within 250 feet of every spot in the large buildings. Decatur's building code is modeled after the 2009 International Building Code, which mandates the maximum 250-foot distance so building occupants can exit quickly in case of a fire.

Osborne said the locations of the exit doors are between 300 and 360 feet from every point in the buildings, within the 400 feet required under a newer International Building Code.

Tom Polk, development services manager in the city's Building Department, said the city is working to adopt more recent codes, and at that point ULA's request would meet the relaxed requirement.

Osborne said the sprinkler systems in the two 85-foot-tall buildings "will far exceed" code requirements.

Amazon's plans for Project Kuiper are to launch a constellation of 3,236 low-Earth orbit satellites to provide "fast, affordable broadband to unserved and underserved communities" worldwide.

The tech giant said earlier this year it secured 83 launches from ULA, Arianespace and Blue Origin for the program. ULA would make 38 of those launches on its Vulcan Centaur rocket. Amazon has said that agreement is in addition to an existing contract for nine launches on Atlas V vehicles from ULA to help deploy the Project Kuiper constellation.

The maiden launch of the Vulcan Centaur, slated for early next year after several delays, will include two Kuiper satellite prototypes in its payload. or 256-340-2432. Twitter @DD_BayneHughes.