The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

November 10, 2013

Onyx Aerospace wants Athens, county to have a piece of the federal pie

By Budd McLaughlin
bud@athensnews-courier.com

— Norm Brown had a homecoming and now wants others to join the party

You see, Brown’s company — Onyx Aerospace — recently moved into the old Sykes Building in downtown Athens and he wouldn’t mind having some new neighbors.

Brown, who lives in Athens and graduated from Athens High School and UAH, wants to help this area take advantage of opportunities — and dollars — from federal contracts.

“Billions of dollars go through Huntsville,” said Brown, who worked at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville as well as for government contractors there. “There’s no reason why a few million couldn’t come through here.”

And there’s a way for that to happen.

It’s called the HUBZone (historically underutilized business zone) program. It’s run through the U.S. Small Business Administration and encourages economic development in historically underutilized business zones — “HUBZones” — through preferences in bidding on federal contracts.

A portion of Athens and part of Limestone County have been designated a HUBZone and Brown’s mission — of sorts — is to let businesses here know about the opportunities of federal contracts.

“There are jobs over there (Marshall and Redstone Arsenal) that businesses here can handle,” he said. “Machine shops can drill holes in tubes. There’s engineering services …”

He said, however, that qualifying for HUBZone certification is not a quick process. It usually takes a few months and there are requirements, but it’s worth it.

“It’s a set-aside program,” he said. “And contractors are required to award (at least 3 percent of) contracts to HUBZone companies.”

Brown said it would take a mindset-change for some people to accept the concept of bringing the small, engineering services companies here as opposed to the bigger, manufacturing-type operations.

“With manufacturing, you can see and touch the product,” he said. “Engineering services is conceptual. It’s an office of people and computers; models and simulation.”

But, this type of company can pay well, he said. And, Brown said he believes it’s better to have four or five companies with 50 people than one with about 200 people.

Brown is chairman of the company’s board and Kendell Phillips, also an Athens resident, is the president of the 11-employee company. Brown’s NASA background combines with Phillips’ 25 years experience in missile defense to guide the company’s mission.

Onyx provides services to the Marshall Space Flight Center as well as the Army’s Missile Defense Agency and works with the likes of Boeing, Raytheon and Lockheed.

“Ideally, we hope to get to 50 employees,” Brown said. “That’s just the perfect number for our type of company.”

About a year ago, when Brown was trying to find a place for Onyx, he looked at several sites around the county but had an eye for downtown Athens. By chance, a high school classmate let him know the Sykes Building was available.

“I always wanted to have something downtown,” Brown said. “This was perfect. I’m 1,000 percent glad we did.”