updated 5/20/2007 3:59:31 PM ET 2007-05-20T19:59:31

A partnership with roots in luxury automobiles and moon rockets is thriving between Alabama and Germany, with ThyssenKrupp AG only the latest German company to locate in the state.

Once known overseas for farming, poverty and strained race relations, Alabama is now home to 50 German industries that state officials say employ upward of 12,000 people. Thousands more work in related companies.

ThyssenKrupp made a splash May 11 when it said it would build a mammoth, $3.7 billion steel plant near the Gulf of Mexico in Mobile County. But before it, there were other German companies in Alabama including BASF AG, Degussa AG and — the crown jewel of all — DaimlerChrysler AG's Mercedes-Benz.

Like others, ThyssenKrupp said it selected Alabama because of a combination of incentives, location and other factors.

"We see many similarities between Alabama and Germany," spokesman Christian Koenig said. "Generally speaking, both Germany and Alabama are great places to do business. More specifically, both have a well-trained work force and a strong work ethic."

The surge in German industry dates to 1993, when Mercedes picked a farming community west of Birmingham for its first U.S. assembly plant. The factory now makes three different vehicles and employs more than 4,000 people.

German manufacturers weren't the only ones lured to Alabama in the wake of Mercedes — Japan-based Honda Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor Co. of South Korea have both since constructed plants in the state. But Germany remains Alabama's largest international market, with exports of $3.6 billion last year, according to the International Trade Administration.

Neal Wade, director of the Alabama Development Office, said the state's recruitment of international industries can be defined by two periods: before Mercedes and after Mercedes.

"Everything changed. Doors were opened to us internationally that had never been opened to us until Mercedes came here," he said.

Alabama's ties to the European nation go back further than Mercedes, however.

German immigrants founded the north Alabama city of Cullman in 1866, and Huntsville has a thriving space industry because of the late German rocket scientist Wehrner von Braun.

Von Braun, the chief rocket engineer for Nazi Germany, moved his team of scientists to what was then a Tennessee Valley cotton town after World War II. Huntsville boomed and became the home of the Saturn V rocket, which first took astronauts to the moon in 1969.

Hajo Drees, the German-born head of Alabama's industrial recruitment efforts in Europe, said the von Braun story and Mercedes and both "great selling points" for Alabama in Germany.

Speaking by telephone from Germany, where he was on the road trying to recruit a small automotive supplier to the state, Drees said the strong German presence in Alabama helps lure more companies there.

"It becomes a quality-of-life issue," Drees said. "Germans are respected (in Alabama). You can feel it."

Some of that feeling is nothing but old-fashioned Southern hospitality, but some of it is calculated.

Trying to make Alabama feel like home for Germans, the nonprofit AlabamaGermany Partnership was formed to help foster friendships and make the transition to life in America easier for European ex-pats. Its one-room office in Birmingham has ties to the Germany's U.S. consulate.

The director of the partnership, Patricia Coghlan, said at least three Alabama universities have German-language programs, and several towns have German festivals, including a dry Oktoberfest in Cullman, where alcohol sales are illegal.

German-owned industry has developed its own synergy in the state partly because executives who speak German willingly help the state's recruitment efforts by writing letters, making phone calls and meeting with potential new industries.

"Part of it is their ability to ask, `Did you get what you were promised? Are these good people? Can you trust them?'" she said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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