5 months ago

A South Alabama ‘Renaissance’ – How Andalusia is getting its groove back

Small towns are scattered throughout South Alabama. To many, they are just blurs or brief stopping points during trips to Florida’s Gulf Coast beaches.

They come in different sizes and have funny names like Florala, Elba, Samson, Slocomb, McKenzie, Enterprise, Opp, Hartford and Brewton. They are not unlike any of Alabama’s numerous other small towns. Like many, bypass routes have been built to route traffic around their business districts. Some, like Castleberry, are notorious speed traps and have been for the last several decades.

There is one that seems a little different than the rest – the city of Andalusia.

People in nearby towns describe it as “aristocratic.” And they may be right. At first glance, it seems like a place with a little swagger to it – historic buildings that have been or are in the process of being refurbished, new schools with athletic facilities that outshine its nearby rivals and a lively downtown that doesn’t turn into a ghost town after 5 p.m.

From his office in a city hall, a structure built in 1914, renovated in 2004 and since retrofitted with modern bells and whistles one might expect for a small-to-mid-size company, Andalusia Mayor Earl Johnson acknowledged the reputation.

Andalusia City Hall (Jeff Poor/YHN)

“Andalusia has always been seen to be a forward-moving progressive town,” Johnson said in a sit-down interview with Yellowhammer News. “There’s something about the name ‘Andalusia’ that’s sort of sexy, cool.”

It’s a posture that isn’t unwarranted.

Earlier this month, Shaw Industries, Inc., a Dalton, Ga.-based carpet manufacturer announced a $250 million technology investment into its Andalusia facility.

A week earlier, the nearby South Alabama Regional Airport announced the new tenet Dyncorp was “immediately” bringing 45 news jobs to maintain and repair the TH-57 Naval helicopters.

Those announcements suggest a trend is underway in the south-central Alabama city of nearly 9,000 residents.

Andalusia’s ‘Renaissance’

Upon one’s first visit to Andalusia, you can’t help but notice many of the city’s historic structures. Over the years, many of those buildings fell into disrepair and began to show their age.

Rather than tear them down and turn a blind eye to Andalusia’s heritage, Johnson saw the opportunity to preserve some of those structures, and in some cases at a bargain for the local taxpayers.

“This revitalization – I call it Andalusia’s renaissance,” Johnson explained. “We have been working on [it] for 20 years now – Andalusia has been getting in place to see a Renaissance of its old self coming into place, and we’re dead in it right now. We’re on top of it.”

Downtown Andalusia circa 1921 (Kristy Shuford White’s “Andalusia”/Three Notch Museum)

One of the first steps of this “Renaissance” was the city hall, a structure built in 1914 and was formerly the Three Notch School. It was renovated in 2004 by the city for $3.5 million – arguably much cheaper than what it might have been if the city had started from scratch in its quest for a new city hall.

In that same spirit of revitalizing old school properties, Johnson’s administration took what was known as the Church Street School, a building built in 1923, and renovate it to become the Church Street Cultural Arts Center, home to the Andalusia Ballet.

Like many of the small towns throughout the South, the heart of Andalusia is the town square. It is bordered by the Covington County Courthouse to the north and various shops and office buildings on its other three sides.

Covington County Courthouse, Andalusia (Jeff Poor/YHN)

The city’s most memorable and iconic structure is the First National Bank Building, also referred to as the Timmerman Building, at the southeastern corner of the city’s square.

The six-story high-rise building was built in 1920 and has had a mixed history of occupancy in its nearly 100 years of existence. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. The city acquired the building in early 2017 for $260,000 plus $1,500 in closing costs.

First National Bank Building, Andalusia (Jeff Poor/YHN)

Johnson explained how the city acquired the building from its previous owner in California and got half the purchase price donated from a charitable foundation.

“I knew the guy owed some money on it, and I knew the note was coming due at a certain time,” he explained. “I said if we were going to be able to get this, now was going to be the time. I started quietly negotiating about buying the building from him.”

Currently, the building’s ground floor is occupied by Wiregrass-based Milky Moos Homemade Ice Cream, a deal the city inked earlier this year. Johnson said he foresaw the remaining levels to be a mix of commercial and residential.

Another building featured in the city’s downtown portfolio, and one that about which Johnson speaks very enthusiastically is its historic theater. A lawyer by trade, Johnson was able to use his knowledge of the tax code to engineer a deal for the city’s acquisition of the theater through a donation of the property.

Under the previous owner, the theater building was deteriorating. However, once taking ownership of the building, the City of Andalusia put $1.4 million toward renovation, to make way for Clark Theaters and is now equipped with all the modern amenities one might expect for a movie-going experience.

Before and After Andalusia Downtown Theater 2017 Renovation (City of Andalusia/YHN)

Johnson isn’t shy about his city’s role in creating venues for private enterprise. He pledged his support for free enterprise but argued in some cases government has a role in improving the quality of life and opportunity for its constituents.

“I believe in the free market,” Johnson explained. “I believe in capitalism. I believe in the free-market system. But some people worship it. They think it has all the answers to all problems. No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t always fix everything. Any manmade system is not perfect, and small rural towns – sometimes it doesn’t work. You’ve got to do something else to make it work. And the things that I’m talking to you and told you about are perfect examples.”

Among the other properties that have undergone rehabilitation were former Andalusia Mayor John G. Sherf’s Springdale Estate, the old AlaTex headquarters, now the home of the Andalusia Area Chamber of Commerce, and the former downtown Andala Building, which is adjacent to the First National Bank Building and is the home of Big Mike’s, an upscale steakhouse.

Big Mike’s Steakhouse, Andalusia (Jeff Poor/YHN)

Evolution from agrarian to industrial and overcoming globalization

Like many of the small towns of the region, post-Civil War Andalusia relied mostly on agriculture and timber to fuel its local economy. That would change after the turn of the century.

In South Alabama, cotton was plentiful, and labor was relatively cheaper than the national average and free from any entanglements of labor unions. Disruptions in domestic labor markets and that proximity to cotton enticed textile manufacturers to move their operations to the South.

Eventually, throughout South Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, many of the local economies of the 20th century were reliant upon the success of American textiles.

Andalusia was no exception. In 1924, John G. Scherf, a German immigrant with a background in the textile industry assumed control of the local Chamber of Commerce and co-founded Andala Co., and later Alatex. Scherf would later become Andalusia’s mayor.

‘Big Shirt’ tribute to Alatex in front of Andalusia Area Chamber of Commerce (Jeff Poor/YHN)

Those two companies manufactured products and distributed them throughout the world, including men’s dress shirts, shorts and underwear. Those products included garments for household brands like Arrow and Van Heusen.

The 1990s brought globalization, a trend that was aided by the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). With that, a lot of the textile production operations that existed in Alabama for generations moved to Latin America and the Far East.

Andalusia was also no exception to this trend, and in the mid-1990s, it lost its textile industry.

“When Alatex closed its doors, it was a huge negative economic impact to this area,” Johnson said. “And not just Andalusia. Alatex had plants in Luverne, Troy, Crestview (Fla.), Enterprise and Panama City (Fla.). And one time, they had a big warehouse operation up in Montgomery. It was a regional player as far as employment was concerned.”

1935 State of Alabama Highway Map (University of Alabama Map Archives)

“When they finally shut the doors and locked the gate, that was a bad day,” Johnson added.

Throughout the 20th century, many localities in the region were discouraged from recruiting other industries to diversify their economy. The fear was that new industry might create a competitive market for labor and force an increase in wages.

But when textiles left, some municipalities were caught flat-footed and scrambling for answers on how to fill that void.

“Basically, what I saw was people – all they wanted to do was cuss NAFTA,” Johnson said. “’If it wasn’t for NAFTA, if it wasn’t for NAFTA.’ Well you know, we can’t change that.”

From that point forward, Johnson said he saw the need for Andalusia to diversify its economy. At the time, Johnson was practicing law and serving on the board of the local airport authority. The desire to see his hometown expand its economy catapulted him into politics and eventually mayor.

Hometown utilities give workforce, economic advantages

In the 1930s during President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Rural Electrification Act (REA) was passed into law. At the time, electricity in Andalusia was sparse, and only a few places had it, which was just enough to power some lights. Under REA, the Alabama Electric Co-op (AEC) came into existence and was headquartered in Andalusia given its proximity to the Conecuh River, which could be dammed to generate hydroelectricity.

AEC generated and sold the electricity to municipal and county electric cooperatives and eventually became PowerSouth and is still headquartered in Andalusia today.

Later came the Southeast Alabama Gas District, also headquartered in Andalusia.

According to Johnson, all those were ingredients in setting the city of Andalusia apart from some of its neighbors.

“Though we were primarily agriculture, timber and textiles, we had these other things going for us that a lot of cities didn’t have,” he explained.

Johnson maintains there are more engineers in his city per capita than anywhere else in the state and that the raw number is tops anywhere outside of Alabama’s major metropolitan areas.

A unique set of problems

As much of rural Alabama struggles with maintaining quality education and health care offerings, this seems to be the least of Andalusia’s challenges.

Mayor Johnson contended his city’s public-school system is the best south of Auburn. He also pointed out there are no private schools in the entire county, which suggests residents are satisfied with the public schools.

While many places in rural Alabama struggle to keep their hospitals open and functioning, his city’s hospital Andalusia Health isn’t facing those struggles.

Instead, Johnson said Andalusia’s areas of concern are retail and housing.

On the retail front, Johnson is seeking suitors to fill the void left behind by the now mostly vacant Covington Mall. With the nearest major shopping centers in Montgomery, Dothan and Destin, Fla., Johnson insists Andalusia is a prime opportunity for a prospective retailer.

Hollowed-out Covington Mall, Andalusia in December 2018 (Jeff Poor/YHN)

“People who are interested in the retail business, I would show them are market studies that show we have 150,000 people in our retail market,” Johnson said. “Then I would take them and introduce them to about four or five retailers we have brought to Andalusia in recent years and ask that person to talk to this prospect and tell them what working with the City of Andalusia is like. And I will guarantee you they will tell you it’s the best experience they ever had working with a government. Andalusia is the best experience they ever had as far as getting things done, business taken care of, and cutting the expense and costs of getting their business in business as quickly as possible.”

“The market we have and the reputation and experience we have understanding their problems and making their job easier,” he added.

Housing in the City of Andalusia is relatively affordable. With a median home price of $125,000, Andalusia is slightly lower than the state’s median price at $129,000. However, there is a lack of apartment housing in the city.

“Our other big challenge is housing, apartments – and we’re working real hard on that,” the Andalusia mayor said.

Johnson said he anticipates that problem to be self-correcting.

“More housing in the way of upper-level apartments and also single-family dwellings,” he said. “All that’s starting to show up now, and that’s coming.”

Geographic location, airport highlight city’s transportation offerings

Given the city’s unique location, an hour and a half drive from Montgomery, Dothan and the Florida coastline and two hours from Mobile, Johnson has a wish list of road and highway projects but knows his city isn’t a priority.

Currently, the city is connected to Interstate 65 by four-laned Alabama Highway 55 headed north and to Dothan by a four-lane U.S. Highway 84 headed east. Ideally, Johnson says he would like to see U.S. Highway 331, which passes through nearby Opp, four-laned to the beach and U.S. Highway 84 four-laned westbound to the Alabama-Mississippi state line.

However, the most significant transportation asset for the city may not be its highway connectivity, but instead, it’s an airport.

USAF aircraft sit near the terminal of South Alabama Regional Airport Jeff Poor/YHN)

Johnson, who launched his career in politics from his position on the board of the local airport, touts the South Alabama Regional Airport as one of the many jewels in his city’s crown.

The airport touts a 6,000-foot by 100-foot instrument equipped runway and can support most types of military and general aviation aircraft.

Johnson tells of the airport’s evolution from his early involvement to now — which includes 50 hangars, two of which are large enough to house the military’s C-130s and are now a center of operations contractor Yulista.

South Alabama Regional Airport Hangars Operated by Yulista (Jeff Poor/YHN)

The airport also has a unique capability that allows for hot refueling of military aircraft, including airplanes and helicopters. Aircraft can refuel at Andalusia’s airport without having to shut down, and therefore avoid wear and tear on engines.

Johnson notes the airport’s proximity to Ft. Rucker to the east and Eglin Air Force Base and Pensacola Naval Air Station to the south, which makes it a favorite refueling spot.

The closing argument: Come to Andalusia for quality of life, lower cost of living

After spending more than four hours with Mayor Johnson, I asked him to offer a closing argument to those who might consider Andalusia as a location for a home or a business.

His answer: quality of life for a bargain.

“Our quality of life in Andalusia – I don’t think you can beat it, and here’s the reason why: We have a lot of things in Andalusia you won’t find necessarily in the Birminghams of the world,” he said. “We have schools that are among the top schools in the state. To get that in Montgomery, you’re going to have to pay about $15,000 a year in tuition to somebody per child. Health care, top-notch. No, we don’t have a university hospital here. We don’t have many of the specialists, but you’re still within just a short drive of that.”

Johnson plugged his city’s “active faith community” and its people as another aspect of his closing argument.

“I know people say every you go ‘we got great people,’ but we really do,” he continued. “And as far as looking for something to do, if you want to be involved, you can get involved to the level you want to be involved and make a difference in the community in a town like this.”

All this comes, he adds, at a much lower cost than Alabama’s bigger cities.

“You can live in Andalusia at a level that would cost you probably 30-to-40 percent more in one of the metro areas,” Johnson added.

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and is the editor of Breitbart TV.

8 hours ago

Bill to abolish marriage licenses passes Alabama House, heads to Ivey’s desk

MONTGOMERY — The Alabama House of Representatives on Thursday passed SB 69, State Sen. Greg Albritton’s (R-Atmore) bill that would end marriage licenses in the Yellowhammer State.

The bill previously passed the House on a 67-26 vote. The legislation previously passed the Senate 26-0.

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After Obergefell v. Hodges essentially created a protected legal right to marriage, judges in some Alabama counties decided to stop issuing marriage licenses altogether so they would not have to approve licenses for gay couples.

Instead of the local probate office issuing marriage licenses in each county, the new system proposed by SB 69 would simply provide for affidavits of marriage to be filed with the probate office. So, instead of needing a probate judge’s approval for marriage, spouses would only have to register with the probate judge’s office.

This means judges who have religious objections to gay marriage will no longer have to issue marriage licenses in violation of their religious beliefs. Proponents of the bill said SB 69 will ensure federal law is being followed in the state while taking away the burden of approval or rejection of marriages from individual probate judges.

Opponents of the legislation have said the bill was born out of prejudice.

State Rep. Neil Rafferty (D-Birmingham), the only openly gay member in the Alabama House, told reporters the bill itself is not prejudiced but that it originated from “homophobia.”

However, no members of the House debated SB 69 on the floor, making for a surprisingly quick final passage. State Rep. Matt Simpson (R-Daphne) handled the bill in the chamber.

The bill now heads to Governor Kay Ivey’s desk.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

8 hours ago

Byrne, Shelby file bill to ensure terrorists like the ‘American Taliban’ are never again released early

Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Congressman Bradley Byrne (AL-01) on Thursday introduced the No Leniency for Terrorists Act that would prevent convicted terrorists from being released from federal prison early for good behavior.

Yellowhammer News was the first to report on this legislation when it was imminent on Wednesday.

The legislation being filed comes the day John Walker Lindh, known as the “American Taliban,” was released years early on his original 20-year sentence.

“A convicted terrorist walking free before his sentence is completed should never happen again,” Byrne said in a statement.

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After being captured in Afghanistan in 2001, Lindh pled guilty to serving as a soldier of the Taliban. He was held responsible for the death of Johnny Micheal “Mike” Spann, a Winfield native and Auburn University alumnus who was the first American known to be killed in “The War on Terror” in Afghanistan after 9/11.

“The Spann family asked me to address this injustice, and I want to make sure no other family has to go through what the they have been through,” Byrne concluded. “The No Leniency for Terrorists Act will prevent terrorists from taking advantage of our laws to avoid paying their debt to society. We must ensure that terrorists will remain behind bars where they belong.”

Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Congressman Jeff Van Drew (D-NJ) joined Shelby and Byrne in introducing the legislation.

“The early release of convicted terrorists sends the wrong message to those who have fought against terrorism and those who want to cause us harm,” Shelby remarked. “This legislation will help us prioritize the safety and security of our nation above all else. Today’s early release of John Walker Lindh is disheartening and unacceptable, and I am proud we are taking this step to make terrorists ineligible for early release.”

Under existing federal law, any federal prisoner can be released early for “exemplary compliance with institutional disciplinary regulations.”

There are no exceptions to this law, including those who have been convicted of terrorism charges, and there are 108 other terrorist offenders who are scheduled to complete their sentences and be released from U.S. federal prison over the next few years. The No Leniency for Terrorists Act amends federal law to say those currently serving or those convicted of crimes related to terrorism in the future cannot be released early for good time served.

As of a 2017 Foreign Policy article, Lindh still intended to spread terrorist ideology upon his release from prison.

His release came only a day after NBC reported that Lindh, in a letter to a producer from Los Angeles-based affiliate KNBC, wrote in 2015 that ISIS is “doing a spectacular job” and “is clearly very sincere and serious about fulfilling the long-neglected religious obligation to establish a caliphate through armed struggle.”

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

9 hours ago

Mountain Brook High School band members prepare to perform on the beaches of Normandy

Mountain Brook High School’s marching band is gearing up to participate in the D-Day 75 Normandy Parade, which will commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day on June 6, 2019, according to a CBS 42 report.

Expected to leave June 4 and return June 11, the 24 students from Mountain Brook High School taking part in the event will reportedly march on the beaches of Normandy as they are looked upon by cheering crowds.

Band director Jason Smith shared his excitement of the opportunity and said he was “proud” of the kids.

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“I’m so proud, these kids are the hardest working kids at Mountain Brook High School,” Smith said via CBS 42. “The parents have stepped up to support there travels, and their ability to do something like this is unspeakable.”

D-Day occurred on June 6, 1944, and 160,000 forces, including 70,000 Americans landed on 50 miles of Normandy coast. More than 2,000 Americans lost their lives when they stormed the beach to reach high ground. Over 8,000 others also lost their lives in the days after.

Donations can be made to support the Mountain High School Band by calling 205-414-3810 to speak with Jason Smith or by emailing smithj@mtnbrook.k12.al.us.

Kyle Morris also contributes daily to Breitbart News. You can follow him on Twitter @RealKyleMorris.

9 hours ago

Montgomery selected by military for major software development project

Alabama’s capital city has been selected by the Air Force for a new software development project that will attract top IT talent to the area, spurring increased new-age economic development in Montgomery.

TechMGM, the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce’s initiative to connect and leverage the city’s unique technology assets, on Wednesday announced a partnership with the Air Force Business and Enterprise Systems Directorate Program Executive Office to host a new military software development project that will offer private sector collaboration called BESPIN.

Marking a shift in the way the Air Force approaches software development and acquisition, BESPIN (Business and Enterprise Systems Product Innovation), pairs in-house developers with private sector developers and uses an agile development methodology in a collaborative and innovative environment to turn projects into new solutions to support the Department of Defense.

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The Business and Enterprise Systems Directorate based at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base has been charged by the secretary of the Air Force for acquisition to stand-up a software factory focusing on Business and Enterprise Systems (BES) applications. BES runs the systems that run the Air Force.

The local chamber partnered with BES to provide an initial off-base space at their facility, where work is already underway to create mobile applications for BES with the first focus being logistics systems used on the flight line, including those at Maxwell Air Force Base and the Alabama Air National Guard.

Through BESPIN, previously slow and costly products can now be met with flexible solutions that allow developers to adapt on the fly – and deliver real results more quickly.

By training and encouraging in-house talent to develop software using agile practices, the Air Force is starting to attract top IT talent. Meanwhile, they are also collaborating with digital services market leaders to transform their process and train their workforce.

In April, BES awarded a contract to Fearless, the company responsible for 1). redesigning the SBA.gov site, 2). modernizing Medicare beneficiary API products for Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and 3). building software for other federal, nonprofit, city and healthcare clients.

“Fearless is excited to partner with USAF, TechMGM, and the City of Montgomery at large to support in the growth of the local tech ecosystem. The BESPIN and TechMGM visions align well with our mission to build software with a soul, and to see a world where good software powers things that matter,” Delali Dzirasa, president of Fearless, stated.

BES is also a founding member of the national Digital Services Coalition and is passionate about assisting the government in making its technology work better for all residents.

“We’re essentially replicating a structure that has proven successful in the commercial sector and applying it to the Air Force and building upon the foundation set by our peers at Kessel Run. What previously worked just isn’t cutting it anymore – we’ve got to be faster and more efficient,” Richard Aldridge, BES program executive officer, said in a statement.

He outlined, “Launching BESPIN has reimagined our view on software acquisition and the way we solve problems. We’re confident that the brightest minds in the creation of business software and mobile solutions will be attracted to serving our country by solving some of the most pressing issues that the Air Force faces today.”

Not only will BESPIN have significant implications for the Air Force, the connection with TechMGM and Fearless will strengthen the community in several ways.

“Montgomery prioritizes military missions, so we are honored to host this important project for the Air Force to advance their efforts in creating solutions for our nation,” Willie Durham, chairman of the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce, advised.

Through partnerships with TechMGM and other key area resources within Montgomery’s unique tech ecosystem, BESPIN will aim to support the city’s infrastructure to eventually lead to lasting change in the region.

“The chamber supports any type of partnership that advances the military because it is not only good for our country, but also for our community,” Durham added. “Initiatives like BESPIN allow our region to attract and retain talent, spark new businesses and create a cycle of economic development that will have lasting effects in Montgomery for years to come.”

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

10 hours ago

With the lottery dead, what about the illegal gambling in Alabama?

When the session started it almost seemed certain that there would be some form of lottery passed through the Alabama legislature, signed by the governor and voted on by the people in March 2020.

But in Alabama politics the only certain thing is uncertainty and now, by all accounts, the lottery is more dead than Doug Jones’ 2020 reelection.

The questions that doomed this lottery are the same as always, “Who gets the money?” Schools or the general fund? Prisons or college scholarships?

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It is hard to believe it has been 20 years since Alabama narrowly rejected a lottery, a gambit that sent a corrupt former Governor Don Siegelman to the clink.

In those 20 years, it appears we are no closer to forcing Alabama residents who play the lottery to drive across state lines and send their money to other states.

Regardless, this chapter in the saga appears to be over.

But, there was also a bonus question: “Will Alabama grant legal status to illegal electronic bingo in the state?”

The answer was “no.” The answer to that question seemed to be decided early on. There were multiple attempts by legislators to protect various illegal gambling entities. And oddly, in Jefferson County, the sheriff’s brother even tried to start up new gambling entities, however, that was shut down.

So, what now?

A short synopsis would be “The attorney general is coming!” But Steve Marshall himself rejected that premise in an interview on WVNN’s “The Dale Jackson Show” Thursday morning.

Marshall explained that he was already working on this form of gambling.

Leaving nothing to chance, when asked if these electronic bingo machines were illegal, he responded, “Absolutely.“

He also believes he and his office are already working on these issues.

“We are going to pursue the remedies that we have right now,” Marshall revealed.

If that course does not produce the desired result, the attorney general is prepared to move.

“We will investigate just like we would the situation in Birmingham, prepare search warrants as they come and then be able to take action from there,” he stated.

So whether Marshall likes the framing or not, he’s is preparing to shut down illegal gambling in this state.

This could take the form of a court action or a new version of the bingo raids we saw during former Governor Bob Riley’s time in office. Either way, the attorney general is coming.

Listen:

Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 am weekdays on WVNN