8 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.

52 mins ago

Huntsville’s economic future is tied to our airport’s success

Huntsville is one of the fastest-growing local economies in our nation.

Boosted by federal and private sector investments, our region is on a strong economic trajectory. In fact, a recent population boom has put the Rocket City on track to potentially be the largest city in Alabama in the next six years. Our airport represents a key component to continuing this trend because current and new industry considering locating to our region depend on passenger and air cargo operations that support their own operating needs. The local economy depends on our ability to connect with other communities across the globe, so Huntsville International Airport (HSV) is vital to maintain those bonds as the region’s gateway to the world.

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But similar to other airports around the country, HSV needs infrastructure investments in order to continue to be able to meet the expected flow of passengers and goods in the future. Projected growth in the area and HSV’s desire to continue to propel this region forward is why in 2012 the airport completed a major $92 million dollar terminal and landside project that included creation of a public waiting area, a new security screening checkpoint, a new baggage claim and a second parking deck. Those necessary upgrades that were a part of the 2002 Master Plan update, have improved the passenger experience and the efficiency of the airport.

Although HSV has seen many improvements and aesthetically offers visitors a very warm welcome to our community, other portions of our terminal are between 30 and 50 years old and in immediate need of improvement. As determined by HSV’s current Master Plan update, the parts of the airport’s facility that passengers use every day like our elevators, escalators, restrooms and concessions need redevelopment and expansion to keep up with demand. In addition, these anticipated terminal improvement projects are imperative to adhere to new federal standards and provide our passengers with facilities that meet their expectations like nursing rooms and pet relief areas. The aforementioned terminal improvement projects would reinvigorate HSV and set the stage for continued growth for our region for years to come.

We are grateful to Senator Shelby and our Alabama congressional delegation for recently securing significant FAA discretionary grants, however, these funds are designated for specific federal government high priority airfield projects. The previously mentioned terminal improvement projects are considered a lower priority for federal discretionary grants. Therefore, our challenge is to find funding for these necessary terminal improvement projects that are currently on hold.

The good news is that there’s a solution that doesn’t require taxpayers to foot the bill. If Congress would lift the cap on the Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) — a small user fee paid only by air travelers on which airports depend to fund their infrastructure – HSV could begin this project immediately. The PFC is federally capped at a maximum of $4.50 and it hasn’t been updated in nearly 20 years, making it ineffective and inadequate to serve 21st-century airports that have experienced inflation just like everyone else. For example, HSV’s current PFC dollars are already committed through 2030. By modernizing the PFC for the first time since 2001, Congress would allow our airport to generate funding from only the people using the airport, for the project referenced above – all without a dime of taxpayer dollars.

Starting these terminal improvement projects would have a major impact on our region’s economy. On top of the tens of thousands of jobs that Alabama’s airports already support, it’s estimated that these projects would create 608 construction jobs and inject $19.1 million into the Huntsville economy via construction labor wages alone.

Some will say that we should leave the PFC alone. However, those voices fail to acknowledge that maintaining the current PFC could result in stalled growth in Huntsville. The airport has a major footprint on the local economy, with a total regional economic direct impact of 7,692 jobs equating to a payroll of $474,327,000 and a total multiplied impact of 24,293 jobs equating to a payroll of $942,828,000. Failing to upgrade our airport infrastructure could harm our economy and job growth. We have recently experienced lower fares at HSV due to the addition of two new carriers and the competition that those carriers created in the market. The improved and expanded infrastructure projects will further encourage the airlines to grow and expand, therefore modernizing the PFC can have a positive and direct impact on passenger fares.

HSV is not alone, America’s airports need nearly $130 billion in infrastructure over the next five years in order to match the demand. It sounds like a staggering number, but the number of passengers traveling through U.S. airports has doubled since 2000 to approximately one billion annually. Conversely, the PFC that pays for critical infrastructure of those airports has not increased in nearly two decades. These airports in their current state were designed for half of that traffic so it is clear that something must be done to modernize airports.

Airports across the country and organizations like Airports Council International-North America and the American Association of Airport Executives stand alongside numerous conservative organizations asking Congress to consider eliminating the PFC cap entirely or, raising the cap and adjusting it periodically for construction cost inflation.

There’s no doubt that Huntsville is a city on the rise. With a strong economy and a growing population, we are poised to continue to enjoy this success. HSV has always worked to provide the community with an airport that acts as an economic engine by taking proactive measures that allow for immediate and long-term growth. However, to stay on this path we must ensure that our airport is able to meet the vital needs of the growing population and business community. Modernizing the PFC isn’t just important for HSV – it’s critical for the future of our region.

Rick Tucker is the executive director at Huntsville International Airport

3 hours ago

Roby: A recap from the road

Each year, during the month of August, Congress is out of session for a month-long district work period. This is an excellent time for me to travel throughout the Second District to hear directly from many of the people I’m honored to represent. During my recent time on the road, I made several productive stops in Enterprise, Dothan, Headland, Montgomery, Troy, Opp, Andalusia and Red Level, and I would like to take this opportunity to share what I learned.

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In Enterprise, I visited Enterprise State Community College (ESCC) with several members of my staff, and we received a very warm welcome. I received updates from ESCC President Matt Rodgers, division chairs and directors, and State Representative Rhett Marques. It was exciting to learn more about the college’s many facility improvements, as well as new programs and opportunities ranging from academics to athletics. As I told ESCC leadership, I will continue to do all I can in Congress to support their critical role in workforce development. We are certainly fortunate to have this outstanding school in the Wiregrass.

In Dothan, I had the privilege of speaking to the Associated General Contractors (AGC) during their monthly lunch meeting. We had a fantastic discussion, and I appreciated the opportunity to update the group on my committee assignments for the 116th Congress and how I will continue to fight for their priorities in Washington. AGC has been a friend to me over the years, and I am thankful for their diligent efforts to keep me informed about what’s important to their organization.

On my second stop in Dothan, I visited Key Fire Hose Industries, Inc. (KFH) to talk with company leadership and greet employees. I was truly blown away by their impressive operation designing and manufacturing hoses for firefighting, forestry, the military, agriculture industry, and more. KFH has more than 300 distributors reaching more than 70 different countries worldwide, and the company has sold a fire hose to every continent. I was glad to see the work they perform firsthand.

In Headland, I participated in a roundtable discussion with local farmers and business owners. We had a very productive conversation about some of the challenges they’re facing and how I can be helpful. I sincerely appreciate all who took the time to speak with me.

In Montgomery, I was honored to offer the keynote address at the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce Eggs and Issues event. I always appreciate the opportunity to speak with friends in my hometown, and I am glad the event was a success. My next stop in Montgomery was to the Alabama Fusion Center where I received an informative update from Secretary Hal Taylor, Fusion Center Director Jay Moseley, and others. I appreciated their presentation about the important work they’re doing each day to combat human trafficking and other heinous crimes against humanity. These men and women are on the front lines fighting the terrible crimes that plague communities throughout our state, and I am tremendously grateful for their work.

In Troy, I attended Rex Lumber’s open house and was given an awesome tour of their extensive operation. Rex is one of the most technologically-advanced sawmills in the South, and I am so grateful they’ve chosen to invest in the Second District. I am looking forward to partnering with their company and others as we work to strengthen our economy and create more jobs for Alabamians.

In Opp, I visited with local leaders and small business owners. I was glad to hear directly from these hardworking folks on the ground in Covington County, and it was especially great to see my good friend, Mayor Becky Bracke.

Down the road from Opp in Andalusia, I enjoyed lunch at the Buckboard Restaurant with my friends at PowerSouth, the Andalusia Area Chamber of Commerce, and many other constituents. This was a wonderful opportunity for me to speak one-on-one with some of the people I represent, and I appreciate all who attended.

My next stop in Andalusia was to the South Alabama Regional Airport (SARA) for a tour and an update from Executive Director Jed Blackwell. SARA is a major job creator for the area, and we are fortunate to have this economic activity in our district.

Last, but certainly not least, in Red Level, I stopped by the municipal complex where I sat down with Mayor Willie Hendrix, Water Clerk Sandy Williamson and Town Clerk Tonya Cook. We discussed some of the ways we can help each other improve the lives of our shared constituency.

My time on the road during the August district work period was very productive, and it would not have been possible without the many constituents and local leaders who took the time to share their thoughts with me. Spending this valuable time with the people who live and work in Alabama’s Second District enables me to better represent our shared priorities in Washington.

Martha Roby represents Alabama’s Second Congressional District. She lives in Montgomery, Alabama, with her husband Riley and their two children.

3 hours ago

Commerce secretary says Alabama needs new economic development plan

How does Alabama’s commerce secretary react to a record year of economic development in the state? By calling for a revamp of the statewide plan that has guided that growth.

Greg Canfield knows that Alabama’s successes have come because the state has been willing to constantly improve on everything from incentives to targeted industries. It started with the state’s first comprehensive strategic plan with Accelerate Alabama more than seven years ago.

“I know when we came out of the gate with Accelerate Alabama in January of 2012, I believe we labeled it as a five- to six-year plan,” Canfield told Alabama NewsCenter. “Well, no. You know, the world’s changing too fast. So, we’re already in the second iteration with Accelerate Alabama 2.0 and we just launched it in 2016. Well, now here we are about three years later, maybe close to four, and it’s time again, because the world’s changing and we just want to make sure that the future is made in Alabama.”

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Canfield called on professionals gathered at the Economic Development Association of Alabama summer conference to get ready for a new plan that responds to disruptive technologies and growth industries that the state wasn’t targeting a few years ago.

The state’s economic development plan identifies key business sectors Alabama is targeting in its recruitment and expansion strategies as well as the foundational processes that stretch across different industries, such as research and development or data centers.

Since launching the first iteration of Accelerate Alabama in 2012, the state has seen $37 billion in capital investment and 122,000 new jobs.

That includes new heights in 2018.

“We have been fortunate in Alabama that we have had a good story to tell and 2018 was a great story – record-breaking year, $8.7 billion in new investment was announced that will come into our state, not only from new companies coming here to Alabama but even more importantly perhaps is existing companies who are making the decision that they want to reinvest new capital and expand in Alabama as opposed to doing that somewhere else,” Canfield said. “All of that is bringing about 17,000 jobs just from the activity in that one year alone.”

The recent legislative session set the stage for how the Alabama Department of Commerce will expand its economic development efforts going forward.

The Alabama Incentives Modernization Act expands on the Alabama Jobs Act that was passed in 2015. That was a fundamental shift in the way Alabama offers incentives. Previous incentives were more debt-driven for the state while the Jobs Act allowed a company to receive incentives on a pay-as-you-go basis as the state realized capital investment and job growth. That sustainable approach was not only better for the state, but it offered incentives as more meaningful tax breaks for companies.

As a result, for the $1.7 billion in incentives the state gave between July 2, 2015 and Dec. 31, 2018, it has realized $10.5 billion in capital investments and seen 23,952 jobs created – a more than 5-1 return.

Even better news is the types of jobs being created. Projects supported by Jobs Act incentives pay $23.04 per hour, a 46% boost over the $15.77 per hour median wage in the state.

The Alabama Incentives Modernization Act builds on the Jobs Act by applying incentives to knowledge-based, innovation, technology and R&D industries. It also expands the number of rural counties in the state that get enhanced incentives and adds some distressed counties that don’t qualify as rural based on population, but face other issues that would allow them to benefit from the special incentives.

Alabama’s rural economic development incentives now apply to 13 additional counties (light red) and seven distressed counties (dark red) joining the previously designated 27 rural counties (red). (Alabama Department of Commerce)

“We’re really looking forward to implementing the new tools from the Modernization Act and having them apply for new technology companies as well as rural economic development opportunities,” Canfield said.

Canfield said rural economic development is getting added attention.

“We’re continuing our focus on rural economic development,” he said. “Again, 2018 was a record year — $1.1 billion of new investment in rural Alabama, over 1,100 jobs that will flow from that – so we’re proud about that, but this new set of tools from the Modernization Act are going to allow us to go even further in rural Alabama.”

Canfield announced last week that economic development veteran Brenda Tuck is in the newly created rural development manager position at the Alabama Department of Commerce.

In addition to that, EDAA has created the position of rural development strategist, which is held by Brian Hilson, who has headed economic development entities in Huntsville and Birmingham.

While it might seem a bit contradictory for the Commerce Department to say it wants to see high-tech, innovation industries grow while also saying rural economic development is a priority, Canfield said both are necessary.

“Alabamians are building great things, building great products that are found in over 192 countries around the globe,” he said. “So we need to underpin that activity and make that foundation more solid by creating the types of product development and R&D that anchors those industries in Alabama.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 hours ago

Record year for foreign investment sparks growth in Alabama

With major new growth projects moving forward across Alabama, foreign direct investment continues to play a vital role in the state’s economy, building on a record total of foreign investment approaching $4.2 billion last year.These FDI projects represent major job-creation engines for many Alabama communities.

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Last year, companies from 16 different countries launched projects with more than 7,500 new jobs. So far in 2019, FDI projects approaching $1 billion in value will bring another 3,300 jobs to the state, according to an Alabama Department of Commerce estimate.

In Enterprise, Tier 1 auto supplier Hwaseung Automotive Alabama (HSAA) in March announced plans to add 168 jobs to its Alabama operation through a $6 million expansion that represents Coffee County’s largest FDI project in four years.

HSAA, which launched its Alabama operation in 2003 with 20 employees, will have nearly 600 when the new hires are added, said Jonathan Tullos, executive director of the Wiregrass Economic Development Corp. Its last major expansion in Enterprise came in 2015.

HSAA, which produces weather-stripping and air conditioner hoses, serves Hyundai’s Montgomery assembly plant, along with Kia, Chrysler and General Motors. Its Alabama-made products are found in more than a dozen automobiles.

“Having a company like HSAA make an investment in Enterprise is a ringing endorsement of the quality of workforce and opportunities that exist in our area,” Tullos said.

“We have seen in the past that these investments can yield additional job-creation opportunities from other companies looking for a home.”

One example: Advanced Carrier Products, whose parent company is based in Germany, opened a manufacturing operation in Enterprise to supply metal inserts to HSAA.

FDI IMPACT

Similar stories have played out in a number of Alabama communities in recent years, particularly as growth in the state’s auto industry has intensified.

Select USA, a federal government program that facilitates foreign investment in the U.S., says the Alabama operations of foreign-owned companies employ 109,000 people in the state. Read a report.

Since 2013, FDI projects in Alabama have involved nearly $13 billion in new capital investment, generating almost 25,000 jobs, according to estimates from the Alabama Department of Commerce.

FDI typically accounts for 30 to 50 percent of new and expanding industry activity in the state each year, said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce.

“Clearly, this is a huge priority for us as a state, and we’re fortunate to have a diverse base of industries, along with a highly-skilled workforce, to attract and retain these commitments from global manufacturers year after year,” Secretary Canfield said.

Not all FDI flowing into Alabama is tied to the auto industry.

In fact, foreign investment recorded in 2018 originated from a diverse slate of sources in a variety of industries.

Major FDI projects now under way include French planemaker Airbus’ $264 million, 432-job expansion of its Mobile manufacturing plant, and the $101 million, 150-job expansion of the Calhoun County plant operated by Austria-based Kronospan, a leading manufacturer of wood-based panel products.

Other big projects were Haier U.S. Appliance Solutions Inc., part of a China-based conglomerate and parent company of GE Appliance, which announced a $115 million, 255-job expansion of its Decatur refrigerator plant.

In Mobile, Swedish steelmaker SSAB is investing $100 million, adding 60 jobs and relocating its North American headquarters from suburban Chicago.

FDI HORSEPOWER

Alabama has seen significant increases in FDI in the automotive sector over the past 25 years, thanks to the growing operations of foreign automakers Mercedes-Benz, Honda and Hyundai, and their sprawling supplier networks.

Toyota has also played a major role. Earlier this year, Toyota announced a $288 million expansion at its Huntsville engine plant, where it will add two new production lines and 450 workers. The project will push the investment in the plant to $1.2 billion and its workforce for more than 1,800.

Meanwhile, just miles away, construction on the $1.6 billion Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA joint venture auto assembly plant is well under way. After production begins in 2021, the facility will have up to 4,000 workers.

Already, suppliers have begun circling the plant, bringing $380 million in new investment and nearly 1,500 jobs. More announcements are expected in 2019.

For Alabama, 2018 was a banner year for automotive FDI.

In addition to the new Mazda Toyota factory, other major projects included Mercedes-Benz’s new $268 million, 325-job EV battery plant in Bibb County, along with a $495.5 million expansion at the automaker’s Tuscaloosa County campus.

Elsewhere in the auto industry, Hyundai constructed a $388 million facility for engine manufacturing operations in Montgomery, and Honda announced plans to spend $55 million to improve weld operations and add more than 50,000 square feet at its Talladega County factory.

According to Select USA data, Alabama has attracted 114 auto-related FDI projects.

TARGETING INVESTMENT

Like other areas of the state, Tullos said Enterprise and Coffee County are making moves to position their region for future investment opportunities by focusing on education and workforce development.

“Our workforce is anchored by one of the best K-12 school systems in the state of Alabama as well as the efforts of Enterprise State Community College President Matt Rodgers, who recently launched a mechatronics program to support companies like HSAA,” he said.

The mechatronics program, offered at the Alabama Aviation College in Ozark beginning this fall, will train workers for high-demand industrial automation careers that focus on electrical, mechanical and computer engineering.

There are similar programs in place to assist Mercedes and Toyota. In addition, Alabama has rolled out initiatives including Success Plus and Apprenticeship Alabama that are designed to fill the pipeline of skilled workers needed in the future.

(Courtesy of Made in Alabama)

5 hours ago

Urban Ministry tackles West End community needs

A visit to Urban Ministry proves to be equally eventful and heartwarming.

It’s lunchtime and the cafeteria is packed. The aroma of home-cooked meats and fresh vegetables billows through the air. Once inside the cafe, the tables are packed. Patrons are eating and communing just as they would at any other eatery.

Urban Ministry Executive Director Melodie Agnew walks around greeting customers with a welcoming smile.

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Agnew is equally comfortable greeting lunch guests and advocating for those served in this community.

Urban Ministry meeting community needs one soul at a time from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Ministering through healthy meals

There are several novelties about this spot called West End Cafe, or WE Cafe, which makes it unique among its restaurant neighbors.

For one, the produce doesn’t come from a local market. It is harvested just steps away in West End Garden, or WE garden, the community garden.

Those who abound financially, and even those who don’t, break bread together. Hearty soul food in a welcoming environment is the common thread regardless of person’s pay scale, and all are welcome.

WE cafe started as a soup kitchen, but now people come and pay as they can. So educators, volunteers and community and business leaders can sit at family-style tables where food is prepared fresh.

The garden fruits and vegetables are also sold at local markets. These include Pepper Place and twice-weekly at Princeton Hospital.

The WE Cafe is open each Wednesday from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m.

Meeting more than financial needs

Some customers also have a great need for suitable housing.

Not only does Urban Ministry provide assistance with rent, home repairs and maintenance like painting, Urban Ministries partners with the Salvation Army to provide energy assistance to elderly and disabled clients through Project Share.

Urban Ministry has the largest Project Share clientele in Birmingham.

[Related: Project Share meeting community needs]

Agnew says the new Energy Assistance Portal( EAP),created by Alabama Power, is an invaluable resource to the agency.  Agency leaders say EAP provides a user-friendly platform for intake workers to quickly access information needed to post real-time energy assistance pledges and payments.

This in turn gives more time for workers to serve clients.

Under a broad umbrella, their work covers financial needs, but in its simplest form, it’s all about providing a better quality of life for adults who are in need, along with their children.

A record number of children enrolled in summer school. Staff had to prepare for 90 schoolchildren this year at Urban Ministry – including meals, activities and accommodations for each student.

And Agnew says it doesn’t stop there.

“In addition to our students, families of these students also come with various needs. Urban Ministries works to help support those needs of families with the help of our church and corporate partners.”

Empowering those they serve 

For Agnew, serving as executive director holds a two-fold meaning. She can look out her office window, where she grew up in West End just steps from where she sits today. Not only does she serve this community: she and her family are a part of it.

Her great-grandfather and grandfather had businesses in the community. Her father and grandmother were educators in the community. She saw them providing opportunities for the community.

Agnew believes in not only providing programs and resources for neighbors, but investing in people by teaching them to be their own advocates and support. The work is great, but Agnew’s determination and vision are without end.

Prior to joining Urban Ministry, Agnew worked as executive director of the Norwood Resource Center,where she dedicated her time to supporting families and building vibrant neighborhoods.

Agnew says she wants to leave a legacy of service and strengthening her community, just as her family did.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)