8 months ago

Alabama’s competitive edge in the new economy

Alabama has a proud history of fostering innovation and inspiring great ideas that have transformed how we live, work and do business. From the Saturn V rocket that took us to the moon to Shipt’s grocery delivery app that has now become a household name.

Through the leadership of Representative Bill Poole and Senator Greg Reed during this past session, the legislature passed the Alabama Incentives Modernization (AIM) Act, a transformative piece of legislation that primes Alabama for success by ensuring that entrepreneurs and technology-based companies have the tools they need to flourish in our state.

Simply put, the AIM Act is a game-changer.

It expands Alabama’s economic development efforts by investing in tech-based jobs and removing barriers for companies that want to grow in the state. It accomplishes this by focusing on rural development, tech job recruitment and opportunity zone enhancement.

Most importantly, it serves as a launching point for prioritizing the workforce of the next generation.

Huntsville’s success as an aerospace and biotech hub continues to generate entrepreneurial and tech growth in the North Alabama region. In Mobile, the Innovation PortAL serves as a launchpad for growing startups and connecting them to the resources and funding they need to succeed. Tuscaloosa’s state-of-the-art incubator, The EDGE, supports West Alabama’s entrepreneurial community through professional development opportunities and local pitch competitions. And in Birmingham, we’ve seen smart, effective initiatives that have put Alabama on the map for growing companies, high-profile exits and emerging tech companies from San Francisco to Atlanta that are relocating their headquarters to Alabama.

With exciting momentum in all corners of our state, along with advancements in technology, infrastructure and workforce development, there’s never been a better time to connect all of these efforts at the state level so that we are all working together to move Alabama forward.

To accomplish this, we must ensure that the technology community has a seat at the table in policy and economic development discussions. Many states have already developed initiatives that have created vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystems and impressive startup ventures that are making an impact in local economies. As Alabama competes with other states in attracting businesses and other economic development opportunities, we have an incredible opportunity to invest in the future of our state by supporting our startup community.

This new way of approaching economic growth will take collaboration, forward-thinking ideas and shared creative resources from all of us to fuel cutting-edge ideas and change.

At the Business Council of Alabama, we are committed to creating a pro-business climate that gives our state a competitive edge to grow the global economy. By prioritizing the startup and technology sector, I’m confident that Alabama will continue its strong tradition of fostering innovation and becoming a premier destination for businesses of all shapes and sizes to call home.

Katie Boyd Britt is the president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama.

15 mins ago

Alabama doctor treats, then beats COVID-19

Dr. Brandon White has never drowned before. But after fighting the battle of his life with COVID-19, he has experienced the closest thing to it.

“Just sitting on the bed, I felt like I couldn’t get my breath. While I have never drowned, that would be the best way I could describe the sensation,” White said. “I was on oxygen, and I still wasn’t getting any better. That was the most concerning part of it.”

White, a doctor at UAB Medical West in Bessemer, was working long hours in the hospital’s intensive care and isolation units treating some of the worse coronavirus cases when the unthinkable happened: He was knocked down by the disease. Now, nearly a month later, with much of that time in the ICU, he is back on his feet and has returned to his job on the front lines of the pandemic.

831

“I’m a pretty young person,” the 42-year-old said. “I don’t have any underlying medical conditions, and I have never been a smoker. I would never in my wildest dreams have expected to be one of the folks who ended up that sick.”

Alabama doctor talks about surviving COVID-19 from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

After the pandemic began, White’s schedule became more hectic than ever.

Along with working 12-hour shifts for seven days every other week, White was on call around the clock as a hospice doctor and had a telemedicine practice. In addition, he launched BHMCares, which he was overseeing almost single-handedly until his illness forced him to pass the reins to his friends. BHMCares is a coordinated effort to provide meals from local restaurants to health care workers at Birmingham-area hospitals, cancer centers, COVID-19 drive-thru testing sites and labs.

It was in late April during one of his weeks away from the hospital when White started feeling tired and a bit lightheaded – symptoms that were short-lived.

“If nothing else had developed, I wouldn’t have thought of myself as being sick,” he said. “I live by myself, and I hadn’t been anywhere since I had left work on Sunday. I would have just chalked it up to being tired and underrested.”

By the next night, White, who had been experiencing body aches and a lack of energy earlier that day, began running a fever of about 104 degrees F. He woke up, with his sheets and clothes soaked with sweat. That happened again and again. From that point, it was a “rapid downhill decline,” White noted.

Two days later, White tested positive for the virus at a nearby COVID-19 drive-thru facility. He then began experiencing a shortness of breath and was extremely fatigued.

“I couldn’t eat or drink, and I lost my sense of taste and smell,” White said. “I felt so bad I didn’t even want to get out of bed. It was a struggle to walk from one end of my small apartment to the other.”

That’s when White drove himself to his hospital in Bessemer, thinking that some intravenous fluids and oxygen would put him on the road to recovery. When nothing seemed to work, he was moved downtown to UAB Hospital’s ICU for more aggressive treatment.

As the days passed, White continued to grow worse.

“I’m not an excitable person,” he said. “But as a doctor who works in ICU every day, I knew what my chances were. It was also alarming to see the doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and nurses hovering outside my door, and cautiously looking in at me. I knew exactly what that meant. They’re just waiting for the bad thing to happen.”

White said the turning point was when the doctors decided to treat him with “convalescent plasma” that has been taken from patients who have recovered from the disease. The hope is that the plasma is filled with antibodies that will fight the infection.

The plasma was not an instant fix, White said.

“For a couple of days, I continued to get worse,” White said. “The fevers were worse, the body aches were persistent, and I could feel myself being more short of breath, just lying in bed – not speaking, not moving, not doing anything. Then, a couple of days after I received the plasma, I felt myself plateau.”

White said that’s when his stamina and energy began to increase slowly, day by day. He has lost 15 pounds and has not yet regained his sense of taste and smell.

“I get hungry and so I eat,” said White. “But I don’t taste it, so I eat until I’m not hungry and go on to something else.”

Although White took a lighter patient load when he returned to work last week, it was business as usual. His first stop was to treat a patient who was in the worst throes of COVID-19.

White said as an added precaution, he now wears a full-face respirator, instead of an N95 mask, while treating patients.

“I wear a mask everywhere except at home,” he said. “The thing that bothers me the most is the number of people walking around who don’t have a mask on and are not social distancing. Take it seriously. Just because the restrictions are being lifted, it doesn’t mean the disease has gone away by any stretch of the imagination.”

White said no one is immune.

“If you don’t work in health care and don’t see it, most of us don’t think it will happen to us,” he said. “I’m proof that somebody relatively young and healthy can get severely sick. You can die from it.”

White has also returned to lending a hand with BHMCares, which has now delivered more than 4,800 meals to area health care workers.

“It’s probably the most fun thing I’ve done in my life,” he said. “I never thought it would be as big as it is, and I never thought it would be as rewarding as it is. It has been really fun.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

55 mins ago

Cameras (AKA the government) on every corner — A Crisco sorta slope

I remember the collective groan that went up from motorists when “red light cameras” became a thing. Suddenly, it didn’t matter if the police were around to see you push your luck with a changing traffic light.

Big Brother always would.

The heightened accountability at busy intersections felt a bit creepy and oppressive, but most drivers shrugged it off as the price we must pay for safer roadways.

631

Now the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) is considering the requests of multiple public and private entities to use rights-of-way to install more surveillance equipment. In 2020, we’re way past red-light cameras and license plate readers; on the table now are other technologies such as legacy surveillance cameras and gunshot detection arrays.

Some will argue that more information in the hands of law enforcement is always a good thing and increases our collective safety. There are indeed legitimate reasons to equip law enforcement with the tools they need to do their jobs well.

But when it comes to increased surveillance and the privacy of law-abiding citizens, we are standing on a slope covered in Crisco.

Data and surveillance information are only as noble as the hands that hold them, and the laws that govern their use.

It’s one thing to allow the collection of license plate numbers when a red-light infraction is detected. (And even this is an imperfect law enforcement mechanism; it tells you to whom the offending car is registered, but not who was driving.) But legacy surveillance cameras are another level altogether.

Cameras set up to allow the government to monitor our daily lives remotely should alarm those who value individual liberty and who want to restrain government. As much as we respect our friends in law enforcement, and acknowledge the challenges of their task, the fact remains that they are an arm of the government.

In its April 2 public notice detailing the permitting process for the installation of such equipment, ALDOT acknowledged the privacy concerns at stake and demonstrated a willingness to restrict permits to local governments and law enforcement agencies. Additionally, the agency says that “the use of accommodated sensors and all collected data shall be strictly limited to law enforcement or public safety purposes, whether maintained or stored by the governmental entity or any private service provider.”

The question then becomes: who gets to decide what is and is not a legitimate law enforcement and public safety purpose? The former is a broad category, the latter even more so.

This is a question with profound implications for personal privacy and should be governed by carefully structured law.

It is too important to leave to the interpretation of departmental regulation and scant oversight. Surveillance and data collection technology advance so rapidly that leaving these permits available to any device or technology that may be deemed useful to law enforcement and public safety is far too broad.

Why?

Because we evaluate these questions and calculate risks in practical terms based on the technology known to us today. But what about technology that will emerge tomorrow? Are we willing to write a blank check and leave it in the hands of ALDOT and law enforcement agencies?

Admittedly, our engagement with the internet and cellular networks has made the concept of personal privacy all but a joke in modern life. Heck, I’ve traded some privacy away so that Chick-fil-A can have the sandwich I ordered on their app ready at the precise moment I roll into their parking lot.

But at least when it comes to my phone or computer, I reserve the right to throw it off a bridge one day and retreat from digital view. Government-installed cameras in public spaces and on roadways strip us of that option entirely.

I’m not sure allowing the government to know our every move even yields the promised safety, but I do know that it costs each of us something.

Our lawmakers should get to work capping that cost and keeping Big Brother on a leash.

Dana Hall McCain, a widely published writer on faith, culture, and politics, is Resident Fellow of the Alabama Policy Institute; reach her on Twitter at @dhmccain.

API is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit research and educational organization dedicated to free markets, limited government, and strong families; learn more at alabamapolicy.org.

1 hour ago

UAB says thank you to area restaurants and others for supporting Meals for Heroes program

A campaign to feed front-line health care workers caring for coronavirus patients raised more than $76,000 and served more than 16,000 meals in less than five weeks. Meals for Heroes, which launched April 1 and closed in early May, was a collaboration between the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s advancement office and the UAB Department of Food and Nutrition Services. It was created to feed health care providers and administrative staff at UAB hospitals and the remote COVID-19 testing site where long shifts and busy schedules often leave them no time to purchase food.

“The donation through Meals for Heroes provided meals to lab personnel on April 20, during National Lab Appreciation Week,” said Sherry Polhill, associate vice president for Hospital Laboratories, Respiratory Care and Pulmonary Function Services at UAB Medicine. “UAB Hospital Labs appreciate the Birmingham community for their generosity and acts of service.”

215

UAB Football head coach Bill Clark and his wife, Jennifer, along with the Heart of Alabama Chevy Dealers, gave $10,000 to the campaign, which placed orders with local restaurants and caterers in an effort to help support community partners and bolster Birmingham businesses. Many partners provided in-kind meal donations, including Milo’s Tea Co., Jimmy John’s, Newk’s and other restaurants. UAB Food Services worked with businesses to ensure specific food safety guidelines were met, and also served more than 5,800 meals to compassionate care caregivers.

“The outpouring of support from churches, synagogues, restaurants, businesses and individuals in our community has been amazing,” said Charlotte Beeker, associate vice president for Food, Nutrition and Guest Services at UAB Medicine. “The donations made by these groups and so many others to support the Meals for Heroes campaign just shows what a great community we live in. Our health care workers have been heroic in their efforts during this pandemic and our community has been equally heroic in their flood of care and encouragement.”

At the end of the Meals for Heroes campaign, the remaining gift balance was $21,000, which Beeker says will be used to continue feeding health care workers caring for COVID-19 patients.

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s UAB News website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

16 hours ago

Southern Company turns to Alabama manufacturer for face masks

With government guidelines recommending people use protective face masks and practice safe social distancing during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Southern Company has turned to local businesses to supply its needs and protect public health while also helping support the economy.

Southern Company’s partnership with HomTex, a family-owned textile company in Cullman, is one recent example. Alabama Power is a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Southern.

493

Founded in 1987, HomTex has transitioned from producing bedding and home products to manufacturing up to 300,000 masks per week. That number is expected to continue to ramp up as the company becomes more familiar with the process.

The shift to mask production has allowed HomTex to keep all 150 of its employees working, with an expansion in the works.

“When this opportunity presented itself, a lot of people in the textile industry looked to HomTex to lead,” said Maury Lyon, HomTex vice president of apparel. “It has been a tremendous blessing to provide a high-quality and filtered product that hopefully is helping keep people safe. It is also unique that we could provide a U.S.-made product that we could put into our communities.”

So far, Southern Company has ordered over 1.5 million dust masks from HomTex, along with 500,000 cloth masks. The masks are shipped to Alabama Power’s Materials Distribution Center before being sent all across Southern Company’s footprint.

“Southern Company is committed to helping our communities thrive no matter the time or circumstances,” said Jeff Franklin, Southern Company senior vice president of supply chain management. “HomTex is doing critical and tremendous work for our community and we are thrilled to partner with them. Southern Company will continue to do our part to keep our communities healthy during the national response to COVID-19.”

Last week, Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth visited the HomTex facility in Cullman. He is working alongside the company to help it receive U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for its masks. Lyon said the company expects FDA approval within the next week.

FDA approval is only needed for masks used in medical settings. It isn’t required for facial coverings recommended for most workers and for members of the public when social distancing can’t be effectively maintained.

Last month, HomTex announced a $5 million project that is expected to create an additional 120 jobs in Cullman and position HomTex as a permanent U.S. producer of personal protective equipment at a time when domestic production of the gear is considered a national security priority.

According to a story posted on the state Department of Commerce website Made in Alabama and reported by Alabama NewsCenter, the company secured a $1.5 million loan from the Cullman County Economic Development Agency to cover the down payment on the equipment. It has worked with the commerce department and others on incentives to accelerate the project.

In addition to its headquarters and plant in Cullman, HomTex has a distribution center in Vinemont and manufacturing facilities in North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

“Nothing moves this fast in the textile industry, and the fact we were able to do this over the course of days is amazing,” said Jerry Wootten, HomTex CEO. “We really just wanted to help our community and find a way to serve them first.

“It is unique that we could use our skills to help the community this quickly. It has been a blessing to supply these needs,” Wootten said.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

18 hours ago

The need for education reform didn’t die with the defeat of Amendment One

When voters defeat a proposed state amendment, it is often thought that the matter is put to rest. That is often the case, but when Alabama’s voters went to the polls in March and shot down a proposal to replace the elected state board of education in favor of one appointed by the governor, they only answered the question of the board’s composition.

They did not answer the deeper problem of the board’s accomplishment.

Whatever the makeup of the board, the problem of the state’s bottom-of-the-barrel ranking in education persists, and that’s the real problem that demands the state’s attention. Fortunately, some concrete proposals have recently come to light.

819

As part of a legislature-approved expenditure in 2019, the state department of education underwent a lengthy evaluation process by the Boston-based Public Consulting Group. The report was done with an eye towards improving the mission and function of the board of education. Without saying as much, the report reinforces the noted problems with the board, much of which inspired the call for an appointed board, but the report is also an opportunity for the elected board to correct much of its own shortcomings. The report was presented to the board a couple of weeks ago, with more detail provided in the report’s executive summary. (The full report can be found here.)

The report makes many suggestions, but it hones in on five specific goals.

The first is the most pertinent: the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) must take ownership of education reform and accomplishment in the state. That seems obvious enough, but reality is that the ALSDE has spent years operating in something of a caretaker role while the overall achievement of the state has remained in a steady state of decline. Indeed, this is largely why some advocated for a complete overhaul of the board’s structure; because elected politicians won their spot on the board through political maneuvering and have done nothing to move the needle of achievement in the state.

It’s true that most of the education reform in Alabama has originated in the Legislature in recent years. That’s not an optimal situation; it would be better if those reforms were enacted either by appointed officials who don’t directly face the voters, but at least the school board faces reelection on the basis of its achievements on education alone, as opposed to legislators whose record is on multiple issues which may only be tangentially related.

Yet the legislature has been proactive precisely because the board has done next to nothing in terms of real reform to education in Alabama. Given the sorry state of affairs, that is inexcusable.

There are countless education reformers around the country of all ideological persuasions – left, right, and center – doing interesting and innovative work, and much of it in dialogue with one another. It takes minimal effort to become acquainted with those ideas, but thus far, the state board has proven itself to be uninterested.

That must change.

The report’s executive summary details other items. The ALSDE must “develop and implement a strategy to action plan,” as the current arrangement leaves it constantly reactive, instead of taking a proactive approach to improving and then sustaining high levels of achievement in the state. The summary goes on to state that the ALSDE must set clear priorities in terms of both academic standards and student data and information. As a former educator, this is vital.

State standards must be clear, and while they should constantly be in review, they should be largely left alone long enough to be implemented and performed for a reasonable period of time.

The summary presents two additional items.

The ALSDE must begin to hold local districts accountable for their performance. Everyone recognizes that there are multiple externalities that can affect a district’s performance, but those factors cannot prevent the state from asking the central question: “Is this district doing its job?” Until that question can be confronted clearly and directly by all involved, Alabama is destined to stay where it is.

The ALSDE must make thorough use of data and be willing to confront all local districts with it.

The summary closes by noting that the internal structure of the ALSDE itself must be overhauled, with a deep investment on staff training. Reading between the lines, it seems that this very important department of state government is beset by many of the problems that hamper bureaucracies large and small. One interesting idea is the proposal to create regional ALSDE offices that can work in closer collaboration with local districts. This could be a very helpful step that gives the state greater knowledge of the specific strengths and weaknesses of individual districts.

Voters made their choice on Super Tuesday.

The state board of education will remain an elected body for the foreseeable future, but the professional analysis makes plain the need for a systematic overhaul.

It is critical that the board take these recommendations to heart and begin the process of implementation. That process should not stop with them; voters should spend time with this report with an eye towards the next election cycle.

The report is not just a blueprint for how the board should correct itself. It is a blueprint for voters to hold accountable a cast of politicians who have for too long provided little more than hospice care to a department of education that has failed at its most basic task.

Matthew Stokes, a widely published opinion writer and instructor in the core texts program at Samford University, is a Resident Fellow of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit educational organization based in Birmingham; learn more at alabamapolicy.org.