The Wire

  • New tunnel, premium RV section at Talladega Superspeedway on schedule despite weather


    Construction of a new oversized vehicle tunnel and premium RV infield parking section at Talladega Superspeedway is still on schedule to be completed in time for the April NASCAR race, despite large amounts of rainfall and unusual groundwater conditions underneath the track.

    Track Chairman Grant Lynch, during a news conference Wednesday at the track, said he’s amazed the general contractor, Taylor Corporation of Oxford, has been able to keep the project on schedule.

    “The amount of water they have pumped out of that and the extra engineering they did from the original design, basically to keep that tunnel from floating up out of the earth, was remarkable,” Lynch said.

  • Alabama workers built 1.6M engines in 2018 to add auto horsepower


    Alabama’s auto workers built nearly 1.6 million engines last year, as the state industry continues to carve out a place in global markets with innovative, high-performance parts, systems and finished vehicles.

    Last year also saw major new developments in engine manufacturing among the state’s key players, and more advanced infrastructure is on the way in the coming year.

    Hyundai expects to complete a key addition to its engine operations in Montgomery during the first half of 2019, while Honda continues to reap the benefits of a cutting-edge Alabama engine line installed several years ago.

  • Groundbreaking on Alabama’s newest aerospace plant made possible through key partnerships


    Political and business leaders gathered for a groundbreaking at Alabama’s newest aerospace plant gave credit to the formation of the many key partnerships that made it possible.

    Governor Kay Ivey and several other federal, state and local officials attended the event which celebrated the construction of rocket engine builder Blue Origin’s facility in Huntsville.

3 weeks ago

OnBoard Birmingham seeks to sell the Magic City to job seekers, placement pros

(BBA/Pixabay, YHN)

It’s been in the making for the past few years, but make no mistake about it – OnBoard Birmingham is all about the future.

The Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA) has launched its online talent attraction and recruitment tool, which it has branded OnBoard Birmingham, as a way of reaching talent directly, and through those helping them, find new jobs and advance their careers.

“OnBoard Birmingham is really an evolution of a lot of BBA’s talent recruitment and talent attraction efforts since all the way back in 2014 is when the seeds were planted,” said Karla Khodanian, manager of Talent and Higher Education Partnerships at the BBA. “It’s been really exciting to get it to this point now in 2020.”


Khodanian said OnBoard Birmingham is aimed at talent outside of Birmingham and Alabama because, the truth is, when you’re in the Magic City, you already know how great it is.

“We want them to build their lives and grow their careers here in Birmingham,” she said. “Our city is at a really awesome point where we’ve just got nothing but gold ahead of us. So the more talent we have here, the better our city will become.”

OnBoard Birmingham is global workforce’s gateway to the Magic City from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

BBA CEO Kenny Coleman said the competition for talent is rivaling the competition for companies when it comes to economic development and recruitment.

“We’re marching towards a place where the fight for talent amongst companies is going to start going into the living rooms, much like we’ve seen for football recruitment,” Coleman said. “The more talented folks around our community will choose where they want to live first and work second, so we’ve got to be prepared for that.”

OnBoard Birmingham helps them prepare through a variety of tools that include:

  • A cost-of-living calculator that shows users how far their dollars go in Birmingham compared to where they currently live or where else they may be considering. For example, your $75,000 salary in New York will go 63% further in Birmingham.
  • Neighborhood and community profiles that will help users pick the best place for them to reside.
  • Showcase of quality-of-life places from restaurants to entertainment and more.
  • A jobs board with keyword search capabilities that is sorted by industry and has more than 28,000 jobs.

Regions Bank and Shipt are the initial sponsors of OnBoard Birmingham and are its first featured employers, with company profiles and an opportunity for enhanced job listings. That feature is open to other companies interested in getting in front of talent with an eye on Birmingham.

Plans for the site include a dynamic recruiting toolkit for talent leaders across the region and profiles of local ambassadors who have built a career in Birmingham. Khodanian said there are plans to work with colleges and universities throughout the state to keep talent upon graduation rather than have them return to their home states or leave Alabama.

In addition to the online tools, OnBoard Birmingham plans to hold virtual events with regional colleges to showcase quality-of-life opportunities and host career fairs with TechBirmingham and Innovate Birmingham to showcase the tech ecosystem that appeals to young talent.

Coleman said getting people to experience the magic of the Magic City is often all it takes.

“What we have found over the years is that once we can get people to experience Alabama – and many times that has been physically but now we are working on trying to get virtual experiences for them – but once we get them to experience it, they love it, they appreciate it, it surprises them in many ways,” he said. “And I think at the core of our economic development and talent attraction strategy is to get more people to experience our community.”

Learn more about OnBoard Birmingham from its website or on FacebookLinkedIn and Instagram.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 weeks ago

GuideSafe may be secret weapon against COVID-19 for Alabama to get back to normal

(UAB/Contributed, Pixabay, YHN)

Alabamians have a new weapon against COVID-19 this Labor Day weekend that they didn’t have the past two holiday weekends when cases spiked, and officials are urging that the more who use it, the better.

The launch of the GuideSafe Notification App helps people know if they’ve been in proximity to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 – all through an anonymous and secure “handshake” between smartphones.

Because it relies on smartphones communicating with smartphones, the more people who use the free app, the better.

Dr. Sue Feldman, professor and director of Health Informatics Graduate Programs at UAB, is one of the experts calling for wider adoption of the GuideSafe app. She said if each member of a given family or group would encourage everyone in their family or group to download and use the app, it would give Alabama the kind of coverage it needs to help control the spread of COVID-19.


“The reason why this is important for people in our state to adopt is because if we want to get back to doing the things that we love to do – even outdoor events, indoor events, concerts, football games – this would help us be a lot safer together,” she said.

GuideSafe app anonymous tool in fight against COVID-19 from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

For instance, Feldman said if 20,000 attendees of a college football game download the app and take it to their separate groups and have them download the app, and so on, the numbers start making a difference.

“You can kind of visualize how that creates an exponential uptick of adoption across the state,” she said. “And then before we know it, we all have it, we’re all protected, we get back to going to the theater, going to sporting events, football, going to concerts and things like that.”

Getting there requires Alabamians to download the app and use it.

“Eventually you’re going to have exponential protection throughout the state,” Feldman said. “That’s how it works. The issue is we have to get it there.”

Supported by federal coronavirus aid bill funding, the GuideSafe Exposure Notification App was built by UAB and Birmingham-based MotionMobs in collaboration with the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) and integrating Google‘s and Apple‘s Exposure Notification System (ENS).

Even though Alabama is one of the first states in the nation to roll out an exposure notification app using Apple and Android smartphones, people in the state are traditionally private and protective. Feldman said there should be no concerns in using the GuideSafe app because it is private and secure.

“One thing that you notice when you download the GuideSafe app is that you download it and that’s it,” she said. “It doesn’t ask for access to your contact list. It doesn’t ask for access to your calendar. It doesn’t ask for access to your social media.”

In fact, the very first screen after downloading the GuideSafe app and opening it is a privacy screen laying out the online protections.

“The app does not know your location,” Feldman said. “It doesn’t know where you are. It doesn’t know who you are. It doesn’t know your name. In fact, it never asks for your name.”

Then how does it work?

Think of it as an electronic handshake between smartphones with the app using encrypted keys via Bluetooth.

“The app never tracks where you are, just proximity to others that are using the app,” said Brian Rivers, chief technology officer at UAB. “There is no identifying information that is shared in those keys or when you initially establish the app at all.”

Once a positive test result is reported by someone using the app, the information gets distributed to all phones that had been in proximity to the person with that phone in the past 14 days. All of this is based on that key that was exchanged, not on any identifiable information about the actual person or people.

Feldman said when a person reports a positive test in GuideSafe, it asks for their phone number, but only for security purposes so it can verify a real person with a real positive test result. Your phone number is paired with a code that matches to a positive test result at the lab. It’s important to use your cellphone number when you are tested so the two phone numbers will match up.

It’s a security measure that Rivers helped develop and is patent pending. Rivers said the plan is to be able to share it with other states.

After all, wide adoption of GuideSafe is the goal.

For more information and a list of GuideSafe Exposure Notification App-specific FAQ’s, please visit Download the app from the Apple store here and from the Google Play store here.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 weeks ago

Long-vacant American Red Cross building in Birmingham getting $30M rehab into apartments

(Dennis Washington/Alabama NewsCenter)

One of downtown Birmingham’s largest vacant buildings could see new life as 192 workforce housing apartments after a $30 million renovation.

The five-story, 140,000-square-foot former American Red Cross building at 2225 Third Ave. N. has been vacant since the organization moved out in 1999.

The development team behind the $24 million revitalization of the American Life building will tackle the American Red Cross building using a similar blueprint.

“American Life has been so well-received. It’s like a dream for us,” said owner and developer Ed Ticheli. “We’re going to repeat the same program here.”


That program is a combination of private investment through opportunity zone funding and public dollars, such as a Housing and Urban Development loan.

Though final designs aren’t complete, Ticheli expects the apartments will range in size from 300 square feet to 650 square feet. They will have affordable rents and be designed to appeal to young families, young professionals and college students.

As with the American Life building, some units in the American Red Cross building will be devoted to the Dannon Project to rent to clients. The Birmingham nonprofit helps people reintegrate into the workforce after prison or other obstacles.

Also like the American Life building, pulling off the development requires a team.

“There are a lot of hands on the rope,” Ticheli said.

Working with Ticheli are LMS Real Estate Investment Management, Hendon & Huckestein Architects, Wyatt Builds, Gladstone Equity Partners, Baker Donelson, Bradley, PNC Bank, Citizens Bank and First Avenue Funding.

Additionally, Opportunity Alabama, REV Birmingham and the mayor’s office have provided support for the project.

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin said removing such a large eyesore as the American Red Cross building is only part of the story.

“I will tell you when you do revitalization to a building like this, you’re not only removing blight, but you’re creating foot traffic in the entire area,” he said. “You’re also bringing jobs and there are so many other things you’re doing around economic development that’s growing our city. So this is an overwhelming positive for our community.”

Before it was the five-story American Red Cross building dating back to 1975, it was the two-story former Social Security Administration building dating back to the 1940s. That creates some interesting challenges, according to Erik Hendon, principal with Hendon & Huckestein Architects.

“It’s got one of the most interesting structural systems that we’ve seen,” Hendon said. “It started off as a one-story building, they added a second story and then years later the American Red Cross came and put another building over the top of it. So, we’ve got a middle floor that used to be a roof.”

Hendon said that presents a challenge to put in residential units with the existing columns and current floor plans.

“But the bones of the building are good,” he said. “We’ve just got to figure out all of the systems.”

Ticheli said he hopes to have the HUD loan in place by the third quarter of next year and then construction will be underway. Work could then take over a year.

“On something this size it can go anywhere from 14 to 16 months,” said Nick Miele, president of Wyatt Builds. “Anytime we get to touch a building downtown, it’s a new adventure.”

Ticheli said residents will begin moving into the 140 apartments at the 12-story American Life building in October of this year. There is pre-planning for a second phase of the American Life building that would add another 350 apartments along with retail and service spaces.

American Life is a block away from the American Red Cross building and Ticheli sees synergy between the two projects.

“You will start to see this whole little neighborhood just explode with energy and young people and seniors and intergenerational living and vets and just everybody I can get in here,” Ticheli said.

David Fleming, president and CEO of REV Birmingham, said large projects bring about great change.

“The density that this kind of project brings is what makes cities really hum,” Fleming said of the American Red Cross building. “So this project’s density is going to really bring a lot more vibrancy to our downtown.”

It also takes a vacant piece of property and makes it productive again, Fleming said.

“It’s very exciting to see this plan come together to meet a real need for our city, which is additional housing, residential, targeting the workforce and it will bring more vibrancy to this block,” he said.

Whether it’s more money for schools or greater economic development, Woodfin said projects downtown have a positive effect on the whole city.

“It means vitality,” he said. “It means the right investments are being made not only in our central district, but they’re getting spread out across the entire city and 99 neighborhoods.”

Woodfin said the city lobbied to get as many areas designated as opportunity zones as possible. Such a designation allows for the public sector to invest in revitalization projects and receive attractive tax benefits on the returns on their investments.

The American Life building is being held up as a model for opportunity zones projects across the country and the American Red Cross project could have similar potential if it closes on similar investments.

Fleming, whose organization is focused on revitalizing downtown and urban neighborhoods, said opportunity zones are an important tool in the tool bag because they allow for better targeting the needs of a neighborhood.

The double shot of American Life and American Red Cross amplifies that potential.

“I think that this east side of downtown has matured a lot, but it’s got a lot more to do and a lot more to go,” Fleming said. “This project in light of some of the projects around really helps fill some gaps in this part of downtown and it’s really pleasing to see the gaps fill in.”

For Woodfin, it’s another example of progress.

“Let’s keep moving Birmingham,” he said. “Let’s keep making the right necessary economic investments and the returns we see will be the improvement on the quality of life for all that live in and enjoy our city.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 months ago

Alabama Mercedes plant among first in world to use innovative production system

(Mercedes Benz/Contributed)

Mercedes-Benz U.S. International (MBUSI) in Tuscaloosa is among the first auto plants in the world to implement elements of Mercedes’ new MO360 digitized production system

Mercedes-Benz Cars Operations 360 (MO360) is being dubbed a “digital ecosystem” that uses a mix of software and hardware in all phases of the auto production process with the goal of improving efficiency and quality.


Mercedes-Benz Alabama plant incorporating new digital production system from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Using technology like sensors on the vehicle bodies to hand-held tablets and smartphones, MO360 is a merging of modern innovations like the internet of things (IOT) and artificial intelligence (AI) with the historic innovation of the assembly line.

“With MO360, Mercedes-Benz is setting milestones in digital production,” Jörg Burzer, member of the Board of Management of Mercedes-Benz AG responsible for Production and Supply Chain Management. “The key enablers of the new digital ecosystem are smart data usage, maximum transparency and streamlined processes. This makes the seamless networking of previously separate processes possible and increase efficiency.

“Thanks to improved processes, comprehensive data availability in our MO360 data lake and fast decisions based on real-time data, we will be able to increase production efficiency by more than 15 percent by 2022,” Burzer said. “We are ensuring the complete digital support of each member of the production staff.”

Key components of MO360 include:

  • Digital Shopfloor Management (SFMdigital) that allows leaders to see the live status of production at any time, enabling quick reaction to production and control issues.
  • Quality Live is a management system that gives push-button access to the live status of each vehicle. It uses AI to constantly “learn” better ways to improve quality and efficiency in the production process. The stored knowledge is available to all the plants of the Mercedes global production network.
  • Paperless Factory uses digital technology to give each employee individually tailored information to work on the Mercedes-Benz vehicle in front of them. The move will save Mercedes tons of paper previously used in production.
  • Smart Maintenance is an application that allows for predictive maintenance at the plant. It will allow for repairing or replacing equipment more promptly to avoid long and costly downtime.
  • Auto SC will be used in the future to optimize logistical processes both between and within plants.

The Alabama Mercedes plant has incorporated most of the elements of MO360.

“Parts of MO360 – such as digital shop floor management (SFMdigital), Quality Live and Paperless Factory – are already implemented,” said Michael Goebel, president and CEO of MBUSI. “The integration of MO360 is already progressing extremely well. Some features, such as 5G and the API (Application Programming Interface) architecture, are being successively integrated.”

Technologically, MO360 relies on reusable APIs, scalable cloud solutions, and free and open source software (FOSS). The result is ease of use for the new tech-savvy worker that feels comfortable using a smartphone or tablet.

“A key success factor for MO360 lies in the fact that cross-functional teams of production and IT experts develop the ecosystem by agile and iterative collaboration,”said Jan Brecht, CIO of Daimler and Mercedes-Benz. “Organizational boundaries no longer have a role to play. All teams systematically utilize continuous feedback from production to optimize and enhance the digital tools. The teams continuously improve the software in short-cycle sprints with the aim of providing MO360 users with lasting perceptible benefits. In this way we are able to achieve regular software release cycles of just two weeks. For software engineering in the field of production, that is an absolute record.”

Burzer said the MO360 system will be made available to suppliers who want to incorporate it into their processes. He said the company’s $248.2 million Global Logistics Center in Bibb County will incorporate MO360.

It’s another sign of the talented workforce that exists in Alabama.

“MBUSI has been one of Alabama’s great success stories, so it should come as no surprise that they are once again part of the cutting-edge production innovations Mercedes-Benz is implementing on a global scale,” said Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield.

MO360 is being used in full for the first time at the new Factory 56 in Sindelfingen, Germany. When it opens next month, that plant will serve as a blueprint for all plants throughout the Mercedes-Benz Cars production network.

MBUSI produces the GLS and GLE SUVs and the GLE Coupe.

Mercedes-Benz launches MO360 global digital production system from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 months ago

Two Alabama cooks competing in World Food Championships finals

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed)

The chef and general manager of SAW’s Soul Kitchen in Birmingham and a competitive barbecue cook from Muscle Shoals are two of the 10 finalists competing in the Final Table of the World Food Championships.

Matthew Statham of SAW’s Soul Kitchen and backyard cook Morgan Cheek earned a spot in the WFC finals with wins in their divisions and $10,0000 each at the World Food Championships in Dallas last October.

The Final Table: Indy competition was originally scheduled to take place in May in Indianapolis, but COVID-19 delayed it until Aug. 8-9 with the $100,000 top prize is up for grabs.


Statham’s work at SAW’s Soul Kitchen was already turning heads in the culinary world when he tied for the top spot at the Made South Slider Showdown a couple of years ago. That win came with a Gold Ticket into the WFCs that were then being held in Orange Beach.

Two Alabama cooks compete in World Food Championships from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

But when Statham was ready to cash in his ticket last year, the WFCs moved to Dallas and almost prevented him from competing.

When it was just a drive from Birmingham to Orange Beach, Statham said he could justify going without an expectation to win.

“Even if it crashes and burns, we’ve got a couple of days at the beach, which is never a bad thing,” he rationalized.

A trip to Dallas meant spending money on airline tickets, hotel stays and the like and raised the stakes.

“My wife wouldn’t let me off that easy,” Statham said.

So they did fundraisers like selling pork butts and a raffle where friends, family and fans helped fund the trip to Dallas.

“I was really overwhelmed by the response,” Statham said.

Once in Dallas, Statham was in the Chef category up against 40 of the best chefs in the world. After two dishes in the preliminaries, Statham was sitting in the top spot with 10 finalists cooking for the win.

“We cooked one more dish and we held on by what I believe was the closest margin they’ve ever had in the category but I think it’s just a testament to how strong the category was,” Statham said.

The dish he prepared for the win? Brunch Tart with Parmesan Herb Tuile, which gave Statham a final overall score of 93.02 out of a possible 100, giving him $10,000 and a trip to Final Table: Indy.

Cheek’s path to the final table was different.

He has spent the past few years with his Sweet Cheeks Pit BBQ team competing in backyard barbecue competitions. When he learned about the AFC and the ancillary competitions that could earn him a spot in, he signed up to compete in the burger ancillaries last year. After winning them all, Cheek had his Golden Ticket to Dallas competing in the Burger division at the WFC.

“Our first year competing at WFC was very intimidating being surrounded by so many accomplished chefs and past World Food Champions,” he said. “Kitchen Arena was like nothing we had ever experienced, and it definitely was an adrenaline rush.”

The Burger category’s opening round was presented by Bo Jackson’s Signature Foods. Competitors were tasked with creating a cowboy burger and a second burger of their choice.

For the second burger, Cheek went old-school with a double patty smash burger with caramelized onions, melted American cheese and BSB- Brown Sugar Bourbon bacon on a toasted brioche bun.

“It’s just an old-school smash burger. Just a good ol’ burger with cheese and sautéed onions, maybe a little special bacon jam,” Cheek said. “I knew it was good, but after looking at all of the other turn-ins … there were some incredible turn-ins, I mean they were beautiful burgers. I didn’t know. I was like, ‘Well, we had fun. It was a great experience. We’ll see what happens.’”

What happened was that “good ol’ burger” earned a perfect score of 100 from the judges and propelled Cheek to a huge lead in the finals, where he did a slight modification of the same burger to create “The Hometown Smashburger” for the $10,000 win and a trip to Final Table: Indy.

“That afternoon on the stage, I can’t explain it,” Cheek said. “It was awesome!”

At Final Table: Indy, Statham and Cheek will go up against the winners in the other eight categories from the WFC in Dallas. The first of three rounds for the Final Table will be a Pork and Parisian Gnocchi dish that will cut the field in half. Those final five will have to recreate a complex Duck dish curated by Chef Greg Hardesty of Studio C. The top three from that round will then have to recreate the Indiana-famous Sugar Cream Pie in the final round.

For Cheek, that as a far cry from barbecue and burgers.

“It’s a completely different world for me,” he said. “I’m so barbecue focused, I don’t know how to cook culinary, if that makes any sense. They started spitting off lingo with pots and pans and different things that I don’t even know what they’re talking about – I’ve got to Google all of this stuff. They talk about cutting stuff in different kinds of things. I don’t know what they’re talking about.”

He’s been practicing cooking duck. Maybe a bit too much practice.

“Oh my gosh, I’m ducked out! My family’s ducked out. My friends are ducked out,” Cheek said. “I don’t want to taste another duck right now.”

Cheek’s strategy going into the Final Table?

“Cook the best product I can without a smoker,” he grinned.

For Statham, he hopes to return to SAW’s Soul Kitchen with a win. One of four locations of the SAW’s collection of barbecue restaurants, the Avondale restaurant has undergone a renovation and Statham said those who have been away due to COVID-19 might not recognize it – though the food is still great.

It was SAW’s Soul Kitchen that brought Sweet Tea Fried Chicken and Pork and Greens to the menu and stood out in a city filled with culinary standouts.

Having two Alabama chefs in the final 10 at the WFC Final Table will add to the reputation coming off Birmingham’s Highlands Bar and Grill being named “Outstanding Restaurant in America” and its pastry chef, Dolester Miles, named “Outstanding Pastry Chef” by the James Beard Foundation two years ago.

“I think the country is maybe taking a little bit of notice to us,” Statham said. “Obviously with (Highlands Executive Chef Frank) Stitt winning James Beard for best restaurant and Dol being the best pastry chef in the country, people are starting to think, ‘Hey, maybe they can cook down there.’ I think this is just kind of another feather in the cap, I guess. Hey, we know what we’re doing down here and we’re trying to show the world that we do. Hopefully we can make some noise up there and make everybody look good.”

Final Table: Indy will take place in Indianapolis at Ivy Tech Community College. It is hosted by Visit Indy and sponsored by Ivy Tech Culinary Center, Maple Leaf Farms, Sysco, Red Gold, The Pork Board, and Culinary Crossroads. The 10 competitors are:

You can follow the competition from the World Food Championships on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 months ago

Alabama Chef Clayton Sherrod finds unity in food, empowerment in cooking

Chef Clayton Sherrod is working with Lawson State Community College and the Birmingham Housing Authority to teach others cooking and food service. (contributed)

Chef Clayton Sherrod knows that what makes a good jambalaya is the harmonious balance of the various ingredients melding together to make something greater than they make by themselves.

Addressing issues like social injustice, political divisions and separations brought on by a global pandemic may not be as simple as following a jambalaya recipe. But Sherrod does see food as having a great power to unify, and those who can cook possess a power that can transcend obstacles.

That’s why Sherrod finds joy in teaching others to cook – both as a consultant at the Lawson State Community College culinary arts program and as an instructor to residents of the Birmingham Housing Authority.


Culinary arts has become a popular program at Lawson State as an elective to those interested in food and as a main track for those looking to work in the industry. Sherrod helps create the curriculum that he hopes teaches students not only how to cook, but prepares them with skills in restaurant management and service that sets them up for success.

But it’s when he talks about his work with the Birmingham Housing Authority that Sherrod gets the biggest grin.

“It’s close to my heart,” he said. “That is helping people that really, really need help.”

It is there where food takes on a transforming power. It elevates nutrition, improves diet and health, teaches how to select and use fresh ingredients and – most of all – how to be self-sufficient.

Some may go on to find work in kitchen, further changing their lives.

It’s work that earned Sherrod a commendation from U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson.

Sherrod was set to add to the program – teaching residents how to be servers, bartenders, receptionists and other jobs in the industry to enhance their job prospects.

Then, COVID-19 happened. But Sherrod plans to pick up where he left off as soon as the pandemic allows.

“We’re going to keep on marketing so once all of this is over, we’re going to land on all fours and just really put this thing on the top as it should be,” he said.

Sherrod is adjusting the Lawson State curriculum for a post-COVID-19 world – one where serve-yourself buffets and other restaurant practices may no longer exist.

“I’m always looking at the bright side that eventually, when this is over, I would like to have our Lawson State students and our Housing Authority Birmingham District students – I would like to have them past the curve,” he said. “I want them to be that much more ready than anyone else.”

Sherrod knows about being ready. As a boy, he caddied at Vestavia Hills Country Club and when they asked for someone to help in the kitchen, he was the only caddy to volunteer. He would move up from busboy to baker to becoming executive chef at the age of 19.

Interstate United hired Sherrod to become chef at U.S. Steel. He got his degree from the Culinary Institute in New Haven, Connecticut, started his own food services company and became corporate chef for Alagasco.

He also founded the Birmingham Chapter of the American Culinary Federation.

It was his work as the U.S. representative of World Chefs Tour Against Hunger that took Sherrod all over the world to feed starving children in South Africa. That led to Sherrod’s involvement in One Net One Life, which sends money to a company in Johannesburg, South Africa that makes and distributes mosquito nets to pregnant women, mothers and children and teaches them how to hook up the net over the bed to cover it and protect them at night from the deadly diseases mosquitoes can carry.

All because of the power of food and what Sherrod has been able to do with it.

Oh, and that jambalaya? Sherrod will be serving it and white chocolate bread pudding to customers at the Market at Pepper Place Saturday, July 18.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 months ago

Market at Pepper Place bake sale to support Birmingham’s Jones Valley Teaching Farm

(Birmingham Bake Sale/Contributed)

Bake sales for financial fixes have been a Southern go-to for decades, so Alabama’s culinary community is using it as a way of helping a favorite institution.

The Birmingham Bake Sale at the Market at Pepper Place on Saturday is raising money for Jones Valley Teaching Farm.

It’s the brainchild of this week’s featured chef at the market, Kristen Hall, co-owner and executive pastry chef of The Essential and Bandit Patisserie. With that pedigree, you might guess this isn’t going to be your typical bake sale.


“I love the idea of taking something that is such an old-school sort of fundraiser and moving that into our industry,” Hall told Alabama NewsCenter. “We have such an amazing food and beverage industry here in Birmingham.”

That food and beverage industry includes a thriving food media business, which is also lending participants to the bake sale.

For instance, Hunter Lewis, editor-in-chief at Food & Wine magazine, is making salted caramel brownies. Then you have those who are familiar to the Birmingham restaurant scene, like Adeeba Khan of the Shu Shop. But instead of making her well-known ramen, she is making biscuits.

Other participating bakers and chefs include Sayward Estis, Eva Faison, Janét Lee Norman, Victor King, Diego Carvallo, Sarah Ward, Ferrell Carter, Emily Nabors Hall, Cari Gantt, Telia Johnson, Brian Hart Hoffman, Brooke Bell, Neville Baay, James Lewis, Ruth Blackburn, Katie Barreira, Tricia Manzanero. Participating restaurants, bakeries and businesses represented include Automatic Seafood and OystersBottega RestaurantChez FonFonBettolaContinental BakeryBirmingham BreadworksEl Barrio, The Essential, Bandit Pâtisserie, Shu ShopTelia Johnson CakesDreamers Supply CompanyMeredith Food Studios, and Hoffman Media.

“I wondered if I could take this very nostalgic, sort of mom-and-pop, homegrown fundraiser and sort of turn it on its side a little bit and utilize professional pastry chefs, chefs and restaurant owners to raise money for Jones Valley,” Hall said.

Leigh Sloss-Corra, executive director of the Market at Pepper Place, said items for the bake sale began selling out immediately on the market’s website. It’s the kind of response they’ve seen since they launched the featured chef at the new drive-thru market due to COVID-19.

The featured chef initiative takes the place of the chef demos at the traditional market with the goal to “remind the public of what amazing options they have beyond the market.”

Chef of the week newest feature of The Market at Pepper Place from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The first featured chef a few weeks ago was Chris Hastings of Hot and Hot Fish Club, who sold 1,400 tomato salads. Last weekend, Rodney Scott of Rodney Scott’s BBQ was helping customers get their Memorial Day weekend off to a tasty start.

Hall wanted to use her featured time to promote Jones Valley Teaching Farm, a program that “encourages academic exploration and achievement through food, farming and the culinary arts” by working with schools, after-school programs and field trips.

“Besides being an extraordinary chef who makes beautiful, beautiful food, she also is really committed to giving back to the community,” Sloss-Corra said of Hall. “This weekend is an example of how she’s doing that.”

Hall said she had planned on having a bake sale at the traditional Market at Pepper Place on Mother’s Day weekend, but COVID-19 ended that plan when it led to the current contact-free, drive-thru market.

When she realized that many in her industry are not as busy with curbside service as they typically would be, she decided to see if she could pull off a bake sale anyway.

“I made a few phone calls and started texting people and it was really great we got these great responses,” she said.

The responses were partly because of the universal love of Jones Valley Teaching Farm and the Market at Pepper Place, but also because it gave the bakers and chefs something to focus on other than the effects of COVID-19.

Pre-orders will continue through Friday, May 29 for pickup at the market between 7 a.m. and noon on Saturday, May 30. Although items continue to sell out, more items may be added, so Hall said to continue checking the site. And don’t forget to order from the other farmers and vendors at the market.

Selling out didn’t come as a surprise to Hall.

“People want carbs, they want comfort, they want all of the things that make them feel loved and cherished,” Hall said.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 months ago

Hyundai and Sony ink multi-movie promotional partnership

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed)

The next Alabama movie star may hail from Montgomery, have four wheels and a Smartstream engine.

Hyundai Motor Company and Sony Pictures Entertainment announced a new multi-movie promotional partnership Wednesday that will see Hyundai cars and technology promoted in five upcoming feature films.

The announced movies include “Uncharted,” based on the popular video game of the same name and due out July 2021 starring Tom Holland, Mark Wahlberg and Antonio Banderas. Sequels to “Spider-Man: Far from Home,” due in November 2021, and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” due in October 2022, are two other announced titles.


Two other undetermined Sony feature films will also be included in the deal.

Specific Hyundai models to be featured have not been disclosed. Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama produces the Sonata and the Elantra sedans and the Santa Fe SUV. Beginning next year, it will add Hyundai’s first pickup, the Santa Cruz crossover, to its lineup.

The pickup launch in 2021 seems ripe for a major movie promotion that year.

A friendly, neighborhood Santa Cruz, anyone?

HMMA’s $388 million engine plant in Montgomery is also one of the first in the world to produce the Smartstream G1.6 T-GDi engine that will feature the world’s first continuously variable valve duration (CVVD) technology.

“It is exciting to see the Hyundai brand involved with upcoming movie productions,” said Robert Burns, vice president of Human Resources & Administration at HMMA. “Even though the release doesn’t specify an Alabama-built vehicle, we can hope a Sonata or Santa Fe will get a cameo.”

Beyond movie appearances of existing and concept vehicles, the partnership presents opportunities to leverage Sony for marketing content and immersive entertainment, to co-create virtual reality and gaming experiences, and to co-produce events.

“This strategic partnership with Sony Pictures will allow customers to understand and experience our  human-centered future mobility vision through innovative vehicles and technologies, illuminating a way forward for transforming how we move, interact, and design our lives for optimal benefits,” said Wonhong Cho, executive vice president and Chief Marketing Officer of Hyundai Motor. “We will offer various ways to inspire our customers and movie fans around the globe.”

Hyundai Motor will also offer substantial marketing support and the companies will collaborate on a wide range of ancillary content-creation.

“This deal embodies the true definition of the word partnership,” said Jeffrey Godsick, executive vice president of Global Partnerships and Brand Management and head of Location Based Entertainment at Sony Pictures Entertainment. “The deal has many layers, including substantial marketing support, but its real potential and impact come from groundbreaking content that we will develop together.”

At the consumer technology showcase event CES 2020, Hyundai Motor Company unveiled its innovative vision for urban mobility to help revitalize human-centered future cities. The three-pronged approach to realize the vision includes:

  • Urban Air Mobility (UAM), a new form of mobility utilizing air space to drastically reduce transit time;
  • Purpose Built Vehicle (PBV), an eco-friendly urban mobility device allowing customization for diverse lifestyles; and
  • Hub, a space for mobility transfer and community activities.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 months ago

Rodney Scott talks barbecue, new Alabama restaurants, overcoming COVID-19

(Angie Mosier/Contributed)

Those who ordered Rodney Scott’s barbecue at the Market at Pepper Place Memorial Day weekend may not have realized it was the James Beard Award-winning chef and Barbecue Hall of Fame semifinalist himself loading their cars with ribs and pulled pork.

Scott would be more recognizable if not for the face mask – though it was well-branded with the Rodney Scott’s BBQ logo.

The logo and, most importantly, the food are becoming more and more recognizable in Alabama thanks to the growth of the restaurants outside of Scott’s original Charleston, South Carolina, location.


Birmingham’s Pihakis Restaurant Group has partnered with Scott to build more restaurants. The first opened in Birmingham’s Avondale neighborhood more than a year ago and will be joined by one in Trussville later this year and one in Homewood next year. An Atlanta location is also in the works.

The Avondale location got a full year under its belt before the COVID-19 pandemic slammed the restaurant industry. Scott said luckily the shift to takeout-only didn’t hurt the barbecue business as much as some others.

“That’s one of the awesome things about barbecue. You can take barbecue and you can reheat it if necessary,” he said. “You can drive it home and it’s not a problem to take it home and enjoy it the same way that you would if it came right off of the fire.”

With the partial reopening of dining rooms and hopefully a slowdown in the spread of coronavirus during the summer, Scott sees light at the end of the tunnel.

“This pandemic, this too shall pass,” he said. “We’re going to be great. Everybody is definitely going to eat again.”

That’s not just a partner in the Pihakis Restaurant Group and the 2018 James Beard Best Chef Southeast talking, it’s also a current semi-finalist for the American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame.

“It’s an honor just to be mentioned, honestly,” Scott said. “Just to be connected with some of the greats. That’s huge for me.”

With summer barbecuing season now under way, Scott offered some safety tips for those firing up their grills and smokers at home, which you can watch in the video below. He also shares how he likes to sauce his own meat.

Rodney Scott shares his grilling and marinade tips from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Grilling at home is great, but considering the economic damage wrought by the pandemic Scott encourages people to support restaurants and others in the food industry. Scott was the featured chef Memorial Day Weekend at the Market at Pepper Place, where customers are supporting local farmers and food vendors by ordering items online and picking them up.

Watching customers have their cars loaded with fresh produce, bread, goods and his own barbecue was inspiring, Scott said.

““We will get through this,” he said.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 months ago

Alabama high school honors fallen service members every day using social media

(Alabama NewsCenter/Vimeo)

One Alabama high school is using social media to make every day Memorial Day.

The Auburn High School Veterans Project uses its popular Facebook Page to highlight a Vietnam War veteran from Alabama every day – either on that service member’s birthday or on the day of their death.

History teacher and the program’s director Blake Busbin said the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress was the impetus to the class recording the histories of individual veterans in 2014. That grew into the AHS Veterans Project.


“What we wanted to do was to find a way that we could really capture the unique story of the veteran in a way that allowed for an intimate conversation,” Busbin said.

AHS Veterans Project honors Alabama’s fallen from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Busbin said it didn’t take long for them to realize there was something different about the Vietnam veterans they interviewed.

“What really stood out to us that first year was the Vietnam veterans who joined us who, many of them who said, ‘Well no one’s really asked me my story before,’ and that resonated with us,” Busbin said.

In 2015, the students through interviews, documents and photos began to construct the stories of those Alabamians who died in the Vietnam War.

Busbin said Memorial Day weekend drives traffic to the Facebook Page and there is always a surge in the sharing of posts from throughout the years on Memorial Day.

But those who follow AHS Veterans Project on Facebook can get a post on their timeline daily that makes every day Memorial Day.

“I think it’s especially important this Memorial Day as many communities are finding their traditional commemorations of the holiday being postponed or being held virtually that we find a way to be online and allow for those stories to be told,” Busbin said.

Busbin said plans are to branch out to those Alabamians lost in other wars, starting next with the global war on terror.

He said his students today were not born when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 took place, so it’s important for them to know the stories of those who went to war in response.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 months ago

Bayer Properties plans a redevelopment of another historic downtown Birmingham building

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed)

The company behind The Summit and The Pizitz is looking at redeveloping a historic steel plant along Birmingham’s Rotary Trail into new offices and entertainment space.

Bayer Properties has a contract to purchase the Hardwick Co. building, a 110-year-old steel plant on the eastern end of the Rotary Trail at 23rd Street and First Avenue South.

The building, which has a 30,000-square-foot footprint, is expandable to 50,000 square feet by adding floors. The hope is to be underway with development in 2021.


In an economy paralyzed by COVID-19, Bayer Co-President and Chief Financial Officer Jami Wadkins said the development looks to the future.

“As a real estate developer, even though things are uncertain right now in the country with this unprecedented time we’re dealing with, as a real estate company we’ve always got to be looking for opportunities, so we tried to continue our business pipeline through the COVID-19 event,” she said.

Bayer Properties announces new project in downtown Birmingham from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Wadkins said the company will apply the same expertise it brought to the successful redevelopment of The Pizitz, which turned a 1920s-era department store into a popular mix of apartments, food hall, co-working, entertainment and retail space.

The Hardwick will have its own character. Wadkins said the company is looking at the potential to incorporate elements that speak to the building’s history, like the massive overhead cranes and machinery that still exist and give the space “some energy and ambiance.”

“We are really excited about the Hardwick project. It is a sort of unique building,” Wadkins said. “The location is terrific, right on the Rotary Trail and with some developments going on on that end of town.”

Wadkins said the plan is set on developing the building into office space, but the rest of the mixed-use elements are still being worked out.

“We do believe that that area is ripe for adding some entertainment or food and beverage,” she said.

Playing off the connectivity that now exists between Railroad Park, Rotary Trail, Sloss FurnacesPepper Place and part of the larger Red Rock Trail System, Wadkins said that part of downtown should continue to enjoy growth.

Bayer Co-president Libby Lassiter agreed.

“The redevelopment of the Hardwick building will bring a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use project to the area, complementing the fabric of the surrounding neighborhood,” she said.

It also gives Bayer a focus in the city where it is headquartered.

“We did want to do more business in our own city – in Birmingham and the surrounding area,” she said.

The building is under contract and in pre-development now. It qualifies for historic tax credits and opportunity zone incentives, which Wadkins said they plan to pursue. Bayer has selected Birmingham-based Williams Blackstock Architects and Schoel Engineering as part of the initial design team.

Wadkins said talks were already taking place with potential tenants when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and brought business to a halt.

Wadkins said they are seeing businesses suffer in every state where they have properties. She said it’s not just retailers or landlords of shopping centers feeling the pain, but the entire supply chain and even in industries you may not suspect. For instance, movie theaters are struggling now because of social distancing and crowd size restrictions, but that is also affecting the production of new movies, which could affect having movies to premiere when theaters do open back up.

Moreover, retailers that had just purchased spring and summer merchandise when COVID-19 hit are now not only worried about that but how they’re going to be able to order for the following seasons.

Still, as businesses have been allowed to reopen even with COVID-19 restrictions, there is a sense that things are showing a small but incremental improvement.

“At The Summit this past weekend, I would say it was positive — not a normal weekend at The Summit, but it felt better than it has in the last two months or even the last two weeks,” Wadkins said.

Which is why projects like The Hardwick take on more significance – it gives people something to look forward to.

“We can’t just completely stop,” Wadkins said. “We’ve always got to be looking for opportunities to continue to do business, and that’s what we’ve done. We have the Hardwick project, and we actually have one other that we’re working on in the metro area — not quite as far along — but we’ve just got to continue working.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

5 months ago

Honda and Toyota reopen their Alabama plants with COVID-19 protection measures

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed, YHN)

Honda Manufacturing of Alabama reopened its auto plant in Lincoln Monday, the same day Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama started back its engine plant in Huntsville.

Both plants had been closed since late March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers are returning to sanitized workspaces and learning new ways to operate with social distancing and additional personal protective equipment.

The reopening of the Honda and Toyota Alabama plants is part of a resuming of all North America operations for the two automakers.

They follow reopenings in Alabama of Mercedes-Benz U.S International, which resumed production in Tuscaloosa last week, and Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama, which has been running one shift since May 4. Plans are for Hyundai to run one of its three shifts for the first three weeks under its new COVID-19 guidelines with an eye on running three shifts beginning May 26.


Getting the automotive sector of the economy up and running again is important for Alabama, which is home to 40,000 automotive manufacturing jobs, including the automakers and engine plants, as well as more than 150 Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers.

Alabama elected officials have joined those from other automaker states in advocating for some sort of relief effort to support the U.S. auto industry after its losses due to the coronavirus pandemic.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

6 months ago

Alabama’s Pepper Place drive-thru farmers market a success, others look to emulate

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed)

A Saturday morning at the Market at Pepper Place is supposed to be crowded. That’s part of the charm and the allure.

From finding a parking place to finding the right ears of corn, the experience is all about finding your way through crowds, hugging and shaking hands with those you haven’t seen in a while and handling the fruits, vegetables, bread and other goods for sale.


The Market at Pepper Place finds success in drive-through farmers market from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Even the farmers and vendors are packed in tight to allow as many as possible to participate.

COVID-19 and social distancing have eliminated much of what we love about the Market at Pepper Place but what remains is the most important element – the ability for farmers and small businesses to sell their goods to eager customers.

Now, instead of packed together, farmers and vendors are widely spaced within a two-block area.

Instead of crowds strolling through the market, cars follow a pathway, popping their trunks for contact-free delivery of items they prepaid for earlier in the week. The only music, if there is any, comes from the car radio. The live artists that give rhythm to the market have no place in this new form.

The Market at Pepper Place is marking its 20th year this year in what was supposed to be a celebration of two decades of incredible success. Instead, it has turned into an innovative approach to a global pandemic that still speaks to its two decades of incredible success.

“What better way to prove your longevity and your resilience than by adapting and showing your farmers and showing your customers that you have their back, that you’re going to be there no matter what, through thick and thin, and you will do whatever it takes to continue to protect and nurture this wonderful relationship that’s been growing for 20 years,” said Leigh Sloss-Corra, executive director of the Market at Pepper Place.

Sloss-Corra said it became clear that even as the Pepper Place Market began shifting from its smaller, indoor winter market into its typical outdoor market that concerns over the coronavirus were going to make the traditional model untenable.

“The outdoor market is a place of conviviality and people want to hug each other and talk and catch up,” she said. “Southerners are just naturally warm, gregarious people and it’s really hard for people to just stand around outside in that atmosphere and not want to congregate.”

Sloss-Corra said the focus became how they could save the most important aspects of the market.

“We just realized that if we were going to help our farmers and if we were going to protect our community, the best way we could do it is make it a drive-thru market,” she said.

It helped that Birmingham is a “car city” of commuters. Sloss-Corra said cities that are more pedestrian are having trouble finding workable solutions for their farmers markets.

To verify it would work, the Pepper Place Drive-Thru Farmers Market started small with just five farmers in the main parking lot the first week. Week two, it moved up to eight and then up to 13 last week, causing it to stretch through the parking lot and up the next street. This weekend could see as many as 17 farmers and there is still room to grow.

“This model is working. It’s safe. We envisioned it to be scalable,” Sloss-Corra said. “We foresee that we could have as many as 30 (vendors) on a Saturday if we stretch into the Martin Biscuit parking lot.”

But the real measure of success is not the number of farmers, but how the farmers themselves are doing.

“The beautiful thing is the farmers have said they’re selling twice as much,” Sloss-Corra said.

The farmers lose the kind of interaction with customers that can be a valuable part of the traditional market. But that interaction also eliminates time that could be used to make sales. With the drive-thru market, the sales are complete before the market takes place.

Moreover, customers tend to order more for efficiency reasons and because they are cooking more at home these days with restaurants closed and only able to offer takeout or curbside service.

“On our busiest day in the time that we have been here at Pepper Place, the most customers we have served in a single day was 112; that was our busiest day. This week with the online market place, we have now seen an increase to 2016 orders,” said Matthew Lawrence, co-founder of Marble Creek Farmstead.

The new system offers less anxiety than going into a grocery store, Sloss-Corra said. There is also less concern over the origins and delivery of the food.

“You’re looking right at the guy who is saying, ‘Yeah, I picked that celery or those peas yesterday,’” Sloss-Corra said.

Market at Pepper Place Founder Cathy Sloss Jones said the drive-thru market is making a difference.

“As the Drive-Thru Market at Pepper Place continues to grow, it will help farmers survive financially through this difficult period, and provide the community with accessible locally grown food in a safe environment,” Jones said. “Coming to Pepper Place each Saturday is more important than ever to ensure the Market’s livelihood. We are helping Alabamians access fresh food safely, while protecting and preserving what is best about our culture and community.”

The drive-thru market isn’t just garnering attention among the farmers and customers; it’s getting interest from other farmers markets across the country.

Sloss-Corra was on a conference call with 400 market managers in the Farmers Market Coalition this week. She said there was great interest in what Pepper Place is doing in Birmingham from places as far away as Idaho and New York and as close as New Orleans.

Even with the success and the ability to grow, Sloss-Corra said they are already looking at ways of improving the drive-thru market. For instance, whereas customers now have to go to individual vendors listed on the Market at Pepper Place website, Sloss-Corra said they plan to have a single place to shop from all vendors and pay once with all of the money then distributed to the farmers and vendors. There is talk of adding a second day, maybe in the middle of the week.

“What if we needed to operate like this for the rest of the summer? Can we? I think we can,” Sloss-Corra said. “We can support our farmers. I think that we can continue to provide this essential service. We could do it all summer if we needed to.”

When the traditional Pepper Place Market does return, Sloss-Corra suspects there will be those who like the convenience of the drive-thru market or maybe even the addition of home delivery in the future.

“I think that the silver lining is that in times of stress you have this motivation and impetus to try new things,” she said. “I think this is going to be a really great enhancement for our farmers and for our community. I’m proud that we’re pulling it off and, so far, everybody’s pretty happy.”

Just having the market return in any form has been a relief to many.

“It’s heartening,” Sloss-Corra said. “A lot of people said it gives you hope that things will come back to normal and, in the meantime, there are good things in this world where things are a little stressful now. The Market is like hope in a box.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

6 months ago

Ed Farm hires Waymond Jackson as CEO of the Apple initiative in Alabama

(Nik Layman / Alabama NewsCenter)

Ed Farm has hired Waymond Jackson Jr. as its first CEO.

Short for “education farm,” the tech-focused education and workforce development initiative backed by Apple and the Alabama Power Foundation is already showing its value in the COVID-19 crisis. Jackson told Alabama NewsCenter he is looking at ways Ed Farm can build on its current work and what it looks like after the pandemic.

“Ed Farm, I think the program itself, could not have come at a better time,” he said. “When you think about the mission of that organization or what the program talks about – digital learning skills, equipping teachers with new-age technology for digital, transformative learning. You think about what’s occurring now with school not being in and you’re having to shift to a digital learning environment. A lot of the programming that exists at Ed Farm right now is set up to help in that way.”


Waymond Jackson named CEO of Ed Farm from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Although Ed Farm was announced Feb. 27, one of its key programs, Teacher Fellows, spent more than a year prior to that equipping teachers in the Birmingham City Schools system to provide innovative approaches to the classroom, including distance learning.

As CEO, Jackson will be in charge of managing and developing external partnerships, recruiting funding partners, overseeing Ed Farm program expansion and launching a global education technology accelerator in Birmingham and beyond.

He expects Ed Farm to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic with a great story to share with the world. In fact, discussions of where Ed Farm goes after COVID-19 are taking place with Apple and others.

“One of the things that’s been talked about with Ed Farm is this idea of having a global education technology accelerator right here in Birmingham that will bring people from all across the world to launch education technology here,” Jackson said. “When you think about the response that needs to come next, this is the perfect time for entrepreneurs and educators and individuals who have a passion for education, who have a passion for increasing education aptitude in not only urban areas, but in rural areas, to come together in an accelerator type of environment to look at those ideas that need to be in place to advance education now and education in the future.”

Apple CEO Tim Cook, an Alabama native, was in Birmingham for Ed Farm’s launch in February.

“The Ed Farm is about clearing a path for anyone – of any age, background or interest – whether or not they’re destined for a career in technology,” Cook said at the launc. “This is the culmination of a lot of hard work, of a strong vision for the future, of the tireless advocacy of educators, students and Birmingham leaders. With the team we’ve built here, with the Birmingham community, and with an abiding faith in education’s power as a ‘great equalizer’ – I’m grateful to walk this path together, and I can’t wait to see where it leads.”

Apple’s Community Education Initiative has given Ed Farm hardware, software, funding and professional learning support. The program will use Apple’s Everyone Can Code curriculum, which is being used in more than 5,000 schools around the world.

Adding Jackson as CEO is another key part of Ed Farm’s foundation, officials said.

“Waymond has the leadership skills and industry knowledge necessary for advancing Ed Farm’s mission,” said Anthony Oni, chairman of Ed Farm. “His workforce development experience aligns perfectly with our need to connect learners to the education, technology and support they need to enter the workforce prepared to lead and compete globally.”

Deon Gordon, president and CEO of TechBirmingham, said Jackson steps into the new job with a keen understanding of Ed Farm.

“Waymond has been a part of our efforts to elevate Ed Farm and deepen our region’s relationship with Apple practically since the beginning,” he said. “He is board chairman of TechBirmingham and I’m super excited to see the impact both organizations will continue to make through our partnership and due to his leadership as we grow and scale.”

Before joining Ed Farm, Jackson was senior vice president of Public Policy for the Birmingham Business Alliance, where he earned a national reputation for advancing workforce development initiatives. Most notably, Jackson founded OnBoard Birmingham and the Talent Recruitment Project – the Birmingham Business Alliance’s first early talent retention and recruitment program.

“This is a great leadership opportunity for Waymond and a natural progression for him following the work he has done at the Birmingham Business Alliance in workforce development and public policy,” said Fred McCallum, interim president and CEO of the BBA. “Because the BBA is currently looking for a new CEO, Waymond’s position won’t immediately be filled. The BBA is fortunate to have in place an experienced team in public policy, talent attraction and community development to ensure a seamless transition for our Investors and community partners.”

Jackson is excited about his new role.

“I’m honored to have the opportunity to lead this organization, to work with the team that’s at the Ed Farm, to work with the great board members that are there and the strong corporate partners that we have right now in Apple and Alabama Power,” Jackson said.

Jackson will help lead Ed Farm as it scales beyond its pilot programs.

“The beauty about Ed Farm and how it is set up now is Birmingham is just the tip of the iceberg for this initiative,” he said. “This is something that has been pitched as being here in Birmingham, but having a global reach, a global impact. So we’re well underway in thinking through what that looks like.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

6 months ago

Birmingham World Games 2021 assessing ramifications of 2020 Olympics COVID-19 decision


The International Olympic Committee’s decision today to postpone the 2020 Olympic Games that were to take place in Tokyo this summer could have ramifications for the 2021 World Games slated for Birmingham next summer.

Based on guidance from the World Health Organization, the IOC and the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee made the decision to push the Olympics to sometime next year before fall.

“In the present circumstances and based on the information provided by the WHO today, the IOC president and the prime minister of Japan have concluded that the Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021, to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community,” organizers said in a statement.


In Birmingham, it’s not yet clear what the decision means for the 2021 World Games, which is recognized by the IOC and intentionally held in an off year from the Olympic Games.

“With the announcement of the postponement of the 2020 Olympic Games, there has been considerable speculation regarding its impact on The World Games 2021 Birmingham,” said Nick Sellers, CEO of the 2021 World Games Birmingham. “We have been keeping a close eye on the situation and have remained in constant contact with the International World Games Association.”

Sellers said for now preparations will continue to ensure Birmingham is ready to be an impressive host.

“At this time, it would be premature to speculate about potential changes to our event until we receive more information from the IOC on its specific plans,” he said. “However, we remain steadfast in our commitment to delivering a world-class experience in Birmingham and are confident in a positive outcome for our athletes, fans and community.”

The Olympics organizers are also committed to holding a successful event, even if the date is unknown.

“The leaders agreed that the Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present,” the IOC statement said. “Therefore, it was agreed that the Olympic flame will stay in Japan. It was also agreed that the Games will keep the name Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

7 months ago

Ambassador Rick Barton wants to change the dynamics of how the U.S. approaches conflict

(Michael Tomberlin/Alabama NewsCenter)

Rick Barton knows what the U.S. can do to resolve conflict in the world, and he believes there is often a better way to do it.

The man who started USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives and was America’s ambassador to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations in New York, the UN’s deputy high commissioner for refugees in Geneva and the first assistant secretary of state for Conflict and Stabilization Operations certainly has the credentials to express an informed opinion.

Barton has written a book, “Peace Works: America’s Unifying Role in a Turbulent World.”


“’Peace Works’ is an effort to show that we can be more successful both in preventing war and mitigating wars going on and then getting out of wars, which is really hard to do,” Barton told Alabama NewsCenter. “The United States can be among the creative leaders in the space. I try to do that through telling stories, setting up the history and giving people practical steps that we can take to be more effective.”

Ambassador Rick Barton shares solutions for America’s role in conflicts in his book ‘Peace Works’ from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Barton worked for 25 years leading conflict management initiatives in 40 places of conflict and developed a sense for what worked and what didn’t.

“In particular, these longer occupations really show that it can be problematic for democracies to remain or even occupy other countries for too long,” he said. “The military wants to get out of them. The civilians want to get out of them. But we have to do that in a thoughtful way and that’s really what I try to present.”

Barton was recently in Alabama, speaking to students at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery and the Birmingham Committee on Foreign Relations. It was a natural progression given that Barton started up the Department of State’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, and was deputy high commissioner of the UN’s refugee agency. He has worked in most, if not all, of the hot spots around the world.

“I felt that if the American public really wanted to see improvement, they would have to know how to do it,” he said. “I thought the best way to get their attention was to start with ‘Once upon a time.’ As long as you tell a story, Americans want to hear the end, especially if you suggest that we can live happily ever after.”

Given that Barton spent time in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Bosnia, Haiti and Rwanda, he has a keen understanding in what works and what doesn’t. Much of the book shows ways it’s been done effectively using local media and other means without doing everything militarily to achieve goals.

“The United States is in an incredibly advantageous position,” Barton said. “We are the country that a lot of other countries invite into the room. But that doesn’t mean we can abuse that privilege, and we have to perform. A good way to do it is with American creativity, American ingenuity, bringing new ideas to old problems rather than thinking that just the same old way is going to serve this time.”

Barton said he found the Alabama audiences receptive to his ideas.

“I’ve enjoyed the meetings here in Alabama,” he said. “People find the book readable because they’re learning at the same time that they’re solving tough riddles and I think Americans like to be on the solution side of things.”

Barton teaches in the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, where he is co-director of Princeton’s Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative and Ullman Fellowships.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

7 months ago

Birmingham World Games 2021 starts 500-day countdown, adds two corporate sponsors

(Michael Tomberlin/Alabama NewsCenter)

Birmingham will host the 2021 World Games in 500 days and a local firm will produce the all-important opening and closing ceremonies.

Birmingham World Games officials launched the 500-day countdown today with an event at the Birmingham CrossPlex, one of the 20 venues in the greater Birmingham area that will host competitions.

In addition to being a competition venue, Legion Field will host the opening and closing ceremonies for the games. The World Games announced today that LRY Media Group has been awarded the contract to manage those ceremonies. It is the first major contract awarded through the World of Opportunity supplier diversity program.


World Games marks 500 Day mark, adds new corporate sponsors from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

“The Opening Ceremony, Closing Ceremony and the World Games Plaza will be our opportunity to establish the entire mood, tone and energy of this amazing experience,” said Rashada LeRoy, president and CEO of LRY. “For me, there is no higher honor than being selected to be the author of those key attributes for the World Games 2021.”

The World Games 2021 Birmingham will take place July 15-25, 2021 and will generate an estimated $256 million in economic impact for the city.

RELATED: Birmingham ramping up preparation for 2021 World Games

Also announced today were two new corporate sponsors.

Atlanta-based ICON Health is a foundation partner and the presenting sponsor of the World Games 2021 Sports Garden, which will feature sports exhibitions, athlete interactions and hands-on educational activities. ICON Health will also develop a Healthy Eating, Active Living (H.E.A.L.) Campaign for the state of Alabama, in conjunction with the World Games 2021 activities. The H.E.A.L. campaign kicks off Monday, May 25, 2020 during the First Annual Alabama 5K Run, Rock and Roll, which combines a 5K walk and run with a music festival to take place in Five Points South.

“ICON Health is thrilled to be a part of the World Games 2021 activities,” said Frank Lawrence III, founder of ICON Health. “As a native of Birmingham, Alabama, I’ve searched for ways to give back to the city of Birmingham in hopes of making an impact on future generations. Alabama is fertile ground for new ventures in health, education, technology and entertainment, and the world is taking note of this. The World Games 2021 represents such an opportunity and it is our pleasure to work alongside the city of Birmingham and the Birmingham Organizing Committee to make this event memorable for years to come.”

Birmingham-based Medical Properties Trust is a premiere partner and presenting sponsor of the Children’s Program of the World Games 2021, focusing on the youth experience, including World Games Plaza’s Kids’ Zone as well as children’s programming throughout the 10-day event. The company will provide free admission to the World Games 2021 for children 12 and under with a ticketed adult and will facilitate daily athlete appearances at Children’s of Alabama.

“We are delighted to be the presenting sponsor of the Children’s Program of the World Games 2021,” Edward K. Aldag Jr., president and CEO of Medical Properties Trust, said in a statement. “Birmingham will be hosting athletes and spectators from around the globe for this unique, multisport event and MPT is excited to support this major opportunity for our city. We are particularly pleased to help the children in our community to experience and fully enjoy the World Games through the various aspects of our sponsorship.”

ICON Health and Medical Properties Trust join corporate sponsors Alabama PowerProtective LifeRegions BankBlue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama and Shipt.

“Each one of our partners plays a vital role in helping us achieve the goals we’ve set for the World Games 2021,” said Nick Sellers, CEO of the World Games 2021 Birmingham. “By partnering together, we are ensuring that this once-in-a-lifetime event will be truly unforgettable for our city. The investment these companies have made in both the 2021 Games and the Birmingham community will resonate long after the Closing Ceremony – we look forward to working together to achieve the best athlete, fan and visitor experience possible over the next 500 days.”

Children from Glen Iris Elementary School and Epic Alternative Elementary School helped mark the 500-day countdown by participating in some of the games that will be part of the 2021 World Games.

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin recruited Glen Iris student Zaniyah Jefferson to read his remarks at the event.

“The World Games 2021 will truly be a milestone for the city of Birmingham,” Woodfin said in a statement. “From the unprecedented economic impact, to the community programs for all of our residents, to the world-class sports – this event will be unforgettable. I am particularly pleased with the momentum being built through the World of Opportunity supplier diversity program. As a city, we look forward to seeing the results of our hard work over the next 500 days.”

The event included the unveiling of a highway sign that will be placed on the state-line signs on all the interstates leading into Alabama, declaring it “Home of the World Games 2021.”

Birmingham anticipates more than 3,600 athletes and 1,500 credentialed media from more than 100 countries. An additional 15,000 to 20,000 international guests and up to 500,000 fans and spectators from Alabama and surrounding states could attend. NBC Sports will broadcast live from Birmingham during the 10 days.

Comedian and filmmaker Roy Wood Jr. recently told Alabama NewsCenter he looks at the World Games as an opportunity for Birmingham to shine.

“I think the next big mile marker for Birmingham in my opinion is the World Games,” he said. “That’s going to be a very important show of just how great of a city this is.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

7 months ago

Roy Wood Jr. wants to help grow the television and film industry in Alabama

(Nik Layman/Alabama NewsCenter)

Comedian Roy Wood Jr. came home to Birmingham to produce a television show but ended up playing the part of Nick Fury in the Avengers movies … sort of.

“Organizing the infrastructure needed to make sure a television show could happen here in terms of finding all of the resources – you knew they were here but you had to find them,” Wood said. “It was like Samuel L. Jackson in the Avengers movies going around from hero to hero to form the Avengers. You had to go to Iron Man, ‘Hey, do you have a camera? Cool.’ You had to go to Captain America, ‘Hey, do you have a truck with stuff in it? Cool.’ Then you’ve got to go over to the Hulk, ‘Hey, Hulk, we’re trying to shoot a TV show. Do you have lights? Do you have a building where we can put the camera and the truck stuff? Cool.’ ‘Hey, Comedy Central, these guys have trucks, lights, cameras and it’s just as affordable as Atlanta. Can I do my show?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Thank you.’”

It took Wood 18 months to assemble the pieces needed to produce a television show pilot in Birmingham and show Comedy Central he could do it at a cost that compared to Atlanta.


“It was worth it because at the end of the day we were able to shoot the pilot for ‘Jefferson County: Probation’ here in the state,” Wood said.

Roy Wood Jr. talks filming Comedy Central pilot in Birmingham, growing film industry in Alabama from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

He did so with a 90-person crew, 60 of them Alabamians and many of them minorities.

“It was a very inclusive crew and staff and that’s something that I’m very, very proud of,” Wood said. “Because, ultimately, where film and television are concerned, if you’re trying to grow an industry, there has to be opportunities to work and so many people look past Alabama. To be from here and have an opportunity to shoot a project and to not fight first for Alabama to be a place, I would be remiss if I didn’t do that.”

The pilot for “Jefferson County: Probation” is still in development at Comedy Central.

“We’re looking at maybe reshooting a scene or two and maybe reworking some of the script,” Wood said. “I still maintain a great relationship with Comedy Central, lots of projects in the hopper. ‘JeffCo’ is just one of those that’s taking a little longer to get done.”

Wood hopes that the show gets picked up and he intends to shoot it and some of his other ideas for shows in Alabama.

Alabama has had some success getting movies to shoot here.

The Alabama Film Office reported 20 film and TV productions qualified for state incentives in 2019 and spent nearly $72 million while in Alabama, up from $63.5 million during the previous year.

“Film productions have a huge economic impact when they come to a community,” Kathy Faulk of the Alabama Film Office said in a recent story. “Many local behind-the-scenes crew, such as carpenters, electricians, painters, technicians, make-up artists and extras are hired. Creating jobs is what this is all about.”.

While such one-off projects are important, Wood said a television show can be even more significant.

“Film is very important to things working in a place, but I honestly believe that TV can help sustain a market,” he said. “You need a television show that shoots regularly, and not just reality shows. I know that there are reality shows that shoot in the state and they are viable and they are important, but if you have a scripted show, that is shooting 10 to 13 episodes on a regular revolving door.”

Wood joked that just like Chicago has a growing list of shows with “Chicago” in their names, he doesn’t see why the same couldn’t happen for Birmingham.

“’Chicago Med,’ ‘Chicago Fire,’ ‘Chicago Pizza,’ ‘Chicago Truck,’ ‘Chicago Hospital,’ ‘Chicago Police,’ like, that’s what I dream for, but in the short term, we just hope that the pilot comes together and that Comedy Central gives us the green light,” Wood said. “In the meantime, we continue to develop the show. And that’s not the only project. The more stuff that I write, the things that I create, I think there are ways to do things around here that are just as on point as anywhere else in the country.”

“Jefferson County: Probation” was inspired by Wood’s own brush with the law as a teenager when he was able to avoid jail and serve time on probation for attempting to use a stolen credit card to buy some blue jeans. The experience taught him how great of a role probation officers play in helping people go straight.

“What I discovered was how much of the system is based on just whether or not someone cares,” he said. “This is a television show about what would happen to recidivism if more people cared and also if the people on probation always did the right thing.”

It’s a different part of the criminal justice system than we’re used to seeing on television, Wood said.

“I think it’s a story about an honest piece of America that’s rarely discussed,” he said. “When you generally discuss law enforcement and entertainment, it’s either catch the crook, court with the crook or the crook in jail. There’s never a conversation about what it looks like to re-enter society as a different person or maybe you didn’t change. Either way it’s about the men and women that work day in, day out to interact with these people to help give them the opportunities to rebuild their lives after making bad mistakes.

“The job of probation (officer) is considered law enforcement, but I think it’s probably 70% social work,” he said.

Expanding an industry

Wood would like to see it easier for other movies and television shows to be produced in the state.

“There were so many problems that I had to solve first, before even making the proposal to Comedy Central,” he said. “When I talk about that, I’m talking about things like just making sure that there’s just the infrastructure of just having the proper grip trucks that you need – the things that you need just in terms of making sure that you have trained crew.”

He wants to be involved in finding the solution.

“I think doing what I can to build film and TV in Alabama is very important,” Wood said. “This isn’t something that’s exclusive to Birmingham. There are great vistas down in Mobile. Mobile has a very strong production crew. Huntsville is making noise. To me, this is about the state of Alabama and if I have an opportunity to bring my projects here that are ‘bona fide’ by the (West) Coast, then it helps to bonify the state. That’s not a bad thing and I think that’s a very fair contribution.”

Wood grew up in Birmingham and he said he learned to appreciate the city and the state after he left it. Wood said he soon learned that building up the image of Alabama was more important than trying to build up the image of Birmingham.

“I think that Alabama stands to gain as a group,” he said. “The reason why building Alabama is important is because when you leave your respective city in Alabama, nobody cares about your city, they just say, ‘You’re from Alabama’ and then they crack jokes or they make assumptions on you based on the state you’re from, not the city. So, whether you like it or not, when you leave Birmingham, when you leave Huntsville, when you leave Tuscaloosa, to the rest of the world, you’re just from Alabama. They ain’t got time to separate us because they think we’re all dumb. So, to me, it’s important to uplift the state and talk about the state as a whole because once those perceptions change, then I think that’s where you can have a lot more growth.”

Not that Wood is interested in taking on everyone who has something negative to say about the state.

“In the meantime, we can’t be worried about what the outside thinks about us, we have to rebuild and repair from within,” he said. “I think that Alabama’s a very resilient place. I think it’s a place that is very focused on growth. There are a lot of people in this state that I believe don’t do things that benefit this state. There are a lot of people in positions, in elected positions in this state that I truly don’t believe are for this state. But in spite of that, we’ve still got to work and pull your bootstraps up because if there’s one thing that’s clear, there’s nobody on the outside gonna help us.”

Wood’s father worked in radio and, after going to Florida for college, Wood would return to Birmingham where he got a job at 95.7 JAMZ in 2001. His comedy skits on the radio and his work on his stand-up comedy career earned him recognition at Comedy Central and a regular spot on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.”

These days, Wood very much wants to use his standing with the network to help make his home state better. He’s become an ambassador for Birmingham and Alabama to his friends in Hollywood and New York and when he brings them to town he takes them to places like Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-QNiki’s WestGreen AcresMilo’s and Yo’ Mama’s.

“When I’m home, I’m trying to get all of the stuff I can’t get when I’m somewhere else,” Wood said. “If I come home and my friend wants to go to Applebee’s, I’ll curse them out. No disrespect to Applebee’s, but I can get that other places. When I’m home, you can’t get Niki’s West in New York City.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

7 months ago

Alabama singer Bailey Coats releases new single, ‘SNACK’

(Bailey Coats/Contributed)

It’s been nearly a year and half since Bailey Coats has fed us new music. But the Birmingham singer/songwriter said she has two dozen songs ready for fans to feast on starting with the release today of “SNACK.”

“I’m looking forward to releasing those this year, but more importantly I’m looking forward to getting the single out this week,” Coats told Alabama NewsCenter.

Coats assembled those songs working with two production teams in Atlanta and Los Angeles the past year.


Alabama singer / songwriter Bailey Coats releases new single ‘SNACK’ from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The first new release is “SNACK,” out today. It stems from a reference some make toward girls, including one of Coats’ friends.

Coats was hanging out with some friends and one of her guy friends was looking at girls on Instagram and said, “Dang, she looks like a snack.”

“I said, ‘Tyler, I know her. Why are you calling her a snack?’ and he said, ‘It’s just a saying,’” Coats said.

The topic of the word “snack” in that context got Coats thinking about making it into a song. She was getting ready to go into the studio with producer Wirlie Moris to write three new songs.

“I just called him and I said, ‘Wirlie, I have an idea for something,’” Coats remembered. She sang “Looking like a snack, ay” to a particular beat to Morris over the phone.

“He just took the idea and ran with it and had so much fun creating it and then my awesome co-writer, Traci Hale, came in and we just finished all the different lyrics and ended up recording it in my closet and ever since then we have just had the opportunity to see where this thing can go,” she said.

“SNACK” is a bit too quirky and tongue-in-cheek to be a “Me Too” anthem but it also has a message of empowerment that keeps it from being dismissive.

More than anything, it is Coats’ most pop release to date. Whereas her last single, “Deep Within,” found a home on country radio, there is little chance “SNACK” will do the same.

“It definitely is not a country song by any means,” Coats said. “But that’s what’s been so great about music in general is that it’s so subjective to the listener, rather than being something that is so concretely defined. And plus, with the way that barriers are being broken in the music industry today is that anything can cross over, which is so exciting and so fun for all artists.”


Coats said the sound of “SNACK” is true to who she is.

“Pop is pretty much my wheelhouse,” she said. “It’s always been my passion, always been something I’ve been very, very excited to pursue and now I have a single that really and truly gets to reflect me in the most authentic and natural way possible.”

In addition to recording 24 songs over the past several months, Coats graduated from the University of Alabama with a marketing degree. Since finishing college, she’s had more time to devote to her music career.

She plans on building up her fan base by releasing singles. At some point she hopes to be ready to work on constructing a whole album of songs.

The other songs Coats has helped write and record explore other sides of her personality. She said there is quirky, strange, weird, dark, emotional, happy, sad and a bit of everything in the songs.

She really wants to communicate to others through music and she’s approaching her songs with that intent.

So far, the reaction to “SNACK” for those she’s played it to has been what she hoped.

“It’s been such a great, overwhelmingly positive response,” Coats said. “It definitely is nerve-wracking, I feel like, whenever you’re putting new music out. I really and truly had not put anything out for a year and a half or so. This project has been under wraps for the last seven or eight months, and it’s something that’s like my baby. So, for me, getting this very, very positive response and people just enjoying the quirkiness of it and just the way that it really and truly is something so different and so strange, but also so much fun. I’m excited for more people to get to hear it and to see where this thing can go.”

As far as where Coats can go, she still has pop star ambitions.

“I definitely have my goals very, very big and very, very high,” she said. “I definitely want to be one of the biggest artists in the world someday and I 100% believe that the Lord put that on my heart where I can 100% do it. Just keep on fighting, keep on going and, most importantly, making music and getting to be my 100% self.”

You can stream “SNACK” on Spotify or through Bailey Coats’ website. She is also on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

7 months ago

$24 million redevelopment of Birmingham’s American Life building passes halfway mark

(Michael Tomberlin/Alabama NewsCenter)

The $24 million redevelopment of the American Life building has passed the halfway point on its way to opening up later this year as 140 “workforce housing” apartments.

Developer Ed Ticheli took Alabama NewsCenter and officials, including U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, on a tour of the 12-story building to showcase how the former office tower is being transformed into apartments with more affordable rent for those wanting to live downtown closer to where they work.


“We’re at 50% construction completion today,” Ticheli said. “It’s a stellar day for the American Life building.”

The project is being viewed nationally as an example of how to use the new federal opportunity zone program, which gives tax incentives to investors in economically distressed areas deemed opportunity zones in each state. The investments are designed to revitalize properties and spur economic development.

“This is the model for the United States opportunity zone project,” Ticheli said. “I’m very proud of that.”

American Life building comes back to life in Birmingham from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Framing and drywall of the 140 apartments has started. There will be studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units available with rents ranging from $700 to $1,100 per month with the median price coming in about $900 per month.

“Very shortly, you’re going to see finished units in here,” Ticheli said. “The model will be coming. We’re going to start to lease in the next 30 days, pre-leasing.”

In addition to an $11 million investment from PNC’s OPZONE Community Development Fund and a $4.2 million PNC Bank loan, the redevelopment has received public and private funding and is accessing state and federal historic tax credits. AlabamaSAVES is providing a $2 million loan for the project’s green initiatives. The city of Birmingham approved $400,000 this week in infrastructure improvements tied to the project.

“This has been so many hands on the rope to make this possible for the city of Birmingham,” Ticheli said.

The 84,000-square-foot building on the corner of 18th Street and Third Avenue North has the ability to spur development in northeast downtown Birmingham.

“This will be like a generator for new things to come,” Ticheli predicted.

The apartments will provide great views and have natural light, thanks to about 140 windows on each side of the building.

“This place is like a light box and you’ve got unobstructed views of the city because we don’t have any other buildings next to us,” Ticheli said.

Five of the apartments are being reserved for the Dannon Project to rent to its clients. The Birmingham nonprofit helps people reintegrate into the workforce after prison or other obstacles.

Ticheli has been seeking to renovate the American Life Building, also known as the Stonewall Building, for decades. The project was announced with great fanfare in April 2019 and construction began in August.

The project is being managed by LMS Real Estate Investment ManagementWyatt Builds is the general contractor and the architect is Hendon and Huckestein Architects.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

7 months ago

Secret History Tours offer a special glimpse into Mobile history and culture

(Michael Tomberlin/Alabama NewsCenter)

With a city as old and storied as Mobile, the places and landmarks seem to be begging to tell their tales.

Thankfully, they have Todd Duren to do it for them.

Duren is tour guide and owner of Secret History Tours, a company that offers a variety of walking tours in and around downtown Mobile.

“I guarantee everybody, even old Mobilians, will learn something that they did not know,” Duren said.


Mobile’s ghosts, speakeasies and mystic traditions come alive on Secret History Tours from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

This being Mardi Gras season, Duren’s most popular tour is Masks & Moon Pies. You can tell you’re on the right tour if Duren is carrying a rake with cowbells dangling from the business end. As you might expect, the prop has a historic connection to Mardi Gras in Mobile.

“Some people call (Mobile) ‘the birthplace of Mardi Gras.’ I call it the ‘mother of mystics,’” Duren said.

That’s because the first mystic society – those secret organizations that are now built all around Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile and beyond – started in Mobile with the Cowbellion de Rakin Society.

As Duren tells it, some revelers on New Year’s Eve in 1835, led by Michael Kraft, broke into a hardware store and used rakes and cowbells to continue their raucous partying into the morning.

“The next day when someone would say, ‘What was the name of that organization that kept us awake all night?’ He said, ‘We are the Cowbellion de Rakin Society,” Duren said.

Some of Secret History Tours’ Mardi Gras tours end with access to balconies for parade watching.

There is also the Prohibition Cocktails tour that visits some of the city’s speakeasy locations and includes handcrafted cocktails. Three Centuries focuses on the rich history of the 315-year-old city. Automotive Alley has connections to industry and civil rights. Dark Secrets is full of ghost stories and spooky tales.

Each tour has its own meet-up spot where the journey begins.

Duren decided to start Secret History Tours after taking similar tours of cities like New Orleans.

“Our city has as much interesting things to talk about and show people as those other places do,” Duren said. “We have such a beautiful, charming, walkable downtown.”

This is Duren’s third year of doing the tours and he is pleased to see them growing in popularity.

“I’m having a good time and I seem to be getting a good audience,” he said.

As one might expect, Duren had to do a lot of research early on to learn all of the interesting history and put it together into a cohesive tour. Now, he can’t just casually walk downtown without stopping to note some interesting fact.

“A walking tour is different from a bus tour,” Duren said. “You have to put everything in a fairly contained, short amount of space and then you have to have interesting stories to tell. It’s more than just facts and dates. I always try to make it interesting and engaging for the audience. And so, I try to turn things into a sort of narrative that’s interesting for the guests.”

Customers can find and book tour dates on the Secret History Tours website. The company is also on Facebook.

“There’s something for everybody in our tours,” Duren said. “We usually offer two different tours at a time.”

Duren said Secret History Tours will in March offer Dark Secrets and Prohibition Cocktails.

He said around 75% of tourgoers are from in and around Mobile. Duren hopes the remaining 25% leave with a lasting, positive impression of Mobile.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

7 months ago

Montgomery earns two Smart 50 awards for innovation

(City of Montgomery/Facebook)

Montgomery continues to be validated as an emerging city in technology and innovation.

The latest confirmation comes from the Capital City garnering two 2020 Smart 50 Awards from US Ignite and Smart Cities Connect.

Montgomery will be recognized for awards in the Urban Infrastructure and Digital Transformation categories at a ceremony April 6 in Denver.


The Urban Infrastructure was a collaboration with Alabama Power to upgrade more than 22,000 streetlights to energy-efficient LED systems. Montgomery anticipates saving approximately $600,000 in energy costs over the next five years. Moreover, the LED bulbs burn brighter and illuminate a larger area, resulting in fewer dark spots on the road and helping create safer neighborhoods and roadways.

The Digital Transformation nod was for the Montgomery Police Department’s use of STAR Watch, a new police-community technology initiative built around a real-time crime center using camera feeds across the city. The River Region Strategic Technology and Resource (STAR) Center is a state-of-the-art facility that takes in feeds from cameras of voluntarily enrolled residents and businesses across Montgomery. The cameras become a force-multiplier to increase overall public safety.

“Montgomery’s recognition on the world stage and our success in harnessing technology and innovation provide a solid foundation to work toward our vision of a city ready to lead in the knowledge-based economy,” Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed said. “Our goal is to continue investing in innovative solutions that can cultivate an equitable city and result in quality-of-life transformations touching everything from public safety and thriving neighborhoods to education.”

This is the second consecutive year Montgomery has been recognized by Ignite and Smart Cities Connect. Montgomery received two awards last year for its achievements in Mobility and Urban Operations through partnerships with Rubicon and RoadBotics.

Griffith Waller, public relations specialist with the city of Montgomery, said the recognitions are indicative of where the city is moving through partnerships like it has with Alabama Power.

“We won last year and we won again this year, thanks in large part to what we’re working on with Alabama Power,” Waller said. “Our streetlight LED conversion really got us that nod and brought home the award.”

Montgomery to receive two 2020 Smart 50 Awards from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Waller said the innovations are important because they benefit residents and they position Montgomery to better compete.

“We see this as a win-win,” he said. “We’re winning Smart Cities technology awards. We’re winning the hearts of residents. It’s safer, it has better light, it decreases light pollution and it’s one of those moves that makes us a more efficient city and one of the cities that’s on the cutting edge. We want to win the next economy, the knowledge-based economy.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

8 months ago

Hyundai’s flagship Alabama car getting a star-studded Super Bowl push

(Hyundai/Innocean USA)

The new Alabama-built Hyundai Sonata is getting a star-studded push with a new 60-second Super Bowl commercial. But don’t look for a Southern accent.

Titled “Smaht Pahk,” the new ad is highlighting the Sonata’s smart park feature using Boston celebrities Chris Evans, John Krasinski, Rachel Dratch and Red Sox legend David Ortiz.

The Sonata is Hyundai’s longest-standing and most successful model and one of three vehicles produced at the Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama plant in Montgomery. The all-new 2020 version has numerous convenience and safety technologies. The Remote Smart Parking Assist is what “Smaht Pahk” is featuring.


In addition to the Sonata and the stars, the real standout of the commercial is the heavy Boston accent the actors use in marveling over the smart park’s ability to fit the Sonata into a tight spot.

The commercial includes several Boston “Easter eggs” for viewers paying close attention, including the well-known song “Dirty Water” by the Standells that plays toward the end.

“Using the Boston accent as our creative hook was something that quickly became a favorite during the creative development process,” said Angela Zepeda, chief marketing officer for Hyundai Motor America. “Remote Smart Parking Assist was difficult to say and remember, but a truncated ‘Smaht Pahk’ caught on when one of our creatives said it in a Boston accent. We thought it was a fun, charming and memorable way to tell people about this incredible new technology using one of America’s most-recognized and beloved regional accents.”

A teaser video earlier this month hinted at the approach and the humor that would be part of the commercial. Dratch is shown trying to help Ortiz, a Dominican American, develop his own Boston accent.

Hyundai has also launched what is believed to be the first automotive brand campaign on TikTok, where Dratch completes the #onedayafterwatching challenge. In this case, the TikTok challenge shows her Boston accent creeping back in more strongly the longer she is back in Boston.

As part of the social media campaign in support of this year’s Super Bowl ad, Hyundai and Innocean USA, Hyundai’s agent of record, have invited two well-known Boston-area comedians to help take on Hyundai’s Twitter duties during the game. Robert Kelly (@RobertKelly) and Tony Viveiros (@TonyVComic) will be responding in real time to fans and viewers, plus adding their own commentary on the game and other commercials.

The pair will host four segments of “The Hyundai Quartertime Show” that will be filmed, edited and published online throughout the game.

Hyundai is taking the campaign directly to the city of Boston with a letter of appreciation running in the Boston Globe, local radio buys voiced by Dratch, billboard advertising and targeted social media activities showing Hyundai’s love for Boston’s quirks.

The Super Bowl will be played on Feb. 2 in Miami and televised on FOX.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

8 months ago

Rural Alabama is getting much-needed attention from economic developers

(Hal Yeager/Alabama Governor's Office)

Alabama’s economic development community is bringing special attention to rural counties in an effort to elevate the entire state.

A new Alabama Rural Development Initiative is gaining traction and for the first time ever, a Rural Economic Development Conference is being held in the state Jan. 29-30.

Geographically speaking, rural Alabama makes up the majority of the state with 40 of the 67 counties falling in the category defined by having a population of less than 50,000.


Key organizations say if Alabama is to prosper, it must change the fortunes of those counties, which suffer from dwindling populations, poor workforce participation and a lack of education and necessary skills.

EDAA Rural Development Initiative targets jobs for rural Alabama from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The Alabama Department of Commerce, the Economic Development Association of Alabama (EDAA) and the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama (EDPA) are leading the effort, joined on the initiative steering committee by Alabama PowerPowerSouthRegions BankALFABlue Cross and Blue Shield of AlabamaNorth Alabama Industrial Development AssociationSpire and Southeast Gas.

That’s a lot of horsepower, boosted further by a chairman who was once the speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives.

“Alabama has a problem and we’re trying to address that problem through this Rural Development Initiative,” said Seth Hammett, chairman of the Alabama Rural Development Initiative. “We’re trying to find ways in each of five chosen regions we can show how Alabama can reverse this trend. I don’t know if this is going to work or not, but shame on us if we don’t at least try.”

A rural economic development panel at the EDAA’s 2020 Winter Conference in Montgomery this week presented many of the dire statistics but also presented an aligned effort to address the needs.

More and more emphasis has been placed on rural economic development in the state in recent years. Special tiered incentives are meant to entice companies to locate in rural counties. The Rebuild Alabama plan will bring much-needed infrastructure improvements to all areas of the state, including rural Alabama. Workforce strategies, education initiatives and prepared sites are among the issues officials aim to address.

Some of the issues have been known for years.

“It’s about time, after all of this talk about doing something, that we finally try and see if we can’t reverse this trend,” Hammett said.

The Rural Development Initiative is finishing its work with the first region where it has drafted a strategic plan.

“We call it a strategic plan, but you can also call it a ‘to do list,’” Hammett said. “We want to say, if you want to reverse this trend in your area, in your region, this is what you need to do.”

Brian Hilson is rural development strategist with the EDAA. The former head of the Birmingham Business Alliance and the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce brings a wealth of experience to the rural initiative.

Hilson’s work with EDAA is more strategic than the efforts from the Commerce Department, which is more tactical, boots-on-the-ground in its approach.

Hilson said the challenges of rural Alabama are well-known, but they aren’t the full story.

“There have been a lot of recent successes as well,” he said. “We’ve had fantastic industrial announcements in Sumter County, Marengo County, Henry County as well as some great inroads in infrastructure planning. We’ve had tremendous investments in broadband access.”

Best of all, rural areas are gaining interest nationally, Hilson said.

“States understand the importance of rural communities, both their well-being and their future but also the fact that they are an asset to their states,” he said.

Bevin Tomlin, economic and community development manager with Alabama Power, said the goal is to help rural counties capitalize on existing assets and infrastructure so people “can live in the small towns they want to live as opposed to thinking that they have to move to an urban area to get the quality of life that they want, because it exists in rural Alabama. We just need more jobs to exist in rural Alabama.”

Armed with incentives and a multifaceted team with the desire to address the challenges, Brenda Tuck, rural development manager with the Alabama Department of Commerce, said rural Alabama stands to get the help it needs.

“We have more tools in the basket than ever before,” she said. “You look at where we’ve been and where we’ve come to today, we have that focus. And the end of the day, we have so many opportunities there and we just need to world to know that.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)