The Wire

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

    Excerpt:

    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

    Excerpt:

    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

    Excerpt:

    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.

1 month ago

Birmingham’s Coca-Cola United is rolling out new flavors, packaging for holidays

Coca-Cola Cinnamon and Sprite Winter Spiced Cranberry are new flavors Coca-Cola is releasing for the holiday season. (Michael Tomberlin / Alabama NewsCenter)

The weather was a frightful 99 degrees outside Coca-Cola Bottling Co. United’s Birmingham headquarters Tuesday but inside it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

The fourth-largest bottler of Coca-Cola products in the U.S. is among the first to roll out two new flavors for the Christmas holiday season: Coca-Cola Cinnamon and Sprite Winter Spiced Cranberry. Coca-Cola United marked the occasion with a launch party full of holiday music and featuring Santa and Mrs. Claus and the polar bear that has become a part of Coke Christmas promotions.

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“With these new flavors, they kind of scream ‘holidays,’” said Rebecca Garner, media and promotions manager at Coca-Cola United.

Coca-Cola United will bottle the new flavors at its nine production facilities that serve parts of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. The independent bottler has 10,000 employees, and in addition to the production facilities operates 53 sales and distribution centers.

In addition to the new flavors, the Birmingham company is rolling out new packaging for the holidays that features Santa and the popular bears from past marketing efforts. The Coca-Cola app can be used to unlock some augmented reality when a smartphone is pointed at the new bottles and cans.

The new flavors and packaging won’t launch in other markets for several weeks. Garner said it’s a sign of what Coke and Coca-Cola United have in the works.

“Next year is going to be really great year from us,” Garner said. “We’re going to be introducing a lot of new stuff, so stay tuned.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 months ago

Saban foundation boosts fortunes of those in Alabama juvenile detention facility

(Michael Tomberlin/Alabama NewsCenter)

Nick and Terry Saban are using Nick’s Kids Foundation to provide needed job skills to residents of the Tuscaloosa Juvenile Detention Center in hopes it will change lives for the better and break a cycle of repeat offenders.

Terry Saban joined center officials and others to cut the ribbon on a new facility built with a $100,000 lead gift from Nick’s Kids. The new facility offers classrooms where residents of the facility can earn a GED. There are also training facilities where residents can learn welding, plumbing, carpentry, electrical repair and auto maintenance.

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“Happiness is having choices and when these people, these young residents, leave, they don’t have choices,” Terry Saban said. “They’re going back into the same families, the same communities from which they came. But now, they do have choices. They have an education. They have a skill. They have an opportunity to make money to take care of their families and themselves. It’s a huge change.”

Cathy Joiner Wood, executive director of the Tuscaloosa County Juvenile Detention Center, said the programs were needed.

Nick’s Kids helps fund new juvenile detention training facility in Alabama from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

“This is a dream come true for this facility,” she said.

Wood said youths are often released from the detention center to go back to their previous schools to hang out with the same bad influences and end up getting in trouble again. Giving them a GED and a skill changes the trajectory when they are released from detention.

“We have one success story that happened just this last week. Lulu is her name,” Wood said. “She was exposed to our welding department. She loved welding. (The instructors) said she was one of the best welders to come through the program.”

Because Lulu is 17 and earned her GED, officials at Shelton State Community College were able to get her enrolled in college.

Saban said her famous football coaching husband has a track record that aligns with the mission of the new facility.

“Nick is all about giving second chances to people in life, and sometimes he’s criticized for that,” she said. “But it’s not just in football that we want to give people second chances, it’s in life.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 months ago

Alabama electric vehicle owners praise benefits of going electric

(Phil Free/Alabama NewsCenter)

Steve Malcom has gone entire months without buying any gas going to and from work in Fort Payne.

Matt Creasey, a University of Alabama student, passes by pumps on his way to school and plugs in on campus before going into class.

Electric vehicle owners in Alabama had reasons to boast as they showcased their cars at the Market at Pepper Place in downtown Birmingham Saturday. Dozens of curious visitors asked questions of the owners, who provided answers about what it’s like to go electric. The event kicked of 2019 National Drive Electric Week in Alabama.

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Malcom has owned multiple electric and hybrid vehicles and said the technology has eliminated most of the reasons people have avoided making the switch.

“It’s all coming on,” he said. “I have yet to hear anybody really put down an electric vehicle.”

He has, however, sensed their hesitancy.

Their main concern is about range, to which he explains the cars now travel hundreds of miles before needing another charge. He drives about 40 miles per day and doesn’t even charge his Chevy Bolt every day.

Malcom’s favorite move is to get them inside and crank it up to show how quiet electric vehicles can be.

“I’ll turn the music on,” he said. “There is no road noise. You can hear the music better.”

UA student Creasey is from Virginia and finds the 800-mile ride home is cheaper and smoother since he got his Chevy Volt hybrid. He also loves the convenience the university has provided.

“The university’s been pretty good about it,” he said. “They’ve put in some chargers at pretty much every parking garage. I plug in when I get to class and then I come back out of class and my car is almost fully charged.”

Mark Bentley, director of the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition, loves hearing the stories from owners like Malcom and Creasey. He has watched EV ownership swell in the state and he knows those numbers are about to rapidly increase.

“It is really starting to escalate in Alabama as well as the rest of the country,” he said. “We anticipate the growth is going to be at around 30% a year, which is phenomenal. A point of comparison would be what microwave ovens did when they were introduced – a smaller ticket but the growth was phenomenal. To this point, electric vehicles are mirroring that type of growth.”

The Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition is one of the organizations leading efforts to expand public charging infrastructure in the state to keep up with that growing demand.

“Infrastructure is coming,” Bentley said. “We are working diligently across the state to install more infrastructure. Realistically, 80% of all electric cars are charged at home. The rest are either over the road or at a workplace.”

While electric vehicles often cost more than their gasoline counterparts, Bentley said the overall cost of ownership factors out to be less. For instance, he said, electric vehicle owners pay an equivalent of $1.16 “per gallon” compared to the average of $2.35 per gallon of gasoline.

Companies including Alabama Power are making it for cost effective to switch to EVs.

Brandi Hurst, program manager for Electric Vehicle Transportation at Alabama Power, said EV owners can earn a rate rider and save 15% off the standard rate for their whole home between the hours of 9 p.m. and 5 a.m., peak charging times for EVs.

“One of the major conveniences of owning an electric vehicle is being able to charge it at your home,” she said. “So if you think of it kind of how you charge your cellphone at night – you know, you plug it in while you’re sleeping, you wake up, you’re ready to go – it’s kind of the same thing with your car, just on a much bigger scale.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 months ago

Itty Bitty Bakers makes cooking fun and informative for Alabama kids

(Brittany Faush/Alabama NewsCenter)

It starts with a special ingredient – in this case, registered dietician and educator Jessica Hamby.

Combine with the children willing to learn and participate. Flavor in a mix of art, crafts, reading and hands-on learning. Then top off with the capable hands of proven instructors and assistants, and you have Itty Bitty Bakers.

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Hamby started Itty Bitty Bakers in 2018 to bring her own love of cooking with healthy and fresh ingredients to children in her neighborhood. The belief was that if the children had a hand in preparing healthy foods, they would be more inclined to try and then enjoy foods that are better for them.

It worked. Hamby, who has a master’s in health education, created a curriculum that reinforces the recipes and helps teach children about where food comes from, how ingredients are used to make a dish and how cooking can be a fun and creative outlet for people of any age.

Itty Bitty Bakers has the recipe for making cooking fun and educational for kids from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

What started as a couple of summer camp classes quickly grew into monthly classes and then multiple classes for students of different ages.

“It really took off,” said Melissa Carden, an instructor with Itty Bitty Bakers. “It seemed to be something that the community really had a need for. There was always a demand.”

Today, the program has two instructors, teaching assistants, a team of youth helpers and even students from the University of Alabama nutrition program who intern during the summer.

At one recent bakers camp, the students picked basil, used it in a recipe, learned about growing fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables during story time, colored pictures of herbs and even took recipes and basil seeds home with them. The basil was used to make basil-cheddar biscuits, which they got to enjoy during snack time.

Each class and camp teaches children to be comfortable in the kitchen, builds on their understanding of where food comes from and encourages creativity.

“It’s really fascinating how much they enjoy the hands-on – the mixing, the pouring – every child gets to add at least one ingredient to the recipe,” Carden said. “It’s fun to see how capable they are. They’re capable of a lot more than we sometimes give them credit for.”

Itty Bitty Bakers offers classes for preschoolers, grade schooler and pre-teens. There are camps during the summer, classes during the school year and special workshops throughout the year. Prices vary and registration is done online. Itty Bitty Bakers will even organize parties.

Itty Bitty Bakers can be found online, on Facebook, on Instagram and Pinterest.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 months ago

Workers at Hyundai’s Alabama plant to use new ‘wearable robot’ exoskeleton

(Hyundai Motor Group/Contributed)

Hyundai’s Alabama plant was instrumental in developing a new wearable robot exoskeleton, and its workers will be among the first in the world to incorporate the technology on the assembly line.

On Tuesday, Hyundai Motor Group unveiled plans for its Hyundai Rotem company to produce the Vest EXoskeleton, or VEX, and Chairless EXoskeleton, or CEX. The technology aims to assist industrial workers working in overhead environments.

VEX is lightweight and mimics the movement of human joints, allowing for added load support and mobility. Its design allows for muscular assistance without requiring a battery.

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Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama (HMMA), the automaker’s Montgomery plant, participated in the prototype trials and provided valuable feedback in the development of both VEX and CEX. The plant anticipates receiving the first production versions of the wearable robots and incorporate them into the plant by the end of the year.

Though there are other exoskeleton products on the market, Hyundai believes its technology is better because it is lighter (5.5 pounds, which is 22-42% less than competitors) comfortable (worn like a backpack), adjustable (up to 7 inches in added length, up to 12.1 pounds in force assistance) and more affordable (expected to sell for 30% less than the typical $5,000 average of similar products).

Hyundai unveils wearable robotic exoskeleton tested at Alabama plant from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

“VEX gives workers greater load support, mobility and adaptability when operating in overhead environments,” said DongJin Hyun, head of Robotics team of Hyundai Motor Group. “Workers will also appreciate how light VEX is to wear and work with.”

Hyundai plans to target the VEX at production-line workers whose job is primarily overhead. On an auto assembly line, that could be those bolting the underside of vehicles, fitting brake tubes, and attaching exhausts.

Hyundai said the pilot program testing the technology at HMMA and the Kia plant in Georgia was “widely successful in assisting workers and boosting productivity.”

Hyundai said it is considering worldwide implementation of VEX around the world. Hyundai Rotem is expected begin production of VEX in December and an HMMA spokesman said the Montgomery plant will be among its first customers.

Hyundai Motor Group commercializes Chairless EXoskeleton

Adding to its range of robotics technologies, Hyundai also plans to products CEX, which supports workers to maintain a sitting position without a stool or chair. At 3.5 pounds, it is light and durable and able to withstand weights of up to 330 pounds.

The CEX’s waist, thigh and knee belts can be easily fitted and adjusted to the user’s body size and height. It also features three different angle settings (85 degrees, 70 degrees and 55 degrees). By reducing the user’s back and lower body muscle activity by 40%, it reduces fatigue and improves efficiency.

Hyundai said it has plans for other robotics technology, including a ‘Hotel Service Robot,’ ‘Sales Service Robot,’ ‘Electric Vehicle Charging Manipulator’ and other ‘Robotic Personal Mobility’ solutions in the future.

The future for wearable robotics

According to the International Federation of Robotics, the wearable robotics industry is growing 14% annually. By 2021 approximately 630,000 commercial robots will be sold worldwide, with the greatest demand coming from the automotive sector. In 2017, 126,000 robots were supplied to the auto sector, making-up 33% of all commercial robots.

Recognizing the market trend, Hyundai Motor Group is making active investments and strengthening its presence within the growing robotics industry by securing relevant technologies that also benefit the health and wellbeing of its own workforce.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 months ago

Mercedes reveals next new model to be built in Alabama

The Mercedes-AMG GLE 53 Coupe will be built exclusively in Alabama. (Mercedes-Benz)

The next new vehicle Mercedes-AMG will produce exclusively in Alabama is a crossover that may be the sportiest yet in its SUV line.

The German automaker has unveiled the 2021 GLE 53 Coupe last week and officials have confirmed it will be built at the Mercedes-Benz U.S. International (MBUSI) plant near Tuscaloosa for the worldwide market. It is a revamp of the GLE Coupe currently made at the plant.

A formal announcement is expected later this year at MBUSI and the GLE 53 Coupe is expected to go on sale later in 2020, with pricing likely to be set close to then..

But we don’t have to wait until then to know some particulars.

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“The new GLE 53 Coupe adds even more style and elegance to our SUV family, together with hallmark AMG features such as the brand-specific radiator grille,” said Tobias Moers, CEO of Mercedes-AMG GmbH. “The attractive coupe lines envelop sophisticated suspension technology and our powerful, efficient six-cylinder in-line engine with 48-volt technology. Both guarantee a thrilling driving experience in terms of longitudinal and lateral dynamics.”

Let’s break down what that means.

The new GLE Coupe will have six-cylinder, in-line engine provides 429 horsepower and is said to go from 0-60 mph in 5.2 seconds and has an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph. An “EQ Boost” electric starter-generator adds 21 horsepower and combines the function of a starter and an alternator. EQ Boost works in conjunction with an electric auxiliary compressor and an exhaust gas turbocharger to reduce fuel consumption and emissions.

The exterior design includes the radiator grille that marks the GLE Coupe as part of the Mercedes-AMG SUV family. It’s topped by a “powerdome” hood that help give it a more rounded look. Flared wheel arches and 21-inch wheels (22-inch wheels are optional) add to the muscular-meets-sporty look.

The interior design may be the most radical departure from past Mercedes vehicles. Color highlights like bright red contrast stitching and red seat belts make the new GLE 53 Coupe stand out. Ergonomic seats, carbon fiber trim, leather upholstery and other customizable elements allow for a variety of possibilities. There are stainless-steel pedals with rubber studs. The steering wheel is covered in black nappa leather and red stitching with aluminum shift paddles.

EQ Boost also powers a 48-volt, on-board electrical system. There is a widescreen cockpit instrument panel cluster with touchscreen display and functions can be activated simply by saying “Hey, Mercedes.” Other functions can be controlled with swiping finger movements.

Handling is enhanced with the “AMG Active Ride Control” stabilization system and “Airmatic,” an air suspension system with continuously adjustable damping that can be set into “comfort,” “sport” and “sport+” modes. Off-road settings of “trail” and “sand” for traction control are also included.

A nine-speed automatic transmission is responsive and comes with seven drive programs. In addition to comfort, sport, sport+, trail and sand, there are “slippery” and “individual.” The former is optimized for slick road conditions while the latter allows for personal adjustments to the drive system, transmission and more. There are also “AMG Dynamic Select” drive programs of “basic,” “advanced” and “pro” levels that influence the electronic stability program (ESP) or the all-wheel drive to automatically determine the driver’s actions and sensor data to make for more stable or dynamic driving.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 months ago

Alabama Power named a top economic development utility company

(Michael Tomberlin / Alabama NewsCenter)

Alabama Power has one of the most successful economic development teams in the country, according to a new report from Site Selection Magazine.

The economic development publication recognized the 20 U.S. utilities with the best track record for recruiting and expanding industry last year.

For Alabama Power, the magazine cited the $2.1 billion in new capital investment and the 4,472 jobs created by projects the power company assisted with last year.

Site Selection also noted the work Alabama Power has devoted to community and workforce development beyond the traditional recruitment and expansion efforts of an economic development department.

Patrick Murphy, vice president of Marketing and Economic Development at Alabama Power, said there’s a reason for that – economic development is not just a department at Alabama Power.

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“Economic development is at the core of what Alabama Power is as a company,” Murphy said. “In reality, our entire company works every day to better the lives and create opportunities for the people in our state.”

Murphy is part of a team of economic developers who work with other specialists throughout the company to help communities be better prepared for opportunity when it comes.

The Site Selection citation pointed to efforts like Alabama Power’s speculative building program, an initiative to create the MAST (McIntosh, Axis, Saraland and Theodore) chemicals industry corridor in the areas north of Mobile, and the company’s role in creating Opportunity Alabama, a 501(c)3 dedicated to linking investors to distressed communities identified as opportunity zones.

Just as Alabama Power takes a team approach to economic development within the company, Murphy said it has found the same approach works outside of it.

“I think we’re successful because we are part of a successful team that includes the Alabama Department of Commerce, the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, our allies and local economic developers across the state,” Murphy said. “It makes it easier when you have a state as marketable as Alabama. Our state has so much to offer and it’s up to us to make sure we are presenting those opportunities to others. When others see Alabama the way we do, it makes a huge difference.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 months ago

Alabama officials seek greater collaboration, investment between Israel and business in the state

(Pixabay, YHN)

The head of the Alabama Department of Commerce will lead a trade mission to Israel early next year, part of a greater outreach between the state and the country that included a forum in Birmingham this week.

Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield said a trip to Israel is being planned for April or May of 2020 with a focus on trade and business opportunities.

“It’s actually been a while since we’ve had a trade mission (to Israel), so we’re going to lead that trade mission, bring some Alabama companies with us, try to take what we’ve learned today and hopefully look at the health care sector, look at the aviation, aerospace and technology sectors to provide some connectivity between Alabama companies and Israeli companies,” Canfield said.

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Canfield’s comments came after he participated in a panel as part of the “Doing Business with Israel: Opportunities for Alabama-Israel Technology Partnerships.” The forum was held at Alabama Power and hosted by U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, the BIRD FoundationSouthern Company, the Birmingham Business Alliance and Conexx, formerly the American Israel Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s just perfect for Alabama,” Jones said of extending relationships with Israel. “We’ve got such a diverse economy here now whether it’s agriculture, manufacturing or life sciences. (We want) to try to get that partnership to strengthen not only the economies of Alabama and Israel, but our alliances in general.”

Canfield said there are areas of overlap between Alabama and Israel when it comes to key industries.

Birmingham hosts Alabama-Israel tech and trade forum from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

“It’s really interesting because when you look at the industry sectors that are important and growing in Alabama, they happen to be very similar to the sectors that are of growing importance in Israel as well,” he said, noting health care, aerospace and technology among them.

Peggy Sammon, chairwoman of BIO Alabama, said in addition to the institutional relationships between Alabama and Israel, it’s important that those doing the research also build their own bridges.

“We are the recipient of being on some of these trade missions … and they’ve been very effective,” she said. “I think the trade mission is a good way to get started. But I find that a lot of the actual relationships that get built are from the researchers.”

Sammon said areas where the state wants to grow are the types of relationships that should be formed between researchers around the world, such as precision medicine, genetics, genomics and medical devices.

“That starts the bond and then eventually that ripples out to a company and a license and commercialization,” she said. “I think we want to just really encourage the research institutes we have in Alabama to continue those kinds of relationships.”

Birmingham’s economy has been positioning itself as one that is more tech-based. Economic developers are trying to grow emerging technologies in the Magic City.

Josh Carpenter, director of Innovation and Economic Opportunity for the city, said Birmingham already has strong connections to Israel through investments and venture capital. He pointed to Tel Aviv-based tech company Joonko’s decision to locate an office in Birmingham last year as an example.

Carpenter said he and Mayor Randall Woodfin are also planning a business development trip.

“In fact, both of us have secured funding to go to Israel within the next year to actually explore this partnership in a deeper fashion,” he said.

Andrea Yonah is director of business development with the BIRD Foundation. BIRD stands for “Binational Industrial Research and Development.” The foundation takes funding from the U.S. and Israeli governments and invests up to $1 million for projects of mutual benefit to the two countries.

Yonah said the forum opened her eyes to the similarities between the two economies.

“I learned even more about that today,” she said. “As they were talking, I was thinking, ‘Wow, we could do so many projects here in Alabama.’ It’s just identifying the right people and putting the companies together and the rest will happen.”

The BIRD Foundation recently approved funding a project between Southern Company and Israel’s mPrest Solutions. Southern Company is the parent company of Alabama Power and mPrest developed predictive analytics as part of Israel’s “iron dome” missile defense system. The two are working to leverage mPrest’s technology to make the power grid more responsive and resilient.

“Alabama Power and the Southern Company have been great partners, not only with our program but with other programs in Israel,” Yonah said. “I think they are probably the perfect example for how a large company, a utility, can leverage the innovation and technology in Israel in order to improve what they’re doing here.”

“Southern Company has had an R&D organization for 50 years,” said Tracy West, director of End Use, Power Delivery and Fleet Research and Development. “This is our 50th year anniversary. So, R&D and innovation is in our DNA. We look around the world for technology solutions that we can bring back into the business to benefit our customers. We are always out there shopping.”

She said Southern Company learned about mPrest through GE.

“We’re recognizing that everything is happening at the edge of the grid,” she said. “We really need an optimization tool for the edge of the grid. That’s what mPrest brings to the table.”

Canfield said Alabama is looking to become a leader in artificial intelligence.

“We’re about to launch a new commission that is going to bring together practitioners and the private sector and educators and focus on artificial intelligence and what that means, or can mean, for the state of Alabama in terms of new opportunities that cut across a lot of different industries, from automotive to aerospace to a number of different industries, health care and medical services,” he said.

“AI will be a technology that impacts so many different industry sectors,” Canfield told Alabama NewsCenter. “We want to make sure that Alabama takes advantage of being on the cusp of being one of those states that attracts the knowledge-based opportunities of developing that technology here.”

Sammon said there are other growth areas where Alabama can be a leader, and relationships with Israel make sense.

“I think precision medicine is the big revolution that is coming and tying it to genomics and genetics,” she said, noting that Israel’s work in big data could be beneficial in analyzing the massive amount of information being generated.

Carpenter said UAB’s plans to invest into a data science and genomics center will further propel the Magic City as a leader in the space.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 months ago

Alabama native bringing VR production to Sidewalk, looking to make feature film in the state

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed)

Meredith Riley Stewart has found a new home in Hollywood, but lately the Phenix City native is feeling a pull back to her home state.

Whether it’s showcasing her virtual reality (VR) short film at this week’s Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham or scouting locations in the Chattahoochee Valley for a new feature film, Riley Stewart is finding her way back to the South.

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After living life as a dancer in Philadelphia and as an actor in New York, she has found living in Los Angeles is not such a far cry from Alabama.

“I feel like L.A. is sort of the perfect blend of more of the charm and connection to nature that Southerners have with the grind and hustle of New York,” Riley Stewart said. “It’s kind of the perfect combination for me. I feel at home there. And there are so many Southerners in L.A. It’s always my tell, that I will say ‘y’all’ in some room and they’re like, ‘Wait a second, you’re not from L.A. Where are you from?’”

The University of Alabama graduate has even found that a well-placed “Roll Tide!” can lead to connections in Hollywood.

“In my resume under ‘education’ I just squeeze in a little ‘Roll Tide!’ and I can’t tell you how many casting directors I’ve had conversations with about SEC football because that’s on there,” she said. “It’s been a smart little addition. We can have a conversation that makes me more human. It’s not about the story. It’s not about the character. It’s about something totally different.”

It keeps rolling when she’s at home.

“I am married to an Alabama boy as well,” she said. “We literally just changed cable packages because we were with somebody who dropped CBS and he was like, ‘What? We can’t … no, no … I have to …’ Our life sort of revolves around football in the South. He’s counting down how many days until the opening game.”

Riley Stewart is counting down the days until her immersive VR experience “SEE ME” is shown at Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival this weekend. Alabama Power is a sponsor of this year’s festival.

“’SEE ME’ is a short-form, experimental VR experience that invites the audience to step inside the subconscious mind of a woman, invites you to sort of experience what daily life is like for many women, including the constant barrage of commentary that happens for them in our society,” Riley Stewart said.

Other than being shown for friends and family, “SEE ME” has been shown publicly only at last week’s Macon Film Festival in Georgia. Based on the reactions there, Riley Stewart said viewers should come in expecting something intense.

“They should know that it challenges the male gaze,” she said. “VR is a unique concept for that because of the headset aspect of it. Not only are you feeling the experience of a woman, but you are potentially stepping into a male gaze on these women. That idea of challenging the male gaze – because it can be uncomfortable, especially in VR where your eyes are covered, your ears are covered, you’re sitting in a chair – and when these women approach you, because it looks like they’re coming right at you, some people wanted to hide, you kind of can’t get away. It requires people to be ready to confront it.”

In Macon, women would take off their headsets with tears in their eyes and the men felt uncomfortable and shared what they felt in a conversation with the filmmakers after the showing. At Sidewalk, the film will have multiple showings at the Lyric Theatre Aug. 24-25.

“We hope they can get through it and then they can take a breath and either realize what many women go through or so many women watch it and say, ‘Yes, that’s what happens.’ For us to be able to add a voice to their experience is powerful,” Riley Stewart said.

“That’s really the point, is to have that eye-opening empathy,” she added. “Really it’s about how our society objectifies women, and women finally finding a voice and the strength – whether that’s physical or of character – to speak up and demand to be seen as an equal human.”

A friend Riley Stewart made in Hollywood, Celine Tricart, is a leader in VR filmmaking and directed the acclaimed “The Sun Ladies” documentary about women soldiers in the Afghanistan army.

Riley Stewart wanted to make something impactful to address the objectification of women, and began working on “SEE ME” just as the #MeToo movement was beginning.

“That’s something I’m always trying to do with things I decide to spend my energy on now,” she said. “Media is such an influential culture shaper. There is such an opportunity there to create change in our society and that’s what I want to do with the media that I create.”

It is part of an evolution Riley Stewart has gone through since graduating from the University of Alabama with degrees in dance and biology and then dancing professionally in Philadelphia. Hosting on QVC and shooting commercials gave her the acting bug. She took professional classes and earned a role as a dancer on the first season of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” which gave her a Screen Actors Guild card and allowed her to pursue other acting roles.

She’s had roles on ABC’s “Scandal,”NBC’s “Days of Our Lives,” Lifetime’s “Devious Maids” and Martin Scorsese’s movie “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Riley Stewart co-produced “Flip The Script,” the first digital series by Women in Film. She created “AutocorrectFU,” that features funny, over-the-top reenactments of autocorrected text conversations. Her “Southern Dish” digital series is about a Southern belle in the Big Apple, embracing the culture clash instead of fighting it.

She has become known for her Southern charm and wise-cracking personality in various pursuits in Hollywood. The production she is looking to film in the Phenix City-Columbus, Georgia, area is in keeping with that.

“The Inheritance” is a faith-based family comedy with Hollywood’s Mustard Seed Entertainment.

As soon as Riley Stewart read the script, she envisioned it taking place back home.

“I just thought, ‘This is so perfect to bring back to my hometown,’” she said. “It’s a beautiful story about family.”

Family and home were important touch points for Riley Stewart.

“In the past 10 years I have lost both of my parents and my aunt who was like my second mother,” she said. “I’m young to have gone through all of that already, but it really gave me a deeper understanding of what’s important about your family and life. While this is a comedy, it kind of centers around the unique place of where people go when it’s time to claim inheritance. It’s this weird thing that happens. It brings out certain character and shades of character that might not have existed before.”

Riley Stewart noted your family has a way of seeing the real you.

“You think you’ve evolved so much and then you have Thanksgiving dinner with your family and remember who you really are,” she said. “The theme of family and that being an important part of your legacy was really something that connected to me immediately.”

Shooting the film will be easier than other productions because almost all of the story takes place on the grounds of one estate. Riley Stewart said some generous people in the Phenix City-Columbus area contacted her to offer their home to shoot in. Columbus has a film office and infrastructure to support moving productions in the area and the film is expected to create 30 jobs and bring about $500,000 in spending.

“I’m really hoping that that’s going to happen … no, it is going to happen by the end of the year,” Riley Stewart said. “There is so much support here. It’s really wonderful. To be a hometown person bringing this movie back, I’m excited about it.”

A second feature film Riley Stewart is looking to produce is important to her for another reason. It’s a drama about public school teachers and the heavy lifting they do as part of their job.

“That one is really dear to my heart because both of my parents were public educators,” she said. “My mother was the principal of my high school. It tells the story of those unsung heroes, the people who really do shape American culture in the microcosm of schools.”

For now, Riley Stewart is excited to be returning to her home state and making her first visit to Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival. She is planning on spending time with friends from Hollywood who are in the Magic City.

“Now that I’ve been in L.A. for five years, looking at my network of people there, I have probably five friends with pieces in (Sidewalk) that I’m going to see in Birmingham,” she said. “So, it will be really cool to sort of like be able to take them to a restaurant I went to in college or something.”

Riley Stewart loves the freedom that being an actor and a producer allows.

“I’m in the fortunate position of just being able to focus on being a creator,” she said. “As an actor, sure, I can audition any time for other people’s projects. But between those, I do have time to develop my own.”

In it all, she can always find room for a “Roll Tide!”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 months ago

Commerce secretary says Alabama needs new economic development plan

Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield addresses the Economic Development Association of Alabama at its summer conference. (Michael Tomberlin / Alabama NewsCenter)

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

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

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

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

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

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

That includes new heights in 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canfield said rural economic development is getting added attention.

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

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

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

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

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

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 months ago

Baldwin County ‘Mega Site’ getting $5M in improvements from Alabama Power, CSX

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed)

The South Alabama Mega Site is getting $5 million in improvements, thanks to a new state program and Alabama Power and CSX Transportation.

The Baldwin County Commission recently temporarily transferred ownership of the 3,000-acre property to the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance. The BCEDA is authorized to participate in the new Growing Alabama state tax credit program. That Alabama Department of Commerce program allows private companies and individuals to get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for investing in preparation and infrastructure improvements to industrial sites.

Alabama Power and CSX are investing $5 million to:

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  • Create a CSX rail spur off of the rail line that runs along the southern border of the site.
  • Grade 200 acres of the property.
  • Create a 1 million-square-foot building pad.

“This is going to help the clients that we bring to the site visualize their location,” said Lee Lawson, president and CEO of the BCEDA. “The location that we’ve chosen to do all of the work on is really the sweet spot of our site where a lot of projects have gravitated toward, so we really feel like it will truly enhance our marketability.”

Improvements will put Baldwin County ‘Mega Site’ in the fast lane for economic growth from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield said the property stands out among what Alabama has to offer.

“The Baldwin County Mega Site is certainly in a class of its own,” Canfield said. “I think that these upgrades and infrastructure are going to do nothing but make it more marketable and create more opportunities for this part of Alabama. We’re very hopeful about its future.”

Patrick Murphy, vice president of Marketing and Economic Development at Alabama Power, said this fits into Alabama Power’s long-standing economic development mission.

“Something we constantly strive to do in the communities that we serve and work with is having prepared product, so by the additional investment being made in that community on that site just elevates that site to be one of the most marketable mega sites in the whole Southeast,” he said.

“We just want to continue those partnerships we have,” Murphy added. “We’ve been blessed to be in this state for 100 years doing economic development and working with our allies at the state and local level. It’s all about ultimate product you have and we’re confident this will enhance the opportunities for Baldwin County and the state of Alabama.”

The South Alabama Mega Site has been in the running for several big projects that ended up choosing other locations. Lawson said you can’t celebrate coming in second place in the site selection process, so the hope is the improvements will lead to a win.

“We’ve had a lot of great companies look at it,” Lawson said. “We’ve been close. That just gives us validation that we’re doing the right things and we’ve got the site in a great spot.”

Canfield said getting sites ready for development can be a challenge in some areas of the state and the Growing Alabama program is aimed at helping communities get assistance from corporate partners.

“There’s a lot of land in Alabama,” he said. “Sometimes not all of it is very cost-effective in terms of economic development products.”

The Baldwin County Commission purchased the property now known as the South Alabama Mega Site in 2012, bordered by Interstate 65 to the north and CSX railroad tracks to the south. That railroad gives a direct link to the Port of Mobile, a main economic and trade link to the rest of the world.

“The South Alabama Mega Site is a designated CSX Select Site, which is a development-ready property that has met a rigorous list of criteria,” said Shantel Davis, CSX vice president of Real Estate and Facilities. “Now with the site enhancements planned by BCEDA, the door is open wider for companies looking to build a rail-served manufacturing operation.”

The property is also a certified AdvantageSite by the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, meaning all of the necessary steps have been taken to ensure it is ready for a company to start construction immediately.

The new improvements will build on the other certifications the site has earned.

“This is a win-win for Baldwin County in getting these enhancements that will also boost the profile, the value and the attractiveness of our site to potential companies looking for a new site,” Baldwin County Commission Chairman Skip Gruber said.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 months ago

Sloss Tech is evidence of Birmingham’s vibrant innovation economy

(Michael Tomberlin/Alabama NewsCenter)

Members of Birmingham’s startup community, innovation economy and tech-based companies gathered at Sloss Tech and made it emphatically clear that the tech ecosystem in the Magic City is, well, magical.

Even Mayor Randall Woodfin likened what is happening in the innovation economy in Birmingham today to the steel industry boom that gave the city its nickname more than a century ago.

“I’m putting the whole innovative and tech space on your shoulders, but I’m pushing you and cheering you on the entire way because the city of Birmingham needs you,” Woodfin told the sold-out audience at the Lyric Theatre on Aug. 2.

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Sloss Tech showcases Birmingham’s emerging technology and innovation ecosystem from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Woodfin said Birmingham’s economy emerged from one based on steel to a diversified one in health care, financial services and manufacturing. Today, Woodfin said technology is disrupting all those industries and it’s important that Birmingham learn how to marry the two.

“You all are the disruptors, in a positive way, for the trajectory of the way we need to take the city of Birmingham,” he said.

For instance, he said Birmingham needs to “double-down and triple-down” on biotech, biomedicine and personalized medicine enabled by technology and innovation. The same is true for manufacturing, using the assets the city has – in particular, its unparalleled transportation infrastructure – to enhance that industry.

Woodfin talked about his own stumbles – failing the bar before becoming a lawyer and losing his first run for elected office before eventually becoming mayor of Birmingham – before encouraging those at Sloss Tech.

“As it relates to the economy of this city, you all in this room are responsible for this city’s future,” he said. “There will be stumbles. You will fail. You will lose. But you will get back up because the city of Birmingham needs you.”

Woodfin’s address ended up being the perfect scene-setter for a day when Birmingham’s tech leaders celebrated successes, launched startups and spoke frankly about shortcomings.
Successes celebrated included Wyndy, the babysitting app Tommy Mayfield founded in 2017 to make it easier for parents to find, hire and pay a trusted babysitter. Mayfield said the company has received another round of funding that will enable it to add staff and expand its geographic footprint.

Mayfield was on the startup panel that talked about what Birmingham is doing right and what it could be doing better to support startups. For instance, offering its thousands of employees access to the Wyndy app or babysitting credits would be a great benefit to the employees and directly support a local startup, he said.

A trio of Shipt employees used Sloss Tech to launch their new company, Linq. The company allows people to digitally share business card information through their phones without having to download an app.

Elliott Potter, one of the co-founders, said they were inspired by Sloss Tech a year ago to have a new product ready by this year’s event. He said they never dreamed they would have their own panel to help kick off this year’s Sloss Tech.

“We’ve gotten the best business feedback we’ve ever gotten,” Potter said. “This was our public debut. All of the feedback we’ve gotten today is absolutely crucial.”

Potter said the team will make adjustments to the program based on the feedback they received.

“It’s been an awesome journey and a lot of fun,” he said.

The three continue to work at Shipt, which supports them as they pursue their own startup plans. It’s an example of how the Birmingham tech economy is perpetuating itself by fostering new startups.

“The tech ecosystem in Birmingham in general is very much supportive; collaborative and synergistic,” Potter said. “We’re just happy to be riding the wave.”

Sloss Tech did make it clear, however, that more can be done to ensure everyone who wants to ride that wave can do so. The women in technology panel was real and raw in highlighting that Birmingham, like other cities, can do more to be inclusive, especially when it comes to women.

That’s the kind of open talk organizers TechBirmingham and Telegraph wanted with Sloss Tech.

Deon Gordon, president of TechBirmingham, said Birmingham is a city that has proved it may not get inclusion right the first time, but it has the wherewithal to keep working at it until it does.

TechBirmingham is using a grant from the National Center for Women and Information Technology to recruit, retain and advance women from K-12 and higher education through industry and entrepreneurial careers.

Organizations like TechBirmingham are sowing other seeds to address the city’s future needs in the tech economy.

Gordon pointed to a new coding initiative TechBirmingham is rolling out in 12 city schools this year. It will include professional development for teachers, access to equipment and curriculum for students and the creation of an Advanced Placement program for those who excel in the program.

“Those three things right there, research tells us, can really not just help move needles, but start to move mountains in terms of kids and their proficiency and their self-efficacy,” Gordon said. “Do they believe they can do this? Do they believe that they have a future in STEM and in coding?”

Gordon said it’s important to let young people know there are futures in the industry that don’t require programming or even coding skills.

“Everybody has a role to play in this and to the degree that we can illuminate those various roles and how they tie into this larger tech ecosystem, we will be much better for it,” he said.

Sloss Tech offered much to take in, which keynote speaker Alexis Ohanian pointed out. He said one of the key traits he looks for in a startup’s founder is relentlessness because that speaks to the drive and understanding he or she has for what it is they are undertaking.

The co-founder of Reddit and now an avid investor in startups said there is much to like about what is happening in Birmingham today. He said Birmingham seems to be a place that has talent, a lower cost of living, a high quality of life and a place that could foster startups on a grand scale.

“It’s a very good time for the tech community here to be starting to thrive,” Ohanian told Alabama NewsCenter in an interview.

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian on strengths, challenges Birmingham faces as a tech startup hub from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

He said tech-enabled entrepreneurship is a powerful force in the world today that can help bring about important change.

“I do think talent is universally distributed, it’s just opportunity has not always been,” Ohanian said. “I think you can already see that starting to change in tech hubs like Birmingham.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 months ago

Alabama putting added horsepower behind rural economic development efforts

(Dennis Washington/Alabama NewsCenter)

Rural economic development in Alabama is getting some personal attention from two experts with a track record in recruiting industry and adding jobs.

Brian Hilson steps into the newly-created role of rural development strategist at the Economic Development Association of Alabama. Hilson most recently was the president and CEO of the Birmingham Business Alliance. He held the same position at the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce prior to that.

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On Monday, the Alabama Department of Commerce announced Brenda Tuck is the first to take on the new job of rural development manager at the state agency. Tuck previously served in Commerce’s Workforce Development Division as regional workforce council liaison. Prior to that, she served in economic development positions in Southwest Alabama, including Marengo, Dallas and Wilcox counties.

In her new role, Tuck will provide technical assistance to rural communities being considered for economic development projects. She will also provide ongoing assistance and training for rural communities seeking to enhance their competitiveness for new investment and jobs.

“Rural communities in Alabama can benefit from having a go-to person who can connect them with the resources they need to improve their economic development prospects,” Tuck said. “I look forward to working with the leaders from rural counties and communities across the state in this important role.”

In his job at EDAA, Hilson has been traveling around the state meeting with officials in the 40 of Alabama’s 67 counties where the population is 50,000 or less.

“This is something that has really never been done before in Alabama,” Hilson said.

Those visits are revealing common issues – some that are easier to fix than others.

“It’s really important to help everyone involved in economic development around the state understand the importance of our rural communities and how they’re performing, or not performing in economic development,” Hilson said. “Some are doing very well, some are kind of in the middle of the road and some have a long, long way to go to get properly organized and understand their assets.”

More resources helping develop, promote rural Alabama from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

At the EDAA Summer Conference on Monday, Hilson moderated a panel of companies who have found success in rural areas. David Holder, general manager of Southern operations for auto supplier Sanoh America, talked about how his company has expanded seven times in the past 19 years and grown with the automotive industry in the state. He said Scottsboro has been a partner in the company’s growth, helping with workforce, infrastructure, incentives and other issues.

Although Kimber Manufacturing is still ramping up its firearm assembly business in Troy, Scott Moore, the vice president of manufacturing, said working with local economic development officials has been a key to the early success at the plant.

Another perfect marriage appears to be between Thomasville and the Westervelt Company. Steve Metz is the plant manager of the Westervelt sawmill being built in the Clarke County community that will create 175 jobs.

Metz said he is constantly being asked by local officials if there is anything the company needs. Most of the time he said the company doesn’t need anything but, on the off-chance he mentions he does need something, it is provided almost immediately or a plan is put in place to provide it.

“The support you get from a local community is amazing,” Metz said.

Thomasville Mayor Sheldon Day said he is glad to hear Westervelt feels welcome.

“We think it’s cool to be rural in Thomasville,” Day said. “If you want to do something special, really special, come to a rural community.”

Day said a plant like Westervelt can have a big impact on a small community like Thomasville. It’s a town where the plant manager is recognized in the grocery store and given a ‘thank you’ by a grandmother for giving her grandson a job.

Day said he’s heard lip service and seen studies done before to address the needs of rural Alabama. But something is different today.

“So many times, they did these beautiful studies and it told you some of the things they needed to do but those studies weren’t put into action,” he said. “I’m pleased to see it looks like now we’ve got a joint effort between the state, EDAA and many other organizations – folks like PowerSouthAlabama Power and others – focusing truly on rural development now.”

Day said Thomasville is proof that rural economic development is possible if a community is prepared to put in the time and effort.

“If we can do it 65 miles from the closest interstate, anybody can do it,” he said. “You’ve just got to put your nose to the grindstone and do what my grandfather used to say, ‘Keep your head down and keep plowing, son.’”

Hilson agreed that communities like Thomasville are examples of what’s possible.

“There is really plenty of that to go around, but it takes a lot of preparation for communities to do that – I’m talking about physical infrastructure, workforce, of course, but also leadership and those are the kinds of issues that we’re really focused on,” he said.

Putting communities in a position to be competitive is the focus.

“They can’t market themselves effectively until they’ve got a more marketable product,” Hilson said.

He said the EDAA rural development committee will be launching a pilot program in 2020 in which five rural areas of the state will get specialized attention to prepare them for economic development. Hilson said those initial pilot communities will likely be regional and not individual cities.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 months ago

Shelby County Arts Council will open new Old Mill Square Arts Center in August

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed)

Shelby County’s art community is about to be centerstage – and a brand new stage at that – with the opening of the $11 million Shelby County Arts Center at Old Mill Square.

The 30,000-square-foot facility is set to open Aug. 24 with a performance by Three on a String.

Of the 30,000 square feet, 20,000 is devoted to the Shelby County Arts Council (SCAC) to use for performance, visual, music and other arts.

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SCAC partnered with the city of Columbiana and Shelby County to make the project happen. Additional support came from the Alabama Power FoundationEbsco Industries, the Altec Foundation, the Daniel Foundation of Alabama, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham and others.

Opening night approaches for Shelby County Arts Center from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Among the space’s uses will be:

  • A 200-seat black box theater for music, dance, drama and other performing arts.
  • An outdoor amphitheater and park open to the public all day, every day.
  • A fine art gallery sponsored by Ebsco with exhibits changed out periodically.
  • A metal arts foundry with sculptured art and an artist in residence to create and educate.
  • A pottery and sculpture studio with classes for artists at all levels, along with kilns and a drying room.
  • A visual arts studio for teaching artists to work in a variety of mediums including drawing, painting, printmaking, graphic design and jewelry making.
  • Music studios and practice rooms to teach students to work with piano, guitar and voice, among other instruments.

The remaining 10,000 square feet will be used as a municipal multipurpose venue. It can be used for additional arts and entertainment space or outfitted for 500 seats for any number of uses.

Bruce Andrews, SCAC executive director, said the facility is needed.

“We believe it can be an entertainment destination, an arts and culture destination for central Alabama,” Andrews said. “It makes a statement that the building is all about the arts and the community.”

Jonathan Porter, vice president of Alabama Power’s Birmingham Division, believes Columbiana now has a jewel to boost the arts.

“The new Shelby County Arts Center will be a great addition not only to the Columbiana community, but an even greater tool to promote culture and the arts in this state,” Porter said. “Alabama Power is proud to support this worthwhile project, as Columbiana is an integral part of moving our region forward.”

Andrews said the Shelby County Arts Center is meant to complement and collaborate with other arts venues in the county.

“We want to be synergistic and a sort of symbiotic relationship with other arts organizations,” Andrews said, noting Montevallo and Alabaster have strong art scenes and active organizations.

The corporate community and major foundations stepped up to make the facility go from talk to reality, he said.

Andrews said the Columbiana City Council was bold to believe in the project.

“We’re extremely proud of our collaborators and we want to really thank the city council of Columbiana for really stepping up and being visionary.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 months ago

Alabama coach Nick Saban out to re-establish the standard for this year’s Crimson Tide team

(Bruce Nix/Alabama NewsCenter)

Alabama coach Nick Saban said his Crimson Tide team heads into 2019 with a need to re-establish the standard that has brought it national championship success in years past.

The Crimson Tide coach touched on a number of topics at SEC Football Media Days 2019, including what he likes and doesn’t like about the transfer portal, where quarterback Tua Tagovailoa can improve and whether he’s a tough boss.

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Saban’s team is coming off a 44-16 drumming by Clemson in the national championship game to close out the 2018 season, which saw the Tide go undefeated in the regular season, win the SEC championship game and defeat Oklahoma in the first round of the College Football Playoff.

But the bad taste from the Clemson loss is what lingers, Saban said.

“I think that we didn’t play with the discipline at the end of the season that we’d like to have as a team,” Saban said. “I don’t think that our preparation, so that we can go in a game and be very responsible and accountable to do our job at a high level on a consistent basis, was what it needed to be.”

Alabama coach Nick Saban speaks at SEC Media Days 2019 from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The coach said the loss can be used as motivation for the upcoming season.

“I think if you’re a great competitor and you are in a game like we were for the national championship and you didn’t perform very well, and given all much the credit to the other team who beat us and took advantage of the opportunities that they have, not to take anything away from them, but if you’re a competitor, you’re going to respond in a positive way and learn from the things that you didn’t do, whether those things were in preparation, game-day decisions, you know, the habits that you created leading up to the game the second half of the season,” Saban said. “All of those things contribute to, are we going to be able to have success against one of the best teams, or the best team, in the country. And we obviously didn’t do that. That’s my responsibility.”

For Saban, the response is re-establishing the standard.

“I think the most important thing for us, you know, in this offseason and going into this season is sort of re-establish the standard that we’d like to play to, standard of discipline, also, players that are going to be responsible and accountable to do their job at a high level on a consistent basis and also put the team first,” Saban said. “It doesn’t mean you can’t have individual goals and aspirations in terms of what you want to accomplish, what you want to do for the team, but it has to be about the team. I think that sometimes people see you when you create numbers for yourself and do great individual things, but you really get noticed when you do those things and the team has success as well.”

That “team first” mentality may have been lacking last year, Saban said.

“Whether or not people were worried about personal outcomes more than team outcomes, it’s always hard to judge that,” he said. “But it seems like we had a lot of distractions at the end of the year. So hopefully we learned from those scenarios, and it will help us do the things that we need to do to be able to play to our full potential throughout this season.”

Saban said it will be important for leaders on the team to help enforce standards.

“That’s something that I think is important on every team and certainly something that we challenge the leadership on our team to do a great job of this year to help our young players understand the culture and the standard that we’d like to do things to,” he said. “And I think it’s important for those leaders to set a good example, be somebody that the young players on the team can emulate, care enough about them to help them for their benefit, and serve the team well because it helps everybody play to a higher standard.”

Speaking of leadership, Saban noted he is once again starting a new season with new coordinators on his staff.

Steve Sarkisian returns to Alabama after two seasons with the Atlanta Falcons in the NFL. Pete Golding was promoted to defensive coordinator from last year’s staff.

While the coordinators may change, Saban said Alabama doesn’t.

“You know, we don’t change systems at Alabama,” Saban said. “So we change the system to effectively take advantage of the players that we have in our program. So that’s what we want to do. Obviously, we’ll do some different things and some new things relative to the new coaches that we have, but we also maintain the same system that we’ve had in the past.”

Saban has had to replace a number of coaches and coordinators during his time at Alabama, most of them going on to head coaching or positions of increased responsibility at other schools. Is Saban a difficult boss?

“Well, I don’t know. You have to ask some of the people that work for me,” Saban said. “Always interesting that, you know, they may say that, but then when they get a job and they go do it, they do it exactly like we did it. So, I don’t know.”

Constantly recruiting, maintaining a roster of 125 players and maintaining a standard of excellence is hard work.

“So none of this is easy,” Saban said. “And I think, when you’re in a position of leadership and you’re trying to make people be accountable and responsible to a standard that’s going to help you continue to have success, that sometimes you have to make people do things that they really don’t want to do that may be in the best interest of the overall organization.”

The player transfer portal is another element that Saban and his staff now have to face. Saban said the premise of the portal – allowing players to explore transferring and letting interested schools contact them – is a good one. However, Saban does not like the passing out of waivers that prevent a player from having to sit out a year at the new school.

“The issue with the transfer portal is we’ve gotten very liberal in giving people waivers, so, when we do that, it becomes free agency, which I don’t think is good for college football,” Saban said. “So, in my opinion, if we’re going to have a transfer portal that’s good for the players, then we ought to have a rule that says, regardless of what happens when you transfer, you have to sit out a year.”

Saban said it’s his job to create an environment where players want to come and stay.

“So we want to have the best coaches, the best teachers, the best facilities, the best strength and conditioning medical staff, nutritionist, you name it,” Saban said. “We want to have the best that we can so we give every player an opportunity to reach their full potential.”

But Saban said honesty is also important.

“I asked players all of the time to establish goals for themselves personally, academically and athletically, and then I try to get them to edit their behavior to be able to accomplish those goals,” Saban said. “And if their behavior is not in line with that, we sort of tell them. And some people don’t like to believe the truth.”

Saban had more to say about why being truthful with players is the only approach.

“You know, there’s three things about the truth,” Saban said. “I tell my kids all of the time about, if you don’t tell me the truth, I can’t trust you. If I can’t trust you, we can’t have a relationship. But truth is important. I think we all have to tell the truth. I think we have to live the truth, but I also think sometimes you got to believe the truth. So when somebody tells you something you really don’t want to hear that you might need to do that’s going to help you be more successful, you got to believe it. Some people have a hard time with that.”

A full scholarship load has kept Saban and his staff from spending a lot of time looking for players in the transfer portal. Saban said there is one place he looks to add players.

“We look at who is in the graduate transfer pool. And if there’s somebody that can give us immediate help on our team, we have had several graduate transfers,” Saban said. “So we really haven’t been active at all in, you know, that part of how we bring players to our team.”

Saban touched on a number of other subjects.

On Tagovailoa’s development at quarterback:“You know, towards end of the season, we turned the ball over a little bit more offensively than what we had in the first half of the season. And I’m sure that he wants to make sure that the decision-making that led to some of those things are something that he can improve on,” Saban said. “Tua is a great competitor so he’s going to try to make a great play every play. And sometimes those things have worked out extremely well. And other times they’ve led to some disasters. So having a little better judgment about when to say when can be an asset from a health standpoint as well as eliminate negative play standpoint, even though sometimes he’s done that, and it’s worked out great.”

On being 16-0 against his former assistants who are head coaches at competing schools: “I think that’s not a very fair stat. All of the former assistants that we have, they get jobs. They don’t take a program over that has the established, you know, talent, culture and all that that we have at Alabama. So when they get the opportunity to establish those things in their program, they’re going to be able to beat Alabama and compete with Alabama,” he said. “I think a lot of those guys are going to be able to do that extremely well. Some have done it already. So, I think it’s a matter of time until those challenges get greater and greater for us.”

On pinpointing the secret to his success: “I don’t really know the secret to the success other than, you know, we worked hard and we’ve been in some really good situations through the years with really good people who are very supportive and given us the tools that we have that can create value for players so we can attract good players, and we’ve been able to develop those players with the knowledge and experience that we have on our staffs and, you know, with what we’ve been able to create through the years,” Saban said. “And I’m sort of a perfectionist by nature. And I know you can’t be perfect, but we’re always working to try to close the gap on perfect if we can and get everybody in the organization to try to do the same.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

4 months ago

Hyundai June sales boosted by Alabama-built Santa Fe

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed)

The revamped Alabama-built Santa Fe is leading an SUV sales surge for Hyundai.

Hyundai Motor America reported overall sales in June were up 2%, but sales of the Santa Fe and Santa Fe XL climbed 36% for the month.

The Santa Fe is produced at Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama in Montgomery along with the Sonata and Elantra sedans. June sales dipped for both of the Alabama-built sedans but were more than offset by growth in Hyundai’s SUV line, led by the Santa Fe.

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Hyundai sold 14,335 Santa Fe’s in June, compared to 10,526 the same month a year ago.

Year-to-date, Hyundai’s overall sales are also up 2%. The company revealed that more than half of its sales, 51%, were SUVs through the first half of this year. That’s compared to 44% through the first half of 2018.

Hyundai released a revamped version of the Santa Fe in September 2018.

(Courtesy Alabama NewsCenter)

4 months ago

Gibson Distilling is an Alabama Maker barreling bourbon and bottling moonshine in the Wiregrass

(Michael Tomberlin/Alabama NewsCenter)

Gibson Distilling Inc. (Headland)

The Makers: Lloyd and Kay Keel

Gibson Distilling in Headland is out to make drinking Alabama-made whiskey not only tasty and fun, but downright patriotic.

The distilling company recently released its latest offering – an unaged corn whiskey made with red, white and blue corn – just in time for the Fourth of July.

It joins a pretty robust product line for a small distillery in a small Alabama town.

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It’s all a surprise to owners Lloyd and Kay Keel, who are amazed and thankful at how fast the business is growing.

The products are sold under the George Gibson label. “George” is Lloyd’s first name and “Gibson” comes from a local man who may have known a thing or two about moonshining. The new red, white and blue whiskey carries a George Keel label, after Lloyd, the master distiller.

Gibson Distilling Company is an Alabama moonshine maker with a flair for flavors from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

For Keel, making whiskey is something he has … uh … experimented with since the 1970s. He studied the process and had a lot of trial and error before he felt like he had something others would want to buy. He got a federal permit in 2014 and started making and barreling his first bourbon.

“It’s like a chemistry set,” he said. “You get to go out and experiment and do different things.”

He had to wait two years for it to age before he could start bottling and selling that first batch.

When he did, it was more popular than he expected. After a few calculations, he realized he was going to sell out of the bourbon and rye whiskeys before his next batches would age out.

“It’s a little difficult to forecast your demand” two years out, he said.

That’s when Keel focused on vodka, gin and flavored moonshines.

“Those have been a really good business decision,” Keel said. “We’re selling a lot of the flavored products now. People just love our vodka and we have our gin and we sell a lot of gin, too.”

The flavored moonshines now make up a large part of Gibson Distilling’s business. They offer Southern favorites like peach, blackberry, blueberry and apple pie along with an unusual offering of coffee-flavored moonshine.

Gibson Distilling uses Headland Roasting Company’s Southern Pecan and Jamaican Me Crazy coffees for its coffee-flavored moonshine. While most who visit Gibson Distilling’s tasting room are hesitant to try it, those who do end up buying a bottle to carry home, Keel said.

Keel said he has freedom to try new flavors.

“I’m always back there in the back tinkering,” he said. “We’re a small distillery. I can afford to play a little bit and if I make a bad batch, well, we will just use it as fire starter.”

While the distillery may be small, it is growing.

“We’ve had to get really busy and start producing more and more,” Keel said. “We just got two new 1,600-gallon fermenters that we will try to bring online fall of this year.”

They are also adding about 4,000 square feet to the distillery.

Keel said his bourbon is made with 80 percent corn, 12 percent rye and 8 percent barley. The flavor is “just the way I like it,” Keel said, but said others have compared the flavor profile to Weller bourbon.

The rye whiskey is made with 90 percent rye and 10 percent barley.

The new red, white and blue label is made with 50 percent white corn, 25 percent Butchers Apron red corn and 25 percent Hopi Blue corn.

“We find that those work better for us than the yellow corn,” Keel said. “They’re much more smooth when you actually have a finished product than the yellow corn. It costs a little more, but, hey, I like it better.”

While Keel is “tinkering” in the back at the distillery, his wife and co-owner, Kay, is running the tasting room and handling sales out front.

“Kay is my official taster,” Lloyd said.

The company is marketing through the state’s ABC Stores from Montgomery south to the Florida line and from Andalusia east to the Georgia line. It can also be found in some restaurants, bars and independent liquor stores.

For now, that’s about as much as Gibson Distilling can manage.

“It’s just moving forward at a pace that it’s been a little challenging to keep up with,” Keel said.


Gibson Distilling Inc.

The product: Bourbon, rye and corn whiskeys, gin, vodka, flavored moonshines.

Take home: A George Gibson bourbon, a George Gibson Blueberry Moonshine and a George Keel Red, White and Blue limited-edition corn whiskey (prices vary).

Gibson Distilling can be found online and on Facebook and Instagram.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

5 months ago

Wild Honey Flower Truck is Birmingham’s florist on wheels

(Michael Tomberlin/Alabama NewsCenter)

Wild Honey Flower Truck is a florist that can put the pedal to the metal. Or is that petal? Or maybe even peddle?

Actually, all three apply.

The baby blue 1963 Ford pickup truck is a pop-up florist able to travel to farmers markets, street festivals and any number of corporate events and public gatherings.

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It’s an idea that bloomed when Kelsey Sizemore and her husband, Josh, saw similar flower operations outside of Alabama.

“We had seen a couple of similar businesses in other cities and we thought it was something that Birmingham would really love,” Kelsey Sizemore said.

If you’re going to have a flower truck, it has to start with the truck.

“We started by looking at trucks on Craigslist and eBay,” Sizemore said. “We decided on the kind of truck that we liked.”

Wild Honey Flower Truck is blooming in Birmingham from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

When they found a potential truck in Ohio, Sizemore sent her father-in-law to check it out. When it earned a thumbs-up, they had the truck towed to Birmingham.

“We started the process of really transforming the truck into something that could house the flowers,” she said.

That meant a paint job, building out the back to carry flower vases and adding an awning.

Next came procuring flowers by working with wholesalers, flower markets and other dealers.

With the truck ready and outfitted with flowers, the only decision was where to go to sell them.

“We just sought out the places that we really like to go,” Sizemore said.

That could mean being outside of the Pizitz building one day and in Woodlawn the next.

You can also find Wild Honey Food Truck at the West Homewood Farmer’s Market every Tuesday night this summer.

The warmer weather and opening of seasonal markets and festivals has made for a busy time for Wild Honey Flower Truck, which started sales in November.

“This is our first spring and summer season,” Sizemore said. “We’re really figuring it out as we go. We’re trying to have the truck out every weekend.”

The truck tends to draw a crowd and creates many opportunities for selfies. Sizemore has grown used to the reactions.

“I think they’re pretty surprised,” she said. “Most people want to take pictures with the truck. They ask a lot of questions about the truck and how old it is. I think it’s a very Instagram-able business, so people really like that. They can make a bouquet and take a picture with it and it helps us spread the word, too.”

One area of growth the Sizemores see is corporate events. Businesses like having the truck show up and then the bosses buy flowers for employees. She would like to see that side of the business continue to grow.

Meanwhile, you never know when a florist may come rolling up in Birmingham.

Wild Honey Flower Truck can be found online, on Facebook and on Instagram.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

5 months ago

Army’s next top enlisted leader is from Alabama

(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Steven Lopez)

A highly decorated Jasper native will be the next sergeant major of the Army, the Pentagon announced Tuesday.

Command Sgt. Major Michael Grinston, currently serving as the senior enlisted leader of U.S. Army Forces Command, will be sworn in as the 16th command sergeant major of the Army on Aug. 16.

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“I am honored to have the opportunity to continue to serve the great soldiers and families of the United States Army,” Grinston said.

The artilleryman has deployed as part of every major U.S. campaign since he enlisted in 1987, including two tours each to Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, as well as Desert Shield, Desert Storm and to Kosovo. Grinston was the senior enlisted leader for the Army’s first deployment of a division headquarters, with 1st Infantry Division, in support of Operation Inherent Resolve from October 2014 to June 2015.

His awards and decorations include the Defense Superior Service Medal, two Legion of Merit medals, and five Bronze Stars (two with ‘V’ devices for valor). He has earned the Ranger tab, Master Parachutist badge, Air Assault badge, Drill Sergeant Identification badge and the Combat Action badge. He has attended every level of the Noncommissioned Officer Education System, and is a graduate of Ranger, Airborne and Air Assault schools. He’s also a graduate of the U.S. Army Drill Sergeant School and the Equal Opportunity Course.

“I look forward to working with Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Grinston,” Secretary of the Army Mark Esper said. “The Army is in the midst of a renaissance, and he is a great choice to carry on our readiness, modernization and reform efforts.”

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley joined Esper in announcing Grinston’s promotion.

“Congratulations to Command Sgt. Maj. Grinston and his family,” Milley said. “He is a world-class leader who stands out among our exceptional Noncommissioned Officer Corps. He is the right noncommissioned officer to lead our Army into the future.”

Grinston will succeed Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel Dailey, who has served in that position since January 2015.

“Command Sgt. Maj. Grinston is the right leader,” Dailey said. “He possesses all of the character and leadership qualities necessary to lead our NCO Corps into the future, and he will continue to serve the best interests of our soldiers, their families and the Army.”

The sergeant major of the Army (SMA) serves as the Army chief of staff’s personal adviser on matters affecting the enlisted force. Much of the sergeant major of the Army’s time is spent traveling throughout the Army to observe training, and talk to soldiers and their families.

The SMA recommends quality-of-life improvements to Army leadership and sits on numerous councils that make decisions affecting Army families. The sergeant major of the Army routinely testifies before Congress on these issues. Additionally, Grinston will serve as the public face of the Army’s NCO Corps to the American people, in the media and through business and community engagements.

Grinston has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Business Administration from the University of Maryland University College. He is married and has two daughters.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

5 months ago

Alabama-built Santa Fe boosts May sales for Hyundai

(Hyundai/Contributed)

Hyundai posted its best month ever for SUV sales in May, with a 29% jump in sales of the Alabama-built Santa Fe aiding in the achievement.

SUV sales made up 55% of the automaker’s total sales for the month.

Hyundai Motor America said all vehicle sales totaled 66,121, a 2% increase over May 2018 and the 10th straight month of increasing month-over-month total sales.

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Leading the way was growth in sales of its SUVs with Santa Fe, Tucson and Kona all setting new May monthly sales records.

Hyundai began producing the revamped Santa Fe in Alabama last year and began sales in September. Demand for the vehicle boosted production at the Montgomery plant.

Overall, May SUV sales were up 27% compared with May 2018. Santa Fe and Santa Fe XL sales were up a combined 29%, Tucson was up 20% and Kona sales increased by 42%, with Santa Fe, Tucson and Kona setting May monthly sales records. On the car front, Accent sales grew 8% and Veloster 40%.

“The focus on our core models, along with the efforts of our regions and retail partners, strong marketing support and an exceptional product line, continued to grow sales and pick up market share in an industry that we expected to be down in May,” said John Cook, director of Sales Operations, Hyundai Motor America. “Hyundai’s expanding SUV lineup is clearly resonating with customers, and with Palisade sales starting this month, our SUV mix is becoming more in line with the industry and represents a big opportunity for Hyundai sales throughout the rest of this year.”

The Santa Fe is produced in Montgomery at Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama along with the Sonata and Elantra sedans. The Sonata and the Elantra both experienced a decline in sales compared to May a year ago. Both models, however, remain among the top sellers for Hyundai.

Speaking of the Elantra, Hyundai has announced details for the 2020 Elantra, which will feature a new Intelligent Variable Transmission (IVT), improved fuel economy and standard Forward Collision-Avoidance Assist (FCA).

Last month, Hyundai marked the grand opening of a $388 million engine plant at its Montgomery campus.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

7 months ago

Bassmaster Classic expected to lure economic boost to Birmingham region

(Seigo Saito/B.A.S.S.)

The Bassmaster Classic will return to Alabama next year, marking its milestone 50th annual tournament and bringing with it an economic splash that will ripple from Guntersville to Birmingham.

Officials announced Monday the tournament hailed as the “Super Bowl of bass fishing” will be at Lake Guntersville with daily weigh-ins and the associated Classic Outdoors Expo at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex May 6-8, 2020.

The tournament is a sort of homecoming. Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.) was founded in Montgomery in 1968. It is now headquartered in Birmingham.

“It’s fitting that the golden anniversary classic be held in Alabama, where B.A.S.S. was founded more than 50 years ago,” B.A.S.S. CEO Bruce Akin said. “Our plans are to make this the most spectacular celebration of bass fishing in history.”

The Bassmaster Classic will be the third held on Lake Guntersville, the 13th in Alabama and the ninth at the BJCC.

Coming off a record-setting classic in Knoxville this year that had more than 153,000 in attendance and an economic impact of more than $32 million, officials are hopeful that the 50th will be the event’s best.

“As a competitor – and I know everybody in this room are real competitors – I think we need to shatter both records next year,” Akin said. “Between Birmingham and Guntersville and the state of Alabama, I’m pretty confident we can. With the record we’ve got against Tennessee in all facets of things, I think we will.”

That’s the kind of talk that David Galbaugh likes to hear.

“The $32 million in the Knoxville area, that’s tremendous and we certainly hope to reach that number or surpass it,” said Galbaugh, vice president of sports sales and marketing with the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau (GBCVB). “Our community will work tirelessly to make this the best classic ever.”

The event will showcase Lake Guntersville and the surrounding area.

“The Bassmaster Classic is the Super Bowl of bass fishing and we are excited that Lake Guntersville was chosen as the fishing venue for such a prestigious event,” said Guntersville Mayor Leigh Dollar. “We are so proud of our beautiful lake city and can hardly wait for all of you to come visit next March and experience Southern hospitality at its best.”

As the home of the weigh-ins and expo, Birmingham stands to see a big benefit as well.

“We are so proud to once again host the Bassmaster Classic, the Super Bowl of bass fishing,” said Birmingham Mayor Randall L. Woodfin. “We look forward to the great competition the classic attracts and the dedicated fans who will gather in Birmingham for this incredible event. While in the region, we invite everyone to experience the inspirational history, legendary food and world-class entertainment, which make us the Magic City.”

The classic will be covered live and streamed on Bassmaster.com, ESPN3 and the ESPN app, and five hours of original programming will be aired on ESPN2 and the Pursuit Channel following the event. In addition, the classic annually draws more than 250 credentialed media. The 2019 classic was covered by journalists from 28 states as well as Japan, China, Australia, Italy, Germany and Canada.

The entire state will benefit from the exposure, said Alabama Tourism Director Lee Sentell.

“Having the classic back in Alabama is huge because it is going to give our state – and Guntersville in particular – a tremendous amount of advertising and media coverage,” he said.

There will be 53 anglers competing for a total purse of $1 million, with $300,000 going to the winner.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

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7 months ago

Mercedes-Benz unveils the ‘S-Class of SUVs’ to be built in Alabama

(Mercedes Benz/Contributed)

Mercedes-Benz is turning heads in the Big Apple and among the world’s automotive press today with the unveiling of its new full-size SUV to be built in Alabama.

The automaker unveiled the 2020 GLS at the New York International Auto Show. Calling it “the S-Class of SUVs,” Mercedes is signaling this is the new standard-bearer for luxury SUVs in its product line.

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“The new GLS is the S-Class of premium SUVs,” said Ola Källenius, member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG responsible for corporate research and Mercedes-Benz Cars development. “It embodies luxury, confidence and intelligence like almost no other vehicle.”

Mercedes will produce the six-cylinder GLS450 and the eight-cylinder GLS 580 at its plant in Tuscaloosa. The latter will come with a hybrid electric and gas V8 engine featuring Mercedes’ EQ Boost technology with a 48-volt onboard electrical system.

Among the other highlights:

  • MBUX infotainment system allows for easy control from the driver’s seat and two 12.3-inch displays provide vehicle control information. An optional Interior Assist function responds to hand gestures and other movements. An artificial intelligence function allows for the Interior Assist to learn and anticipate a driver’s habits.
  • Executive Rear Seat Package has a separate tablet for controlling all the MBUX comfort and entertainment functions from the rear seats.
  • Electrically adjustable seats throughout are standard, as is the Easy-Entry function, which makes it easier to get into and out of the third-row seats.
  • Simple folding-down of all rear seats at the push of a button.
  • Choice of either three-seat rear bench seat or two luxury individual seats with armrests in the second row.
  • Two fully fledged seats in the third row (for people up to 6 feet 4 inches tall).
  • Heated seats and separate USB charging ports for the third row.
  • Five-zone automatic climate control available (standard on GLS 580).
  • A new car wash function that folds in exterior mirrors, closes windows and sunroof, suppresses the rain sensor on the windshield wipers, switches climate control to air-recirculation mode and activates 360-degree camera to assist in entering the carwash.
  • E-Active Body Control suspension works with the newly developed Airmatic air suspension to individually control spring and damping forces at each wheel for a smoother and safer ride.

Driver-assistance safety features such as Distronic to anticipate traffic jams and slow highway speeds automatically and Active Stop-and-Go Assist for driving in heavy traffic.“The GLS combines modern luxury with the character of an off-roader,” said Gorden Wagener, chief design officer at Daimler AG. “Powerful highlights of the off-road design idiom combined with an elegance reminiscent of a classic luxury sedan. The interior is a synthesis of modern, luxurious aesthetics, hallmark SUV practicality and digital high-tech. In our view, the new GLS therefore offers the best of all these worlds.”

Mercedes will begin producing the new GLS at its Tuscaloosa County plant later this year and the vehicles will be in dealers’ showrooms by year’s end.

Mercedes-Benz unveils the new GLS to be built in Alabama from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

7 months ago

$24 million American Life building renovation kicks off Birmingham’s opportunity zone initiatives

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed)

One of the most prominent vacant buildings in downtown Birmingham is about to get a $24 million transformation into 140 workforce housing apartments thanks to opportunity zone funding and a new initiative by the city of Birmingham.

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin used the redevelopment announcement of the Stonewall/American Life building at 2308 Fourth Ave. N. to unveil the Birmingham Inclusive Growth (BIG) Partnership, a two-pronged effort to identify potential opportunity zone projects in one of the city’s two dozen designated opportunity zones, and to work with a separate investment board to find opportunity zone dollars to fund those projects.

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“We believe that this innovative vehicle can help drive investment in Birmingham’s 24 opportunity zones – guided by community voice, bolstered by city resources and elevated by respected leaders in the investment community who believe in Birmingham’s potential,” Woodfin said.

Although the opportunity zone projects announced in Birmingham thus far have been mostly downtown, Woodfin noted that potential exists in almost every part of the city.

“They touch 77 out of 99 neighborhoods,” Woodfin said of the 24 opportunity zones in Birmingham. “That is a major, major opportunity – pun intended – to invest in the entire city, not just the central city.”

Woodfin said the city is working with Opportunity Alabama on an educational program that will see 500 residents trained by June 2020 in identifying and presenting opportunity zone projects.

Alex Flachsbart, founder of Opportunity Alabama, said Birmingham is prepared to be a leader in how opportunity zones are designed to help elevate communities.

“We have been excited for months now about releasing to the public the city of Birmingham’s incredible vision for opportunity zones, which Opportunity Alabama has been an integral part in creating and now bringing to life,” Flachsbart said.

“Where we see the greatest potential is in Birmingham’s 77 neighborhoods that are all in opportunity zones and that all have the ability to surface projects just like this one,” he said. “That’s why over the course of the next two months we’re putting together a first-of-its-kind-nationally educational curriculum designed to help communities understand how this program can benefit them and raise projects up in all the neighborhoods so that we can see opportunity zone capital flowing out to the entire city and not just downtown.”

Woodfin said the American Life building is symbolic.

“If you drive along on any highway that surrounds downtown, you can’t help but notice the 12-story, blighted building that we’re standing in front of right now,” Woodfin said. “At the top of this building, above cracked windows and shuttered doors, are painted words ‘American Life.’ For the last four decades, these words suspended on an eyesore in our city center have hung over Birmingham as a constant reminder that even though we enjoy pockets of prosperity, hardships still persist in Birmingham and all of our Americans’ life. But today we are announcing that the American Life building is once again going to be filled with life.”

Ed Ticheli is the owner and developer of the American Life building.

“We’ve owned the building since 2004 and we’re about to put her into service with 140 units of workforce housing,” Ticheli said.

Ticheli said the apartments will not be low-income housing that requires a separate approval process. Rather, rents are designed to provide affordable apartments for the working class who desire to live closer to their jobs.

Ticheli said rents will run from $700 per month to $1,200 per month and will average 750 square feet. He said the units will be small as 350 square feet and as large as 800 to 1,200 square feet duplexes on the first floor.

Five of the units will be reserved for placements by the Dannon Project, which helps people reintegrate into the workforce after prison or other obstacles.

Demolition and abatement work will begin in the next 45 days and the project will take about 14 months to complete. PNC Bank is financing.

Ticheli said it was the opportunity zone designation that helped make the project a reality.

“It’s been a godsend, not just for our team, but for the city of Birmingham because now the people who commute and hour and a half each way will have affordable housing here,” he said.

Ticheli said although the building has most recently been known as the Stonewall Building, he is leaning toward using the American Life name.

“I really do like ‘American Life’ because it symbolizes what we’re doing here,” he said.

Ticheli is eyeing an additional project next to the American Life building.

“Hopefully we will get the other 400 units up next door in time to come, with retail and a 600-space parking deck,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a game-changer. You’re right by the highway. If we put a nice little grocery story in here, I think it’s going to be fantastic.”

Woodfin was joined by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Columbia, S.C., Mayor Steve Benjamin, both of whom serve on the advisory council of Accelerator for America, which has spearheaded the opportunity zones initiative across the country.

“Our signature work that brings us here to Birmingham is opportunity zones – this moment to say to any community that your ZIP code is not a debit, it is an asset,” Garcetti said. “That it will attract investment, but we will make sure that that investment brings the community with it – listens to, comes from and hand-in-hand, that’s what we see here. That is exactly what is happening in Birmingham.”

Benjamin, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said “Birmingham is very much on the leading edge” when it comes to adopted opportunity zone policies.

“We’re here because opportunity is here in Birmingham,” he said. “We’re here in Birmingham right now because we are learning from Birmingham. The reality is that Birmingham is a leader in this movement.”

That’s music to the ears of Flachsbart, who has been singing the tune of opportunity zones in the state for the past year.

“When you go back to the policy goal of opportunity zones, it wasn’t just to do the big buildings downtown, it was to do the little things in neighborhoods,” he said. “And, more importantly it was to facilitate investment into businesses, into startups that are located in communities across the U.S. Here in Birmingham, we have a comprehensive strategy for building a pipeline, both on the real estate side and on the active business side, to service those opportunities, bring local capital to those opportunities, and help to see a whole new wave of additional growth. While we’re all standing here today talking about this and while we’re all incredibly excited about it, I think the real story is going to come over the next two or three months as this effort starts to roll out on a citywide basis.”

While real estate projects have been the biggest beneficiary of opportunity zone investment so far, Flachsbart said there is some clarification of the opportunity zone regulations underway now that should see more investment flow into startup companies and active businesses.

“We’re very hopeful, based on initial guidance that we’ve gotten publicly from Treasury, that that is going to throw the doors wide open for investment into the exact kinds of startups and operating companies in neighborhoods that this program was supposed to promote in the first place,” he said.

David Fleming, CEO of REV Birmingham, said Birmingham saw it important to be an early adopter of opportunity zones so the city could capitalize once investors were ready.

“Having an intentional strategy is really important and then having projects like this one announced today in Birmingham as a potential recipient of that shows that it does have an impact,” Fleming said.

The American Life project could be the first of many examples.

“This is a great project,” Fleming said. “We’ve been hopeful for years that the right thing would happen here. Really, the planets lined up between getting the state historic tax credit a few years ago to twin with the federal, and then now the opportunity zones is going to help make this project happen. Hopefully this will be a model that a lot of people will replicate around Birmingham.”

Josh Carpenter, director of Birmingham’s office of Innovation and Economic Opportunity, said opportunity zones are a great tool the city can use for growth.

“The BIG Partnership is another way that Birmingham is telling the nation that we are open for business.,” he said. “The BIG Partnership could become a model public-private endeavor that harnesses the investment expertise of our investment committee, the convening power and resources of the city and neighborhood-level expertise to drive inclusive growth in our community.”

Garcetti said Birmingham will be held up as an example to others.

“Folks, take it from Accelerator for America. We’re working with 30 cities right now across America in opportunity zones and to all of them and to every city in America we say, ‘Look here at Birmingham,’” he said. “We have been blown away by the partnership, by the success of state and local folks across party lines coming together and do what’s right. Revitalizing an iconic part of this city – this metaphor for an American life and what America’s life can be like in the future – and making sure there is a return for investors while there is a return for community. It can be a win-win and Birmingham is showing us that way.”

The website for the BIG Partnership is  www.birminghamoz.org.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

7 months ago

$24 million American Life building renovation kicks off Birmingham’s opportunity zone initiatives

The Stonewall/American Life building is about to go from eyesore to workforce housing thanks to opportunity zone investment. (Contributed/Alabama NewsCenter)

One of the most prominent vacant buildings in downtown Birmingham is about to get a $24 million transformation into 140 workforce housing apartments thanks to opportunity zone funding and a new initiative by the city of Birmingham.

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin used the redevelopment announcement of the Stonewall/American Life building at 2308 Fourth Ave. N. to unveil the Birmingham Inclusive Growth (BIG) Partnership, a two-pronged effort to identify potential opportunity zone projects in one of the city’s two dozen designated opportunity zones, and to work with a separate investment board to find opportunity zone dollars to fund those projects.

“We believe that this innovative vehicle can help drive investment in Birmingham’s 24 opportunity zones – guided by community voice, bolstered by city resources and elevated by respected leaders in the investment community who believe in Birmingham’s potential,” Woodfin said.

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Although the opportunity zone projects announced in Birmingham thus far have been mostly downtown, Woodfin noted that potential exists in almost every part of the city.

“They touch 77 out of 99 neighborhoods,” Woodfin said of the 24 opportunity zones in Birmingham. “That is a major, major opportunity – pun intended – to invest in the entire city, not just the central city.”

Woodfin said the city is working with Opportunity Alabama on an educational program that will see 500 residents trained by June 2020 in identifying and presenting opportunity zone projects.

Alex Flachsbart, founder of Opportunity Alabama, said Birmingham is prepared to be a leader in how opportunity zones are designed to help elevate communities.

RELATED: Alabama, Birmingham preparing for economic impact of Opportunity Zones

“We have been excited for months now about releasing to the public the city of Birmingham’s incredible vision for opportunity zones, which Opportunity Alabama has been an integral part in creating and now bringing to life,” Flachsbart said.

“Where we see the greatest potential is in Birmingham’s 77 neighborhoods that are all in opportunity zones and that all have the ability to surface projects just like this one,” he said. “That’s why over the course of the next two months we’re putting together a first-of-its-kind-nationally educational curriculum designed to help communities understand how this program can benefit them and raise projects up in all the neighborhoods so that we can see opportunity zone capital flowing out to the entire city and not just downtown.”

Woodfin said the American Life building is symbolic.

The Stonewall/American Life building has been vacant for 36 years. (Michael Tomberlin / Alabama NewsCenter)
“If you drive along on any highway that surrounds downtown, you can’t help but notice the 12-story, blighted building that we’re standing in front of right now,” Woodfin said. “At the top of this building, above cracked windows and shuttered doors, are painted words ‘American Life.’ For the last four decades, these words suspended on an eyesore in our city center have hung over Birmingham as a constant reminder that even though we enjoy pockets of prosperity, hardships still persist in Birmingham and all of our Americans’ life. But today we are announcing that the American Life building is once again going to be filled with life.”

Ed Ticheli is the owner and developer of the American Life building.

“We’ve owned the building since 2004 and we’re about to put her into service with 140 units of workforce housing,” Ticheli said.

Ticheli said the apartments will not be low-income housing that requires a separate approval process. Rather, rents are designed to provide affordable apartments for the working class who desire to live closer to their jobs.

Ticheli said rents will run from $700 per month to $1,200 per month and will average 750 square feet. He said the units will be small as 350 square feet and as large as 800 to 1,200 square feet duplexes on the first floor.

Five of the units will be reserved for placements by the Dannon Project, which helps people reintegrate into the workforce after prison or other obstacles.

Demolition and abatement work will begin in the next 45 days and the project will take about 14 months to complete. PNC Bank is financing.

Ticheli said it was the opportunity zone designation that helped make the project a reality.

“It’s been a godsend, not just for our team, but for the city of Birmingham because now the people who commute and hour and a half each way will have affordable housing here,” he said.

Ticheli said although the building has most recently been known as the Stonewall Building, he is leaning toward using the American Life name.

“I really do like ‘American Life’ because it symbolizes what we’re doing here,” he said.

Ticheli is eyeing an additional project next to the American Life building.

“Hopefully we will get the other 400 units up next door in time to come, with retail and a 600-space parking deck,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a game-changer. You’re right by the highway. If we put a nice little grocery story in here, I think it’s going to be fantastic.”

Woodfin was joined by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Columbia, S.C., Mayor Steve Benjamin, both of whom serve on the advisory council of Accelerator for America, which has spearheaded the opportunity zones initiative across the country.

“Our signature work that brings us here to Birmingham is opportunity zones – this moment to say to any community that your ZIP code is not a debit, it is an asset,” Garcetti said. “That it will attract investment, but we will make sure that that investment brings the community with it – listens to, comes from and hand-in-hand, that’s what we see here. That is exactly what is happening in Birmingham.”

Benjamin, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said “Birmingham is very much on the leading edge” when it comes to adopted opportunity zone policies.

“We’re here because opportunity is here in Birmingham,” he said. “We’re here in Birmingham right now because we are learning from Birmingham. The reality is that Birmingham is a leader in this movement.”

That’s music to the ears of Flachsbart, who has been singing the tune of opportunity zones in the state for the past year.

“When you go back to the policy goal of opportunity zones, it wasn’t just to do the big buildings downtown, it was to do the little things in neighborhoods,” he said. “And, more importantly it was to facilitate investment into businesses, into startups that are located in communities across the U.S. Here in Birmingham, we have a comprehensive strategy for building a pipeline, both on the real estate side and on the active business side, to service those opportunities, bring local capital to those opportunities, and help to see a whole new wave of additional growth. While we’re all standing here today talking about this and while we’re all incredibly excited about it, I think the real story is going to come over the next two or three months as this effort starts to roll out on a citywide basis.”

While real estate projects have been the biggest beneficiary of opportunity zone investment so far, Flachsbart said there is some clarification of the opportunity zone regulations underway now that should see more investment flow into startup companies and active businesses.

“We’re very hopeful, based on initial guidance that we’ve gotten publicly from Treasury, that that is going to throw the doors wide open for investment into the exact kinds of startups and operating companies in neighborhoods that this program was supposed to promote in the first place,” he said.

David Fleming, CEO of REV Birmingham, said Birmingham saw it important to be an early adopter of opportunity zones so the city could capitalize once investors were ready.

“Having an intentional strategy is really important and then having projects like this one announced today in Birmingham as a potential recipient of that shows that it does have an impact,” Fleming said.

The American Life project could be the first of many examples.

“This is a great project,” Fleming said. “We’ve been hopeful for years that the right thing would happen here. Really, the planets lined up between getting the state historic tax credit a few years ago to twin with the federal, and then now the opportunity zones is going to help make this project happen. Hopefully this will be a model that a lot of people will replicate around Birmingham.”

Josh Carpenter, director of Birmingham’s office of Innovation and Economic Opportunity, said opportunity zones are a great tool the city can use for growth.

“The BIG Partnership is another way that Birmingham is telling the nation that we are open for business.,” he said. “The BIG Partnership could become a model public-private endeavor that harnesses the investment expertise of our investment committee, the convening power and resources of the city and neighborhood-level expertise to drive inclusive growth in our community.”

Garcetti said Birmingham will be held up as an example to others.

“Folks, take it from Accelerator for America. We’re working with 30 cities right now across America in opportunity zones and to all of them and to every city in America we say, ‘Look here at Birmingham,’” he said. “We have been blown away by the partnership, by the success of state and local folks across party lines coming together and do what’s right. Revitalizing an iconic part of this city – this metaphor for an American life and what America’s life can be like in the future – and making sure there is a return for investors while there is a return for community. It can be a win-win and Birmingham is showing us that way.”

The website for the BIG Partnership is www.birminghamoz.org.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)