2 weeks ago

Gulf Coast Passenger Rail project could hurt Port of Mobile, Alabama economic development

MONTGOMERY — A passenger rail service from Mobile to New Orleans sounds nice, and certainly could have benefits for tourism in areas of the Gulf Coast. However, do these positives actually outweigh the costs and other impacts involved?

This was the subject of spirited debate at Friday’s meeting of the Southern Rail Commission (SRC), with more questions than answers coming to light as far as Alabama is concerned.

The SRC, comprised of commissioners from its three member-states: Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, is currently pushing its Gulf Coast Passenger Rail project, urging the Yellowhammer State to join in as the last remaining signatory needed.

However, there is a good reason why Governor Kay Ivey’s administration is proceeding cautiously: A study has not even been conducted yet that would truly measure the project’s impact on economic development in Alabama.

And, despite the fact a railway operational/capacity simulation study has not been conducted, communities in Mississippi have already begun spending taxpayer money on infrastructure for the project — and are urging others to similarly apply for and spend funds.

The simulation study would assess infrastructure needs to accommodate passenger rail and any impact on existing freight rail service. In Alabama’s portion of the project pathway, CSX owns the tracks.

CSX and Amtrak, which would operate the proposed passenger rail service, recently agreed to terms on how this impact study would be done. On the other hand, Norfolk Southern has not yet agreed to terms with Amtrak, and since it will be a joint study, it will not begin until Norfolk Southern and Amtrak come to terms.

One step forward, two steps back?

Meanwhile, the Alabama State Port Authority, which owns and operates the public terminals at the Port of Mobile, says everything they have seen suggests that the proposed passenger rail service would negatively impact the port.

In a statement to Yellowhammer News, Port Authority vice president of marketing Judith Adams stressed, “The Port Authority is extremely concerned over passenger rail interruptions on what is already a heavily used rail corridor crucial to Alabama’s seaport.”

Amtrak service would move two trains daily (4 transits) on the CSX mainline from the west into downtown Mobile then back west. CSX alone runs about 20 trains per day, making it a very congested rail corridor, according to the Port Authority, which uses that line as well.

Currently, the Port Authority has 4 unit trains transiting that line every day, carrying Alabama export coal bound for the McDuffie Coal Terminal that accounts for half of the port’s total business and handles approximately 85% of Alabama’s coal production. Additionally, the number of railed coal trains could double in the next three years should Alabama’s largest miner, Warrior Met Coal, move forward with construction of a potential new mine.

The use of that CSX line also supports crossings for both the Port Authority’s railroad (Terminal Railway) and five other railroads entering the Port’s main dock terminals, the container intermodal rail terminal and the soon-to-be-constructed finished automobile terminal.

All of this traffic on a single line would be forced into sidings, creating more congestion and delay, so passenger rail could pass. Passenger trains would get priority use of the line, per the Port Authority. This congestion alone would strictly be focused on the downtown area line.

Passenger trains could also impact CSX freight moving in and out of its Hamilton Blvd./Theodore yards west of the city. CSX services the Theodore Ship Channel industries, such as Millard Maritime, Conrad Yelvington, Worthington, Diversified Foods, Ferguson, Bayou Concrete, Holcim, Bayer, Evonik, INEOS Phenol. Trains carrying products for these industries would also have to sit on sidings or delay entry onto the line to accommodate the passenger trains, according to the Port Authority.

“All trains calling on the Port Authority’s terminals on the river, as well as CSX served industries on the Theodore Ship Channel, utilize the same CSX track the passenger rail service would use,” Adams said. “All of that traffic experience delay due to existing heavy traffic on the CSX line, so adding passenger rail traffic will only further delay services to customers using the port.”

“Neither the SRC or Amtrak have shown anything to leads us to believe that this service would not interfere with freight traffic at Alabama’s only deep-water seaport,” she concluded.

In addition to the Port of Mobile’s concerns about negative impacts of the passenger rail project, customers of rail freight services in Alabama have a lot potentially at stake here, too.

Some of the state’s biggest industries and job creators rely on freight and the port for both exports and imports, and these stakeholders want to be at the table as the project is discussed.

While proponents of the passenger rail project claimed on Friday that all stakeholders were present at a recent meeting in Mobile, this closed-door meeting did not actually see freight services or freight customers invited.

Patrick Cagle, president of the Alabama Coal Association, was present at Friday’s meeting in Montgomery and asked that his important industry and others across Alabama be included in the ongoing discussions.

After all, to truly weigh the pros and cons of the proposed project, the SRC and other proponents involved need to hear and understand the realities faced by freight customers.

Additionally, with as much investment of private, federal, state and local funds continues to go into growing the Port of Mobile’s international competitiveness, rushing into something without all of the facts could jeopardize the upward trajectory of Alabama’s booming economy.

Cagle, in a statement to Yellowhammer News after the meeting, especially praised Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Ivey for their leadership and stalwart support of the port. He said his industry and his association are not opposed to passenger rail services, but that lingering questions should be answered and all due diligence conducted before Alabama joins the project.

“I understand and appreciate the potential benefits that passenger rail service could have along the Gulf Coast, including with Alabama’s tremendous tourism industry,” Cagle said. “However, all that we ask is that all stakeholders have a seat at the table so we can take a comprehensive, inclusive look at the benefits and potential pitfalls involved. This is not just our state’s coal industry, but the many commodities and products shipped into and out of Mobile.”

“Senator Shelby’s historic leadership and the landmark accomplishment of Governor Ivey’s Rebuild Alabama Plan mean brighter days for Alabama’s economy and future generations,” he continued. “If there is even a chance that the major investments being made into the Port and the significant progress we are making could be negatively affected by this project, I believe that caution is absolutely the right approach. A true impact study should be completed to make sure this is right for the people of our great state.”

The deputy director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA), Anita Archie, is a member of the SRC. During Friday’s meeting, she stressed that not only do these questions remain unanswered pertaining to economic development and trade, but that paying for Alabama’s portion of the project costs is still up in the air, too.

She said talks continue on how to pay for these costs but stressed that this remains a serious issue.

In a series of remarks, Archie raised pressing concerns about rushing ahead with so many integral questions yet to be addressed — and so many facts admittedly unknown. This includes how operation and maintenance costs will be paid for by Alabama taxpayers after the first three years, which are being covered by federal tax dollars. These O&M costs will rise into the millions, she said.

Archie, the former senior vice president for governmental affairs at the Business Council of Alabama and former deputy mayor of Montgomery, knows both the private sector and public sector perspectives involved in major projects like this passenger rail venture. She seemed to be the voice of reason in the room on Friday, expressing that it was premature to ask Alabama to sign off on the project and questioning why the other two states have already done so.

The good news?

Governor Kay Ivey seems to be standing up to external pressures to dive in headfirst and commit state money without first having all of the information with which to make an informed decision.

For some reason, Alabama Media Group in a complete non-sequitur of an article last week even tried to imply the governor’s current caution is somehow a “retaliation” for the I-10 toll bridge proposal in Mobile dying. This came despite Ivey’s position on the passenger rail project remaining consistent for several months now.

In a statement to Yellowhammer News after the meeting on Friday, Ivey’s press secretary said, “The governor recognizes the seriousness and largeness of the decision on this multi-year, multi-million dollar project.”

“There are questions that still remain, and Governor Ivey wants to make certain that we have all the facts before making a commitment to a project that will impact Alabama in the years to come,” Gina Maiola continued. “Governor Ivey says that we must do our due diligence and most wisely and effectively use our funds.”

This type of approach from Alabama’s governor has drawn the praise of Grover Norquist, founder and leader of Americans for Tax Reform.

Norquist told Yellowhammer News on Friday that Ivey is being “very courageous” in her current stance on the passenger rail project.

“Politicians are asking for millions of dollars to take [private rail tracks] and create this new southern line,” he outlined. “Even Amtrak itself admits that this new line would attract 26 riders per train and require a $6 million annual subsidy in addition to the money being spent [to get the project up and running] now.”

Norquist advised that everything he has seen points to the project being a wasteful use of government funds.

“One — you could take a bus, you could take an Uber,” he said, speaking to alternative transport methods along the same route. “This is not an area where you have to take a train to get there. It’s not faster, it’s not a speedy trip [by train]. And it’s a whole bunch more money to subsidize Amtrak, which already gets about a billion dollars subsidy a year (nationally).”

This view is not just held by Norquist. In fact, the president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy recently published a compelling op-ed arguing why, “Taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for passenger trains we aren’t using.”

What’s next?

The next meeting of the SRC is December 6 in Bay St. Louis, MS, which is set to get a stop on the proposed passenger rail route. The mayor will be hosting the SRC members at his house the night before the meeting for a dinner.

Even if Alabama does not sign off on the project, the project is expected to continue, just without a stop in Mobile and Alabama funds being used.

Archie and other Alabama SRC commissioners on Friday asked their colleagues for a “drop-dead” date by which Alabama must decide, but no solid answer was provided.

The easternmost stop in Mississippi is slated to be in Pascagoula, which is an approximately 40-minute drive from Mobile.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

4 hours ago

Wolf Bay Restaurant Bar and Boutique is an Alabama Gulf Coast tradition

Charlie and Sandra Wrape served 27 dinners on their first day of business. The year was 1973, and they had just opened a restaurant in a former bait shop on the shores of Wolf Bay in the tiny Baldwin County community of Miflin.

“Business just blossomed from there,” said the Wrapes’ daughter and the current owner and president, Charlene Haber.

Forty-six years later, Haber operates three Wolf Bay restaurants, two in Alabama and one in Florida.

“We are doing more than 3,000 dinners a day in our peak season” at the Foley, Orange Beach and Pensacola locations, said Haber, who politely, but firmly, asks to be called Char. “Everybody calls me Char. Nobody calls me Charlene.”

565

Haber’s Navy Dad and nurse Mom lived in Pensacola when they decided to retire and open a restaurant in Alabama. Last year, Haber decided to return to the family hometown and open the third Wolf Bay Restaurant, Bar & Boutique in that Florida city.

“The Pensacola community has embraced us with open arms,” Haber said. “We have really enjoyed getting to know the military personnel who live nearby. Wolf Bay is committed to giving back, and it has really warmed our hearts being able to support even more nonprofit organizations and schools.”

Through loss of founders, flood and fire, restaurant endures

The road to success hasn’t been easy for Haber or the restaurant.

“My mother passed away in 1994, then Hurricane Ivan came in ’04, which sunk us about six feet under water, then the fire destroyed us in 2008,” Haber said. Her father died in 2014.

The family business – previously known as Wolf Bay Lodge, though it has never offered lodging – expanded several times in its original location. After experiencing flood and fire in a four-year span, the business relocated and reopened in 2009 on Perdido Beach Boulevard in Orange Beach. In 2010, its original customer base rejoiced when Wolf Bay opened a restaurant on Miflin Road in Foley. The Pensacola location opened Oct. 1, 2018.

Besides adding the new location last year, the regional seafood restaurant chain in recent years has rebranded, renovated, redesigned menus, added software analytics, hired a catering and events director, increased outdoor seating and implemented a silent paging system.

Any hardships along the way don’t show, said Orange Beach Councilman Jerry Johnson. Wolf Bay Restaurant is “a destination for our city’s out-of-town guests from every region of the country. Their seafood is always fresh, the service is always exceptional and the atmosphere is pure Coastal Alabama.”

A team that interacts like family

“I think the most valuable thing that my mother and father ever told me was … get in there with your employees, work hard with them and they will always give you 200 percent,” Haber said. “I couldn’t do any of this by myself. We are a team, and I have developed a family here.” Some of her employees have been working for the restaurant since the 1970s.

There’s Ma Belle, Miss Nadine, Karen, Jerry and Al, who retired last year after giving a two-year notice.

At Wolf Bay Restaurant, which is known for its fresh Gulf seafood prepared using community recipes handed down through the years, they peel, devein and butterfly every shrimp by hand. Even their salad dressings are made by hand.

“These people look out for me as well as I look out for them,” Haber said. “I want everyone to know how lucky we are for the staff we have. We just need more of them.” Wolf Bay employs 350 at the height of the Gulf Coast tourist season.

The customers also consider Haber and her team family.

Donna Watts, chief executive officer and president of the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce who frequents the Foley location, said, “I sometimes eat here three times a day. I know most of the staff. When I walk in, they all say, ‘Hey, Miss Donna.’ I love it. It feels like home, and I think that is why everybody comes here, because it feels like home.”

This story originally appeared in the Alabama Retailer, a publication of the Alabama Retail Association.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

5 hours ago

Alabama’s CoachSafely Foundation earns national recognition

In Alabama, we know what it means to be called a champion. It means you’ve accomplished something special.

Add Alabama’s own CoachSafely Foundation to this state’s distinguished roster of champions.

490

This week, CoachSafely is being honored by the Aspen Institute‘s national Project Play initiative as a Project Play Champion at the Project Play Summit in Detroit. Of the 20 local, regional and national organizations to earn the designation for work to help build healthy children and communities through sports, CoachSafely is the only one based in Alabama.

Jack Crowe, the founder and chairman of the CoachSafely Foundation, called the recognition “a tremendous honor.”

“We at the CoachSafely Foundation thank the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program and Project Play for the national leadership they provide,” Crowe said. “We’re all striving toward a common goal to make participation in sports an inclusive, enduring and positive experience for our youth. This recognition helps to validate our mission to keep children active, healthy and safe by educating youth coaches at the grassroots level.”

In 2018, thanks to CoachSafely’s efforts, Alabama became the first state to pass a law requiring youth coaches of athletes aged 14 and under to pass a broad-based course in injury recognition and prevention. Other states have begun to study the Coach Safely Act as a model for similar legislation.

The CoachSafely Foundation developed just such a comprehensive course, which covers:

  • Emergency preparedness, planning and rehearsal for traumatic injuries;
  • Concussions and head trauma;
  • Heat and extreme weather-related injury familiarization;
  • Physical conditioning and training equipment usage;
  • Heart defects and abnormalities leading to sudden cardiac death;
  • Overuse injuries;
  • Emotional health of the child-athlete.

Through a joint venture between CoachSafely and the Alabama Recreation and Parks Foundation, about 12,000 youth coaches throughout Alabama have completed the training course to help keep their athletes as safe as possible. CoachSafely maintains a database of coaches who’ve completed the training course, which is available online or in person.

The CoachSafely Foundation’s impact can be measured both by the number of youth coaches trained locally and by this national recognition for its groundbreaking efforts to equip those coaches with the knowledge that will enable them to prevent injuries and recognize them when they do occur.

The Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program launched its Project Play initiative in 2013 “to apply and share knowledge that helps build healthy communities through sports, to produce reports that take measure of the state of play at the national, regional and city levels, with exclusive data and insights, and to create frameworks and tools that stakeholders can use to grow access to quality sport.”

Among the other organizations honored this week as Project Play Champions are Special Olympics, for developing an implementation guide for coaches that will increase its developmental sports offerings; the U.S. Soccer Foundation, for advancing the development of mini-pitches in areas where space is at a premium; and US Lacrosse and USA Field Hockey, for partnering to develop a multi-sport sampling program.

So CoachSafely finds itself in good company doing good work for a good cause. Which is another definition of champion.

For more information, go to CoachSafely.org.

This story originally appeared on Kevin Scarbinsky’s blog.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

7 hours ago

What is the responsibility of business?

The Business Roundtable (BR), a group of chief executive officers (CEOs) of some of America’s largest corporations, recently released a statement claiming that businesses have a broader purpose than simply making profit. By contrast, in a famous essay economist Milton Friedman argued that the social responsibility of business was to increase its profit. The BR statement may perhaps be pure public relations. Still, should we regard profit as less important than other potential business goals?

Answering this depends on the nature of profits. In the market, all transactions are voluntary. No business, however large, can compel anyone to buy their product, work for them, or loan them money. Profit must be earned by producing valuable goods or services. Customers will only buy a product that delivers more value than comparably priced goods, or similar value for a lower price. Workers will only work if the pay and conditions compare favorably to other jobs.

529

In a market economy, profit cannot be made through exploitation. Some people, unfortunately, do not have very good alternatives. Many Americans do not consider a minimum wage job attractive; the person willing to work for $7.25 an hour is better off, given their other options. We might lament the lack of better alternatives but any better opportunity is an improvement.

Should corporations lower prices or pay workers more instead of earning profits? Not necessarily. Profit is the reward for investors who enable investment, the hiring of workers, and production. Profit also enables charity. America’s great philanthropic foundations – like the Ford, Rockefeller, and Gates Foundations – were built off enormously successful and profitable businesses. If Microsoft were not so profitable, Bill Gates could not be so charitable today.

Why will stockholders want businesses to earn profits? Millions of Americans own stock, either directly or through their pension plans. They invest for many different reasons: for retirement, to provide for their children or grandchildren, or to enable donations to charitable causes. Money allows the stockholders to pursue these distinct goals. Absent specific evidence otherwise, we should presume that stockholders want profit.

The BR statement says that corporations have commitments to other stakeholders: they should deliver value to customers, treat and compensate employees fairly, and deal ethically with suppliers. I see no real divergence here from Professor Friedman, who insisted that increases in profit had to be achieved within society’s legal and ethical bounds.

This might seem surprising, as corporations appear to many to shortchange customers and take advantage of employees. Yet markets are entirely voluntary. Providing a shoddy product and ignoring customer complaints may reduce costs and increase profit in the near term. But dissatisfied customers will turn elsewhere and damages a company’s reputation.

Corporations rely on their employees, as the owners do not do all the work themselves. The workers know how to make a business’ products. Dissatisfied workers can quit, taking their training and skills with them. Stiffing workers on overtime or benefits may save a little money, but losing skilled workers is very costly.

Treating people the right way – especially customers, employees and suppliers – is arguably how to increase profits. It may be difficult to quantify how much this adds to the bottom line and so may appear to be an item of faith. Still, the BR statement here just seems like good business.

One of Professor Friedman’s concerns remains relevant today. CEOs make decisions, give speeches, and receive media attention but ultimately do not own corporations. Owners ultimately get to make the decisions; the CEO works for the stockholders, represented by the board of directors.

A CEO may choose to support trendy social causes to build a reputation as an enlightened executive. It is easy to be charitable with other people’s money. Hold your applause when businesses support broader social causes. CEOs ultimately should heed the stockholders and not grab the spotlight to boost their egos.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

8 hours ago

Alabama Maker Siluria Brewing has tapped into local flavor of Alabaster

Siluria Brewing Company was built in a renovated post office and has delivered on a promise of good beer and an inviting atmosphere for locals and visitors.

Just a few turns off Interstate 65 in Alabaster, Siluria Brewing has established itself as a part of the community since it opened in November 2018.

Danny and Tammy Sample, a soon-to-be-retired military veteran and a retired dental hygienist, respectively, opened the brewery in the city they love.

254

Siluria Brewing is an Alabama Maker of local beer from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

“We knew we wanted an old building, we wanted there to be some history and character and we didn’t feel like we could do that if we built a new building,” Tammy said. Renovating took almost a year, but what they have now is a place that represents them and Alabaster. The dynamic duo knew they wanted the place to be as much about family as it is about beer.

Siluria Brewing is named after the town of Siluria from the 1890s. It remains a neighborhood in Alabaster, but was absorbed into the larger Shelby County city in the 1970s.

Danny said he felt the city needed something like Siluria Brewing that it could embrace and enjoy.

The Samples have succeeded in bringing old and new together, drawing on history while offering a new place to gather after work or for live music on the weekends.

A variety of nine beers aims to have something for all beer lovers. For those not into beer, the Samples are expanding into wine.

Through it all, Danny said the goal is to keep the focus where it is.

“We’re not going to try to compete statewide or nationwide,” he said. “We just truly want to stay local and be a true small, local business.”


Siluria Brewing Company

The product: Craft beer with special seasonal offerings.

Take home: A growler of Cock-On-A-Rock ESB.

Siluria Brewing Company can be found online, on Facebook and on Twitter.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

9 hours ago

University of Alabama’s Million Dollar Band to perform in 2020 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The University of Alabama Million Dollar Band has been selected to perform in the 2020 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade®, representing the state of Alabama.

This will mark the first appearance by the band in the Parade. The Million Dollar Band will join the Parade to the call of “Let’s Have a Parade,” the iconic phrase that has signaled the start of every Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade since 1924.

512

“It’s fitting that the UA Million Dollar Band, one of the most respected university marching bands in the country, will be performing in one of the largest parades in the world,” said UA President Stuart R. Bell. “What Alabama fans have been able to enjoy on Saturdays will now be shared with more than 50 million people live on the streets of New York and watching on television. We’re honored by the invitation, and I couldn’t be more pleased by the work of these talented student musicians.”

“The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is one of America’s iconic holiday traditions,” said Dr. Ken Ozzello, UA professor of music and director of bands. “Having the opportunity to participate will be thrilling for the members of the Million Dollar Band and provide them with life-long memories.”

Each year, the Macy’s Parade Band Committee looks for bands that have the stage presence and the musical and marching abilities to captivate more than 3.5 million live spectators and more than 50 million viewers. The Million Dollar Band was selected from more than 100 applicants as one of nine bands to march in the 94th edition of the annual holiday spectacle.

The band will join the revelry along with other iconic Macy’s staples: floats, giant character balloons, clowns and superstar performers galore on Thanksgiving Day 2020, helping create an unforgettable experience for millions.

“When most Americans think of The University of Alabama, they may think about football, however, it is the exciting showmanship, entertaining performances and incredible music at halftime that captures our attention,” said Wesley Whatley, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade creative producer. “The Macy’s Band Selection Committee is proud to welcome the sights and sounds of The Million Dollar Band to the streets of New York City for their inaugural appearance in the 2020 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade!”

The Million Dollar Band will spend the next 14 months planning for their Parade appearance.

“In preparation, the band will work on its marching technique, as well as the standstill portion of the Parade which is televised by NBC,” Ozzello said. “It will be a challenge to stage 400 musicians and performers in front of Macy’s, but the staff is eagerly looking forward to taking on that challenge.”

Performing for millions of fans each year, the Million Dollar Band has been a Crimson Tide tradition for more than 100 years, and it has become one of the most respected university marching bands in the country. The band, which is made up of more than 400 students from almost every major and department on campus, is UA’s largest student organization.

For more than 90 years, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has given thanks to what Macy’s values most – its loyal fans. More than 5,000 Macy’s employees and dedicated volunteers work tirelessly to create a spectacular event that entertains the cheerful crowds and provides joy to millions at home watching on Thanksgiving Day. Stretching down a more than two-mile-long route in New York City, the spectacle is alive with gleaming color, music and smiles.

Shane Dorrill is the Assistant Director of Communications, Broadcast Media and Safety at the University of Alabama