1 year ago

The City of Demopolis lights path for Black Belt economic revival

DEMOPOLIS – Most people know the hardships of Alabama’s Black Belt — poverty, declining populations, lack of access to quality education and health care.

However, in northern Marengo County, one city has defied the worst of these trends.

Located on the bank of Tombigbee River, near its fork with the Black Warrior River, is the 200-year-old city of Demopolis. French colonists founded the Demopolis, a term for “The People’s City,” in 1817 and over time it was settled by other Europeans and American planters from the East Coast.

Initially, as Alabama developed from the south up, Demopolis was the last stop on the river before the advent of the lock and dam system.

Old Coca-Cola Mural, Demopolis (J.Poor/YHN)

Over time, the city benefitted from the various boom and bust cycles of agribusiness – cotton, cattle and catfish. Warehouses on the banks of the Tombigbee River attracted riverboat traffic. Later came the pulp and paper industry, lumber and timber, and cement made possible by the chalk in the soil.

Demopolis is a fair distance away from the hustle and bustle of Alabama’s metropolitan areas. Despite being connected by a four-laned U.S. Highway 80 and 20 minutes from Interstate 20/59, Demopolis is an hour-and-45-minute drive from Birmingham and Montgomery, and a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Mobile.

However, for those unfamiliar with Demopolis, it is one of the bright spots in the beleaguered Black Belt.

Education and Workforce Development

Demopolis Mayor John Laney sees his city’s model as a way to cure the region’s woes, which he argues requires regional cooperation.

“I think for the Black Belt itself, in this part of Alabama, to be successful, it won’t be any one area,” Laney said in an interview with Yellowhammer News. “It has to be all of us working together for the success of each other. I think Demopolis can be a very strong part of that team and I think we are doing things as a community to help improve and gain momentum towards that improvement.”

As an example of this cooperation, Laney highlighted growth in the Demopolis Higher Education Center, a dual-enrollment facility comprised of high school students and continuing education for adults from around Marengo County.

“You ask yourself, well how did that occur?” he said. “It occurred because people work together – that being the Alabama Community College System has taken an interest in the Black Belt, that being the vice-chancellor, Jeff Lynn, and the chancellor, Mr. Jimmy Baker, and Shelton State.”

John C. Webb Home, Demopolis (J.Poor/YHN)

“Those two entities have come in and are actively working to increase educational opportunities, not only for high school students, so that they’re work-ready when they come out of high school,” Laney continued. “But ultimately the goal is to have both programs in place for unemployed people as they want to gain the skills to participate in the workforce, as well as underemployed people that want to improve their level in the workforce.”

According to the Demopolis mayor, the success is all about team effort.

“It’s not any one thing. It’s everybody doing a little bit to where the total effort is greater than anything any one person is doing,” he said.

Laney argued that workforce development is “critical.”

“The number one thing, in my opinion, is that you have a labor force or demonstrated that you can train a labor force in an area that a company is looking to locate,” he said. “And if you don’t have that capability, or demonstrate that you have that capability, you’re not going to get a second look. You probably won’t get a first look.”

Demopolis Theater District (J.Poor/YHN)

Internet-readiness, Proximity to Interstates and Airports Highlight Infrastructure Offerings

Demopolis has three nearby industrial parks – one on its south side, another near its airport and one in the city of Linden, the county seat of Marengo County, approximately 17 miles away. According to Laney, all three parks have the “AT&T Fiber-ready” designation.

“We have two companies just in the last 12 months that have … relocated its corporate headquarters from an area that did not have good internet communication to Demopolis because of high-speed internet connection because their business takes them all over the Southeast,” Laney explained.

He added, “We have another company that was located just outside of our city limits that relocated their corporate office to inside our city limits, again, to get access to that high-speed internet because their operations literally go throughout the United States. It’s hard for a business to function today without that access to high-speed internet access.”

Rosenbush Furniture Company Building (now the Marengo County History and Archive Museum) (J.Poor/YHN)

Demopolis is located on the U.S. Highway 80, a major east-west thoroughfare, which over the last decade-and-a-half has been fully four-laned from Interstate 65 near Montgomery to Interstates 20/59 near the Alabama-Mississippi state line.

“Having that four-lane access has made a big difference if you’re going from here south,” Laney said. “Again, if you’re going from here to Montgomery, having that four-lane access has made a big difference because it cuts down that travel time.”

Laney also touted Demopolis’ access to four commercial airports within a two-hour radius of his city: Meridian, Miss., Montgomery, Birmingham and Jackson, Miss.

“From here you have got a lot of flexibility as to where you choose to fly out of,” he said.

Overcoming the Rural Hospital Crisis

For much of rural Alabama, the loss of population has led to the loss of health care options, primarily hospitals. However, in early 2018, Demopolis’ Bryan W. Whitfield Hospital partnered with the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) Health Systems.

“They’re beginning to show their benefit because they’ve just been instituted in the last four months,” Laney said. “But having that partnership with UAB is a key to helping our hospital turnaround because our hospital is a regional hospital, not a Demopolis hospital.”

As Laney explained, the hospital serves more than just the immediate area. Now it serves the entire west central Alabama portion of the Black Belt, making it a “regional health care center.”

Demopolis Public Square (J.Poor/YHN)

Downtown Revitalization Through Ordinance Enforcement

For new visitors to Demopolis, one of the first things you’re likely to notice is the abundance of historic structures. There’s no shortage of Greek revival antebellum homes, brick walls with murals advertising products of another era and a theater district that once showcased the talents of 1920s silent screen star Henry B. Walthall, boxer Jack Dempsey and escape artist Harry Houdini.

Laney credits a revitalization effort underway in his city’s downtown to the enforcement of dilapidated property ordinances already on the books in Demopolis.

“It’s interesting because, for years, we’ve had ordinances on the books,” he said. “But we are now actively enforcing our ordinances. Two things we have going are first, our dilapidated housing program and in the last two years, we’ve taken down 20 dilapidated properties throughout the city to improve the quality of life throughout the neighborhoods.”

Rooster Hall, Demopolis (J.Poor/YHN)

The other ordinances, Laney pointed to, are the “maintenance ordinances.”

“If you had come to this city six months ago, you would see vines growing down the side of buildings, trees growing out of gutters, windows broken,” he said. “But by taking advantage of those ordinances, we have started to make a turn there so that when potential investors come to our city, they are seeing fewer and fewer buildings that are rundown. They are being maintained properly to hopefully make for a more attractive place that someone would be willing to invest their money.”

Recently, Demopolis’ downtown has had a rebirth with the opening of a new jewelry store, clothing stores and two restaurants.

If You Create Jobs, Other Quality-of-Life Amenities Will Come

For Laney, his primary objectives are not to bring in big-box retailers or any other types of commercial business, but instead to increase employment so that ultimately there is more disposable income for such pursuits.

“[W]e can talk about movie theaters,” he said. “I’ve talked to the people that own the movie theaters in Tuscaloosa. We can talk about bowling alleys. I mean, we can talk about more restaurants. But until you get disposable income, you talk, and you talk, and you talk.”

“What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to create the infrastructure to attract businesses to create the jobs so that we will create the disposable income that will attract those other businesses,” Laney explained. “That’s the key to our success.”

Laney credited the Marengo Economic Development Authority, which has been successful in securing federal U.S. Department of Agriculture grant money for the Demopolis Hickory Mill, the maker of drumstick billets and ax handles.

Demopolis-based Robertson Banking Company Building (J.Poor/YHN)

Another promising effort Laney touted was the agency’s successful effort to lure Superior Inland Terminals to Demopolis and re-establish it as a riverport, which would give Demopolis the opportunity to capitalize on being on the Tenn-Tom Waterway System.

Presently, the recently launched operation is focusing on aggregates, unloading/loading of coal and wood pellets hauled from Selma to Demopolis by truck and then bound for the port of Mobile by boat.

In August, Demopolis will host the Babe Ruth/Cal Ripken 14-Year-Old World Series.

“That will be out at our Sportsplex,” Laney said. “The Sportsplex is in good condition as it is, but we’re investing in it over the next several months to raise it to that world series quality so that people coming in from different places in the United States to participate in this event will feel like they’re coming to a special place.”

Gaineswood, Demopolis (J.Poor/YHN)

A Plea to the Alabama Department of Commerce

The leaders of economically struggling regions often complain that the State of Alabama government has put too much of a focus on the bigger cities while neglecting rural areas.

Laney told Yellowhammer News that is no different for the Black Belt.

“Jobs are the key to the success of the Black Belt,” he said. “One of the concerns that I’ve had as mayor is that I’ve watched, looked at things on a statewide basis – you see a lot of focus on the Metropolitan Statistical Areas.

Trinity Episcopal Church (established 1834) (J.Poor/YHN)

Laney argues that the Department of Commerce should revisit their incentive programs to encourage companies to locate in rural Alabama counties. According to Laney, as the state attracts more business to metropolitan areas, jobs become more concentrated in the cities, and more people abandon rural counties to take those jobs.

He noted that as people depart rural areas, it impacts hospitals, which lose their patient base; and it impacts the local skilled workforce, which is the lifeblood of economic development.

“I think the overall health of the state would be far, far better if there was more focus towards incentivizing companies to not only locate in the MSAs but also the rural counties,” Laney added. “I’m not talking about just the Black Belt, but I think this would be a general statement for all the rural counties in the state of Alabama. I think that seriously needs to be revisited.”

The Rivers as a Natural Resource

While Demopolis attempts to improve its standing as a riverport, currently the main benefit of proximity to the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers has been industrial.

“Being on a river – where it has helped Demopolis more than any other activity is it is a very good source of water for these big mills.”

Overlooking the Tombigbee River, west of downtown Demopolis (J.Poor/YHN)

He cited the nearby Alabama Power Greene County steam plant and other mills operated by Georgia-Pacific and Westrock.

“As far as being a river port, that’s what we’re trying to develop, and that’s where Superior Inland Terminals we view as being the beginning of that,” Laney outlined.

Still Reaping the Benefits Cooperative Integration

Demopolis is known for how it avoided much of the strife that took place throughout Alabama, including in the nearby city of Selma, during the Civil Rights Era. Locals take pride in that, and to this day, Demopolis City Schools continue to benefit.

“Back in the ‘60s, during the period of integration, Demopolis city leaders – black and white – were faced with a decision, and that decision was do we let the federal government tell us how to integrate, or do we do it ourselves and try to do everything we can to help our public school systems survive?” Laney explained. “City leaders came together, put together our own integration plan, took it to Washington to the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice approved the integration plan.

Confederate Monument on Main Avenue at Capitol Street (J.Poor/YHN)

“And we have, without a doubt, one of the best public school system you’ll find in the state of Alabama,” he continued. “The private school systems in this area have been relatively weak because of our strong public school system. One-third of our student body comes from outside of our city limits.”

“It’s because we, meaning all the citizens of Demopolis, work together for the success of this city,” Laney added.

The Closing Sales Pitch

When asked to give a closing argument as to why someone should consider Demopolis over other options, Laney highlighted all the quality-of-life amenities already in place and the low cost of living. That, he argued, makes his city a place not only to open a business and raise a family but also to retire someday.

“We are an ideal community for small-to-midsize businesses,” he said. “We have a ready-and-able workforce. We’ve got great schools. We’ve got a great hospital. And we have a good quality of life.”

“We’re an ideal location for a retirement community because of our cost of living is very reasonable compared to a lot of the Metropolitan Statistical Areas,” Laney added. “Again that goes back to our medical facilities. If you’re a retired person looking for a quality place to live with good medical care, we definitely should be on your list of places to consider.”

Bluff Hall, Demopolis (J.Poor/YHN)

History backs up the claim, as evidenced by the number of well-maintained historic structures, Laney said.

“Demopolis is a historical city,” he said. “We’ve got Gaineswood. We’ve got Bluff Hall. We’ve got Lyon Hall. We’re open for business every day with regard to historical tours.”

“One of the things that makes Demopolis so vibrant is the interest that people take in our city in general,” Laney added. “This city doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because you have a lot of people who love this city and care for this city.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University, the editor of Breitbart TV and host of “The Jeff Poor Show” from 2-5 p.m. on WVNN in Huntsville.

30 mins ago

Alabama Launchpad selects finalists competing for $150K in prize money

Alabama Launchpad, a fund that invests seed money in startup companies, announced the six finalists that will compete for $150,000 in prize money.

The six companies are split evenly into two groups, those currently in the “concept stage” that are not generating revenue yet and those in the “early seed stage” that aim to ramp up their existing business.

A panel of judges will hear the pitches from the companies while a live audience watches. The event will occur in the evening on February 27 and will be located in the Warehouse at Alley Station in Montgomery.

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Three companies in the concept stage will be trying to bring home a $50,000 prize.

Those companies as follows:

  • Acclinate Genetics, a Huntsville-based company addressing the lack of diversity in clinical drug trials
  • Pure Game Sports Network, a sports media & marketing company created for high school athletic departments and fans.
  • Smart Solutions, whose products offer assistive technology allowing more living independence for persons with disabilities

Three companies at the early seed stage have bigger stakes. The winner of that competition will take home $100,000.

Those startups as follows:

  • Buolo Solutions, a company connecting professional women to talent-seeking companies with flexible jobs
  • CerFlux, a cancer-fighting company creating personalized medicine solutions to identify the best and most effective cancer therapeutics for patients.
  • MOXIE, whose engineering team is producing custom-designed IOT solutions for clients within 30 days

Alabama Launchpad is a program by the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama. According to their website, the EDPA “is a private non-profit organization funded by more than 60 Alabama companies, whose mission is to attract and retain world-class talent across a broad spectrum of interests and industries.”

“We are proud to support these innovative entrepreneurs,” said EDPA President Steve Spencer in a press release. “Alabama Launchpad is here to serve early stage companies all over Alabama, and we look forward to seeing these finalists compete onstage in our state’s capital.”

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

56 mins ago

7 Things: Doug Jones calls abortion question ‘stupid’, medical marijuana bill advances, Democrats slug it out and more …

7. If Moore can’t make the news for his campaign, he’ll make it for his lawsuit

  • Former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore has requested that the judge presiding over his case with Leigh Corfman recuse himself just before a status conference that could determine a date for the trial
  • Judge John Rochester donated to U.S. Senator Doug Jones’ (D-AL) campaign when he ran against Moore, and according to a press release from Moore, Rochester’s “criticism and mocking of Christianity on his Facebook page with full knowledge of Judge Moore’s belief in God” are reasons that he should be removed from the case.

6. Aniah’s Law has advanced

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  • As the nation continues to move towards more lacks bail rules, the Alabama House of Representatives advanced Aniah’s Law, a bill that would grant judges more ability to deny bail to those accused of violent crimes.
  • The bill is named after Aniah Blanchard, who was allegedly abducted and murdered by a man who has been released on bond despite prior violent offenses.

5. The GIRL Act is going further

  • The “Gender is Real Legislative” (GIRL) Act has been advanced by the Alabama House State Government Committee, which would require that public school student-athletes only compete in the gender which they were born.
  • The committee vote was along party lines, 8-4. Bill sponsor State Representative Chris Pringle (R-Mobile) has said that “gender is a real biological truth. It truly defies logic that anyone would deny science and want male students competing in female sports.”

4. Assange’s lawyer claims Trump dangled a pardon

  • Lawyers for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has made an allegation that former U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (D-CA) met with him at an Ecuadorean embassy to offer him a pardon in exchange for information about the DNC server and who fed him the information. The media is reporting this as an absolute fact because they need it to be true.
  • Rohrabacher and President Donald Trump say this is not true. Rohrabacher explains, “When speaking with Julian Assange, I told him that if he could provide me information and evidence about who actually gave him the DNC emails, I would then call on President Trump to pardon him.” He added, “At no time did I offer a deal made by the President, nor did I say I was representing the President.”

3. Presidential debate Wednesday night, but the guy at a rally in Arizona won 

  • The Democratic presidential debate took place Wednesday night in Las Vegas. The main target was not President Donald Trump or the 78-year-old socialist that is running away with the race. Instead, most of the fire was trained on the 78-year-old billionaire Michael Bloomberg who was attacked for his money, his history with women and his history with “stop and frisk.”
  • There wasn’t really a moment at this debate that will reset the field, but U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) essentially took over the debate early on and attacked every person on the stage with pointed criticism, except for Bernie Sanders. This will probably be seen as her attempt to damage Bloomberg and will be compared to former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s takedown of U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) from 2016 because she won’t win but she tried to make sure he won’t either.

2. Medical marijuana is going before the full Senate

  • In an 8-1 vote, the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee passed the medical marijuana bill by State Senator Tim Melson (R-Florence). The bill will now face the full Senate; if eventually signed into law, Alabama would become the 34th state to legalize medical cannabis. Last year, a similar bill passed the Senate but failed in the House.
  • This bill will require Republican votes to pass the Senate. State Sens. Greg Albritton (R-Atmore), Tom Whatley (R-Auburn), Will Barfoot (R-Montgomery) and Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) showed there is some Republican support for it. Only State Sen. Larry Stutts (R-Sheffield) voted no while State Sen. Sam Givhan (R-Huntsville) abstained.

1. Doug Jones really wants to be a one-term senator

  • U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) was recently asked by a tracker, “Do you think abortion should be banned after five months?” to which Jones responded, “[W]hat a stupid question.”
  • The tracker referenced the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act that Jones will be voting on next week. Jones said he’ll “vote on it next week, just like I did last time.”

2 hours ago

Medical marijuana bill clears Alabama Senate committee

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A medical marijuana bill cleared its first hurdle Wednesday in the Alabama legislature, giving hope to advocates after years of setbacks.

Audience members applauded as the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 8-1 for the bill, putting it in line for a Senate floor vote later this session.

The bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Tim Melson would allow people with a doctor’s recommendation to use medical marijuana for 15 conditions — including cancer, anxiety and chronic pain — and purchase cannabis products at one of 34 licensed dispensaries. The bill would allow marijuana in forms such as pills, gummy cubes, oils, skin patches, gels and creams but not in smoking or vaping products.

Advocates crowded into a public hearing at the Alabama Statehouse to watch the debate and tell lawmakers their stories.

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“This bill is not about getting high. This bill is about getting well,” said Dr. Alan Shackelford, a Colorado doctor who described the success of using medical marijuana on people with seizures and cancer.

Cristi Cain said her son Hardy’s debilitating seizures have been helped by CBD oil, now legal in Alabama, but said the higher doses that could help him more aren’t legal in the state. Hardy had as many as 100 seizures per day before trying the oil, and now has about 20 to 30, she said

“An area code shouldn’t affect one health’s care. If Hardy didn’t live in Alabama, he could be seizure-free. We shouldn’t have to be and don’t want to be medical refugees,” Cain said.

Another woman described how patches used in another state were the only thing that relieved her husband’s leg pain from Parkinson’s

The bill drew opposition from some law enforcement and conservative groups. They expressed concern about dosing, safety and the potential for abuse.

“Just because we put the word medical in front of marijuana does not make it medicine,” Shelby County Sheriff’s Capt. Clay Hammac said.

The Rev. Rick Hagans described addicts he buried. He said that although they obviously didn’t overdose on marijuana, they started their drug use with pot.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall sent lawmakers a letter expressing his opposition that noted marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

The vote was a moment of optimism for medical marijuana advocates who for years made little headway in the conservative-leaning state. A medical marijuana bill in 2013 won the so-called “Shroud Award” for the “deadest” bill that year in the House of Representatives.

Melson said he is hopeful about the bill’s chances in 2020. He said there are multiple steps in the process of obtaining medical marijuana that should limit the danger of abuse.

“You are going to have to go to a physician. You are going to have to get a card. You are going to be on the (state) register,” Melson said. He defended the bill’s allowance of marijuana for a variety of conditions.

“I’m sure some people look at that 15 (conditions) and go, ‘Ýeah, really, that one?’ That’s because they don’t have it or don’t know the literature,” he said.

Sen. Larry Stutts, an obstetrician who cast the lone no vote on the committee, said state medical marijuana laws circumvent the process of drug trials usually required to introduce a new medicine

Stutts said other medications have been “through the process and been through the trials that study its effectiveness and side effects” before patients get them.

Before the vote, Sen. Cam Ward described his late father’s battle with cancer.

“I would have given anything, anything, had he had a tablet to take, something to chew on, some drops to put in his food to avoid the nauseousness from the chemotherapy. That would have changed his life. As a human being, who am I to say … you can’t have that to make you feel better?” Ward said.

(Associated Press, copyright 2020)

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3 hours ago

Alabamians can buy emergency preparedness items sales-tax free this weekend

The weekend from Friday, February 21 through Sunday, February 23 is Alabama’s ninth annual Severe Weather Preparedness Sales Tax Holiday.

As such, several items needed to help prepare for a weather-related disaster can be purchased without state sales tax across stores in Alabama.

Items that cost $60 or less like batteries, ice packs, duct tape, plywood and flashlights will all be exempt from state sales tax this weekend.

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The biggest ticket item that can be purchased without tax is a portable electricity generator, although, any generator that costs $1,000 or more will begin incurring regular taxes.

Dozens of cities and counties also exempt their local sales tax on the holiday weekend, including Birmingham, Huntsville, Montgomery, Mobile and Tuscaloosa. A full list of those areas can be found here.

A full list of the tax-exempt items can be found here.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

17 hours ago

Alabama’s Warrior Met Coal announces historic Blue Creek mine development

Brookwood-based Warrior Met Coal on Wednesday announced that they will begin development on a new “world-class” longwall mine near its existing mines located on the Blue Creek reserves in West Alabama.

Met coal is the type of coal sometimes referred to as coking coal. Unlike the thermal or steam variety, met coal is used as a vital ingredient in the steelmaking process instead of being utilized for power generation.

The new Blue Creek development is expected to have the capacity to produce an average of 4.3 million short tons per annum of premium High-Vol A met coal over the first ten years of production. It is one of the last remaining large-scale untapped premium High Vol A met coal mines in the U.S.

“We are extremely excited about our organic growth project that will transform Warrior and allow us to build upon our proven track record of creating value for stockholders. Blue Creek is truly a world-class asset and our commitment to this new initiative demonstrates our continued highly focused business strategy as a premium pure-play met coal producer,” Walt Scheller, CEO of Warrior Met Coal, said in a statement.

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The company expects to invest approximately $550 to $600 million over the next five years to develop Blue Creek with expected spending this year alone of approximately $25 million to kickstart the project.

Based on the current schedule, Warrior Met Coal expects first development tons from continuous miner units to occur in the third quarter of 2023 with the longwall scheduled to start up in the second quarter of 2025.

The company trades on the New York Stock Exchange and as such must report specific financial details on the project. This included the company projecting a “net present value” of “greater than $1 billion over the life of the mine with a projected after-tax internal rate of return (IRR) of nearly 30% and an expected payback of approximately two years from initial longwall production.”

Warrior Met Coal previewed this project at a Yellowhammer News event in 2019.

RELATED: Study: Alabama coal industry has nearly $3 billion impact; met coal reserves to last centuries

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