9 months 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.

38 mins ago

Dick, Liz Cheney to headline Bradley Byrne Senate fundraiser

Former Vice President Dick Cheney and U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) will be the “special guests” at a U.S. Senate campaign fundraiser for Congressman Bradley Byrne (AL-01) on November 21 in Birmingham.

The fundraiser invitation obtained by Yellowhammer News outlines that there will be a VIP reception and a general reception. The VIP reception calls for a sponsor contribution level of $5,600 per couple, while the general reception allows for either a $2,800 host level or $1,000 attend level — both amounts also per couple.

The event is being held at The Club.

Rep. Cheney is currently the chair of the House Republican Conference — the GOP caucus within the lower chamber. As such, she holds the third-highest position in Republican House leadership.

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Like her father, Liz Cheney has been critical recently of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces from Northern Syria. The Cheneys generally have found themselves at odds with Trump on foreign policy issues for years, carrying through his time in office.

Back in 2011, Trump in a since-deleted YouTube video said of former VP Cheney, “He’s very, very angry and nasty.”

“I didn’t like Cheney when he was a vice president. I don’t like him now. … Here’s a guy that did a rotten job as vice president. Nobody liked him,” Trump added.

His criticism of the George W. Bush administration has continued in recent days and weeks. Trump in one tweet emphasized, “GOING INTO THE MIDDLE EAST IS THE WORST DECISION EVER MADE IN THE HISTORY OF OUR COUNTRY!”

Similarly to her split with Trump on foreign policy, Rep. Cheney has found herself in a heated spat as of late with Senator Rand Paul (R-KY). The two have fundamentally different worldviews when it comes to intervention abroad and the United States’ national security strategy.

Byrne has found himself somewhat split between the Cheneys and the Trump/Paul side of things recently when it comes to foreign policy. While Byrne signed on as an original cosponsor to Rep. Cheney’s resolution to impose “very tough sanctions” on Turkey over the Syria/Kurdish conflict, the coastal Alabama congressman also voted against a resolution opposing Trump’s decision to withdraw. As Byrne outlined in a column published on Tuesday, his public stance on the issue does not fit neatly on one side of the debate or the other.

Yellowhammer News sent a request for comment to the Byrne campaign on the upcoming Cheney fundraiser, as well as posing a few specific questions.

Yellowhammer asked whether Byrne more aligns with Trump or the Cheneys on foreign policy, as well as whether Byrne would be more like a Senator Paul or Rep. Cheney on foreign policy if elected to the Senate. Rep. Cheney herself is heavily rumored to be weighing a U.S. Senate bid in Wyoming, and the three could even find themselves to be colleagues. Yellowhammer further asked the Byrne campaign if he would support a Cheney Senate bid.

Additionally, given Rep. Cheney’s high leadership perch in Congress, Yellowhammer asked, “Does this signal leadership in D.C. getting involved on behalf of the Byrne campaign?”

The request for comment and questions were met with a brief response from Byrne’s campaign press secretary.

“Think you’re making something out of nothing. See below— we’re excited about the event!” Lenze Morris wrote in an email.

Morris pointed to a Monday tweet from Trump thanking Rep. Cheney for backing him against House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, as well as an article from August detailing that both Cheneys are helping the RNC and the Trump 2020 reelection campaign with their joint fundraising efforts.

While the Byrne campaign is “excited about the event,” so too are the other leading Republican 2020 Senate campaigns.

A spokesperson for former Auburn University head football coach Tommy Tuberville’s campaign told Yellowhammer News, “Politicians are supporting a politician while the Alabama Farmers Federation is supporting Coach. He’ll take Alabama farmers over the swamp any day.”

In a statement, Secretary of State John Merrill told Yellowhammer News, “My campaign is focused on traveling around the state to all 67 counties meeting with Alabamians from all walks of life and listening to their concerns. When I am in the United States Senate, my only concern will be representing Alabama thinking and Alabama values and not the thinking and values of the Washington, D.C. elites.”

State Rep. Arnold Mooney’s (R-Indian Springs) campaign declined to comment.

Read about the latest fundraising numbers from these GOP Senate candidates, as well as former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, here.

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

1 hour ago

Sewell: Trump tweet comparing impeachment inquiry to ‘lynching’ is ‘despicable’

Along with Senator Doug Jones (D-AL), count Rep. Terri Sewell (AL-07) as an ardent critic of President Donald Trump’s Tuesday tweet comparing the ongoing House impeachment inquiry to a “lynching” of him.

Trump tweeted, “So some day, if a Democrat becomes President and the Republicans win the House, even by a tiny margin, they can impeach the President, without due process or fairness or any legal rights. All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here – a lynching. But we will WIN!”

In a Facebook post sharing a screenshot of that tweet, Sewell outlined, “From Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement, 3,446 African Americans were murdered by lynching.”

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“The history of lynching in our nation is one of white supremacy, humiliation and dehumanization,” she continued.

Sewell, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, represents a district that includes Selma.

“For President Trump to liken the impeachment inquiry—a lawful investigation—to the racial terror millions of African Americans endured is despicable,” she concluded. “And for the people of Alabama’s 7th Congressional District, who marched, bled and died to end this type of terrorism, the sting of the President’s words is especially sharp.”

RELATED: Rep. Sewell: ‘You don’t need a quid pro quo’ for an impeachment inquiry

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

1 hour ago

Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce launches initiative to support local startups

The Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday launched a new  initiative to help boost the River Region’s entrepreneurial  ecosystem.

The new “Work Together” business studio and coworking space located at 600 S. Court Street in Montgomery will be more than just a physical space, according to a press release.

Starting in 2020, “it will also feature dynamic programming and events focused on creating a haven for makers, creatives, small businesses, entrepreneurs, freelancers and the community to connect, innovate, create and learn.”

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The Work Together location offers flexible space for working, training and community building that can accommodate up to 100 individuals and includes WIFI and audio-visual resources. Additional smaller spaces inside Work Together provide areas for small group or one-on-one meetings, and it also offers a conference room set-up that can accommodate up to 10 people.

The chamber announced the new initiative at InnovateMGM, a half-day event celebrating  those who are innovating within traditional and non-traditional businesses, start-ups and creative ventures.

The event served as a taste of the community building that Work Together aims to provide, which goes far beyond the limits of a physical gathering space and seeks to provide meaningful programming that empowers users to achieve their greatest potential.

In a statement, Montgomery Area Chamber Chairman Willie Durham said, “Supporting and strengthening our start up and entrepreneur community is one of our biggest priorities at the Chamber.”

“Our mission is to connect people to people and people to resources and this space allows us to do just that,” he continued. “By providing the training and the space for creatives and entrepreneurs to connect, we are enhancing our ability to build community, elevate the quality of life of the region and ensure the prosperity of our business community.”

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

2 hours ago

Clyde Chambliss named 2019’s ‘Outstanding Public Official’ by American Society of Civil Engineers

State Senator Clyde Chambliss (R-Prattville) was recently named the 2019 Outstanding Public Official by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

ASCE’s Committee on Advancing the Profession selected Chambliss to receive the prestigious national honor for “impeccable service and dedication to the State of Alabama, as well as to the civil engineering profession and land surveying professionals.”

“Instituted in 1963, the award is made to those members of ASCE who have contributed substantially to the status of the engineering profession by meritorious public service in elective or appointive positions in civil government,” Lawren Pratt, the ASCE member who nominated Chambliss for the award, advised in a statement.

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During his tenure in the Alabama Senate, Chambliss has led the effort to reform and modernize government regulations on the engineering profession. He was first elected in 2014 and reelected in 2018.

In 2018, Chambliss helped write and pass Senate Bill 316, which required Qualification Based Selection (QBS) to be included in the State Administrative Code and added two public members to the Alabama Board of Licensure for Professional Engineers and Professional Land Surveyors.

Brad Williams, P.E., president of the Alabama section of ASCE, praised Chambliss’ leadership.

“Senate Bill 316 led to one of the strongest QBS laws in the nation; it would not have passed without Senator Chambliss’s leadership,” Williams outlined.

Chambliss and his wife, Tara, also a civil engineer, own and operate a civil engineering firm that provides engineering services to small towns, water systems and developers in central Alabama.

“Senator Chambliss’ knowledge of our profession as a practicing Professional Engineer was instrumental in how he was able to lead meetings, mediate between parties of differing interests, and educate legislative members on the importance of QBS,” Williams added.

In accepting the award, Chambliss said that he appreciated the collaboration between legislators and professionals in the engineering field that led to the passage of SB316.

“It is such an honor to be recognized by my peers and colleagues with this award. Passage of SB316 was truly a group effort, and I appreciate the work of my engineer and surveyor peers in the development of such a great piece of legislation. I also want to thank my legislative colleagues for their support in voting for the bill, and Governor Ivey for signing it into law,” Chambliss said.

Chambliss was recently named as a member of the 2019 Yellowhammer Power & Influence 40.

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

Byrne: How do you solve a problem like Syria?

Recent developments in Syria highlight the need for the United States to revisit its broader Middle Eastern policy.

Early last week, I joined a small meeting of House Republicans for an update on Syria from Secretary of Defense Mark Esper where he discussed a phone call from President Erdogan of Turkey to President Trump.

During that call, Erdogan notified President Trump that after years of waiting at the Syrian border, Turkish troops would finally cross over. He assured that Turkey was not coming after our troops but targeting certain Kurdish factions they consider terrorists. He gave President Trump 48 hours to relocate the two dozen or so American troops stationed on the border.

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President Trump was faced with a difficult decision. Ultimately, he decided to remove American servicemembers from harm’s way to prevent a full-blown conflict with Turkey.

Turkey’s incursion into Syria is wrong and very troubling. Erdogan should never treat our president and our country the way he did on the phone call. There will be serious consequences for his behavior.

I support seeking methods of leverage with Turkey that do not endanger our troops.

After President Trump proposed harsh economic sanctions, the administration negotiated a cease-fire with Turkey. The cease-fire has been shaky at best, but it probably prevented many more deaths in the region.

This is happening in the context of a greater strategic problem in the Middle East. For at least a decade, we’ve lacked a well-defined mission. What are our interests in the Middle East? What do we do to pursue and protect those interests?

Since coming to Congress and serving on the House Armed Services Committee, I have not seen a strategic, conventional interest for the U.S. in Syria, other than destroying the ISIS caliphate.

To be sure, Kurdish forces were the largest part of the successful campaign against the caliphate, and we need to stand by them as best we can under these challenging circumstances.

But Syria is a failed state. It is bewildering the number of groups in some form of combat. With so many factions, it is often difficult to know who the good guys are. Problems between the Turks and Kurds will persist for generations, but this dispute is one of many combustible problems in the Middle East today. Just weeks ago, Iran attacked our Saudi Arabian ally.

We need to work with our allies to determine our strategic goals and how to reach them. We should continue providing assistance to our allies, including the Kurds, but progress requires buy-in from all of our allies in the region.

Turkey, as a NATO member, does currently play a role in supporting our alliance goals. Turkey is the home of an important U.S. airbase and many other critical NATO assets including U.S. nuclear weapons.

However, Turkey’s actions cast serious doubts on whether they will honor their NATO commitments going forward, and frank discussions between Trump, Erdogan and other NATO leaders are needed.

We must be tough with Turkey. I still believe strong sanctions to weaken and punish Turkey are needed, and I signed on as an original cosponsor to Liz Cheney’s resolution to impose very tough sanctions.

After the Turkish incursion, I was disappointed that the House hastily put forward a resolution condemning President Trump’s actions without knowing the full facts. The very next day, I received a classified briefing shedding more light on his tough decision. I think everyone in Congress should have access to these classified briefings to gain a fuller understanding of what happened.

Instead of attacking the president, we need to have sincere bipartisan conversations and propose concrete solutions for Syria and the Middle East. On critical national security issues, we must put America first.

U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne is a Republican from Fairhope. He is a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate.