2 years 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.

6 mins ago

7 Things: Biden selects Kamala Harris as running mate, lawsuit challenging Alabama’s mask mandate dismissed, SEC still wants to play football and more …

7. More funding for mental health programs

  • Governor Kay Ivey has announced that from some of the funding the state received through the CARES Act, $6 million is going to be sent to community health provider agencies and $1 million for the Alabama Department of Mental Health’s (ADMH) Crisis and Recovery Services program. 
  • ADMH will distribute the $6 million among about 300 agencies eligible for funds. Ivey said in a statement, “Like people around the globe, the people of our state are suffering, and I remain committed to providing the necessary support to get our state and her people back on our feet.”

6. Drop everything and get counted

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  • With a lot a stake for the state of Alabama, it is increasingly important that every Alabama resident take part in the 2020 U.S. Census. The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs is making sure people know that by declaring today, “Drop Everything, Get Counted Day”
  • Kenneth Boswell, Alabama Counts! chairman and ADECA director makes the reasoning pretty clear, saying, “It should take each person roughly six minutes, but these six minutes are vital to Alabama’s future.” He is calling on employers to take time out of the day to ask employees to participate and then give them time to do so online.

5. TVA CEO pay being reviewed

  •  After President Donald Trump called out the Tennessee Valley Authority, the board reversed their foreign hiring decision, and now they are reviewing the $8.1 million in compensation for Tennessee Valley Authority president Jeff Lyash, interim chairman of the TVA board John Ryder has announced.
  • Ryder said that the board is committed “to doing what is best for the 10 million people in the Tennessee Valley.” He made sure to clarify that the review wasn’t of Lyash’s job performance, only of his pay that has made him the highest-paid federal employee.

4. Still no deal on coronavirus stimulus

  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said that throughout stimulus package negotiations, Democrats have been treating the pandemic as a “political game” as they are still unable to come to an agreement on legislation.
  • McConnell accused Democrats of blocking relief “over unrelated liberal demands” and even blamed the press, too, for covering “their stonewalling like any ordinary political standoff.” He added that they’re doing a “disservice” to people in America “to act like this has just been more ordinary Washington gridlock.”

3. PAC 12 and the Big Ten decide they don’t want to lose to the SEC this year

  • The college football season continues to take hit after hit with two marquee conferences, the PAC 12 and the Big Ten, deciding that they will postpone their seasons until the spring. Now that two of the big five of college football’s major conferences are quitting, the pressure is now on the SEC, Big XII and ACC to call it quits as well.
  • Most of the college campuses in these two conferences will still have students on campus in the fall. Players are not happy, and Wisconsin is continuing to practice. There were rumblings that some of the dissenting schools in these leagues might seek new homes to play college football this year but that seems to have been kiboshed.

2. Lawsuit against mask mandate dismissed

  • A lawsuit against Governor Kay Ivey, State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris and the Alabama Board of Health has been dismissed by Montgomery County Circuit Judge Greg Griffin, but the attorney on the lawsuit, Seth Ashmore, has already said that his clients are planning to appeal.
  • The Jackson County residents who brought the lawsuit argued that the mask mandate was “illegally adopted” and created a “deprivation of liberty,” but the Alabama Emergency Management Act of 1955 gives the governor authority to make these sorts of mandates.

1. Surprise! Biden picked Kamala Harris

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden has officially named U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) as his running mate for the 2020 presidential election, which makes Harris the first black woman on a presidential ticket.
  • Biden and Harris will both be subject to criticism, though, as Harris formerly was critical about Biden and even said she believed the women who accused him of sexual assault and misconduct.

2 hours ago

Rep. Palmer: Why is it Joe Biden can send his wife out but he can’t go out?

Earlier this month, Jill Biden, wife of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, began taking a more public role in her husband’s bid for the White House, participating in media interviews and campaign events.

However, Joe Biden has not been out and about as much as the former second lady, which has raised questions about the former vice president and his campaign.

During an interview with Mobile radio’s FM Talk 106.5’s “The Jeff Poor Show,” U.S. Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Hoover) asked that question and offered a theory as to why that is the case.

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“Here’s Jill Biden, living in the same house with Joe Biden, who is out doing interviews, who is out in meetings,” Palmer said. “She’s in her 60s. She’s not as old as Joe but I believe she is in her 60s, in that age group that is considered at risk. She is able to go out and meet with people. She is able to do interviews face to face but Joe can’t. So people ought to be asking themselves a question: Why is it he can send his wife out but he can’t go out?”

“There are a number of people who have a theory on that, not the least of which is he is a gaffe machine,” he added.

Palmer reminded listeners how Joe Biden’s struggles with gaffes go back decades.

“My first contact with Joe Biden was the very first work that I did in D.C. when I ran the think tank,” Palmer added. “That was Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearing. And you may recall he had gone through controversy then … It is well known that he is surrounded in controversy and that he is a gaffe machine.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

13 hours ago

Alabama political leaders react to Kamala Harris as Biden’s choice for VP

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on Tuesday selected U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) to be his running mate. Political leaders from both sides of the aisle in Alabama reacted to the news.

Harris served two terms as the attorney general of California before being elected to the Senate in 2016.

U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-AL), the Yellowhammer State’s most prominent Democrat and a longtime Biden ally, wrote “I know the power and energy of African-American women & the difference their hard work made in my race. Now we’ll make history by electing our first African-American woman VP & I’m so proud that person will be my friend and colleague ⁦Kamala Harris.”

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Jerry Carl, a Mobile County commissioner and the Republican nominee in Alabama’s First Congressional District, was the first major member of the Alabama GOP to react.

“Did Sleepy Joe forget that only months ago Kamala Harris attacked him for his racist policies? Now he is handing over the reins of the Presidency to her and the radical left,” Carl’s campaign account tweeted shortly after the news broke.

“I am ELATED that my friend, colleague, & Sorority Sister Kamala Harris was chosen as Joe Biden’s running mate! Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are ready to take on the big fights and she’s already shown the courage and success to win big fights,” U.S. Representative Terri Sewell (AL-07) posted to Twitter on Tuesday afternoon.

Former Auburn University head football coach Tommy Tuberville, the Republican nominee to take on Jones in November, commented on the news via Twitter.

“It’s no surprise that Joe Biden has selected a Socialist Democrat like Kamala Harris as his VP pick. Harris is as far left as it gets, and my opponent, Doug Jones, stands side-by-side with her on almost every critical issue,” Tuberville’s campaign posted. “They have voted time and again for late-term abortion, gun-grabbing laws, open borders legislation, and other far-left agenda items. We must not let Socialists like Doug Jones or Kamala Harris take over our country!”

Alabama Republican Party Chairman Terry Lathan released a statement, saying, “Joe Biden’s VP pick drags the Democrats’ ticket even further to the left.”

Lathan listed a number of liberal measures Harris has supported before adding, “We look forward to the clear contrast in policies in the Vice Presidential debate with Mike Pence and Senator Harris. It will be a true mirror of the obtuse plans the Democrats want for our nation.”

Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed, a Democrat, received Harris’ endorsement while he was campaigning for the office he now holds. He tweeted on Tuesday, “I like what I just heard” shortly after the news of Harris being chosen spread online.

“We are proud [Kamala Harris] has been selected to be Joe Biden’s VP. We look forward to helping her make history & make a difference over the next four years,” Reed added.

U.S. Representative Mike Rogers’ (AL-03) campaign account wrote, “Joe Biden’s radical lurch to the left just became even more extreme,” in response to the Harris news.

President Donald Trump was asked about Harris during a press conference at the White House on Tuesday afternoon.

“She’s a big tax raiser. She has a lot of things to explain,” he said in part.

Biden and Harris will take on President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in the general election this November.

Pence and Harris will debate at 8:00 p.m. CT on October 7.

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

14 hours ago

Alabama Senate majority leader to SEC: Let them play

Alabama Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed (R-Jasper) sent a letter on Tuesday to Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey, advocating for the SEC to allow its member institutions to proceed with the 2020 college football season this fall.

The letter came the day that the Big 10 and Pac-12 decided to cancel their fall seasons. Of the Power 5 conferences, the SEC, ACC and Big 12 have yet to announce if they will play football this year.

To try saving the season, a player-led #WeWantToPlay movement has popped up in the past few days, quickly gaining momentum nationally.

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University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban and other prominent leaders in the world of college football have advised that most players want to play, and that players will very likely be safer following enhanced safety protocols developed by their teams rather than being back at home or left to their own devices on campuses all fall.

For example, University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) head coach Bill Clark on Monday tweeted that his team had tested all 176 people in the school’s football building for COVID-19, with all tests returning negative.

“In addition to the [SEC]’s Medical Advisory Group providing a medical clearance for gameplay this fall, I have faith in the various health and safety guidelines being adopted by the Conference’s member institutions, who have themselves relied on the vast expertise of the medical professionals on their campuses and within their respective university systems,” Reed wrote to Sankey.

He added that on top of “the heightened health and safety protocols in intercollegiate athletics, each member institution has created health and safety guidelines campus-wide.”

“I have a tremendous amount of trust in the decision making of institutions such as the University of Alabama and Auburn University and wholeheartedly believe that every decision made by their respective administrations will prioritize the health and welfare of their students, faculty, and staff over all other considerations,” Reed continued.

“Member institutions and student-athletes have worked tirelessly to get back on the field this fall,” the senator said. “Depriving opportunities for student-athletes to succeed on the field will long lasting and potentially devastating consequences for their futures, with many student-athletes aspiring to compete professionally.”

Reed concluded by asking the SEC to “hear the calling of their member institutions and student-athletes and commit to competition this fall.”

You can read the full letter here.

Shortly after Reed sent his letter, the SEC via Twitter released a statement from Sankey.

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

16 hours ago

Lawsuit challenging statewide mask order dismissed by judge

A Montgomery County Circuit judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit that sought to challenge the legality of Alabama’s statewide mask mandate.

The suit was brought by three Jackson County residents who thought the mask order, first ordered by Governor Kay Ivey in mid-July, was outside the bounds of what the government could put in place.

Seth Ashmore, the attorney handling the lawsuit, said on Tuesday his clients plan to appeal the ruling.

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Judge Greg Griffin handled the case at the circuit court level and made the decision to dismiss the suit shortly after a hearing conducted on Tuesday afternoon.

Both Ivey and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, in their official capacities, were named as defendants in the suit.

The persons suing Ivey and Harris argued the mask mandate was “illegally adopted” and a “deprivation of liberty.”

Lawyers from the Alabama Attorney General’s office argued in their motion to dismiss the suit that the Alabama Emergency Management Act of 1955 gave the Governor “ample authority” to require the wearing of masks by individuals when they are in public.

Both the lawsuit and motion to dismiss have been made available to the public by Mike Cason, a reporter for Alabama Media Group.

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