2 weeks ago

This city is leading the renaissance of Alabama’s Black Belt

Livingston may not be the largest city in Alabama’s Black Belt, but that is not stopping the people who live and work there from enthusiastically leading a growing chorus of voices devoted to growing rural Alabama.

“When you have all of the oars going in the same direction, it’s better on everybody,” said Livingston Mayor Tom Tartt. “I can remember a time when Livingston didn’t want something to happen in York or Sumter County didn’t want something to happen in Marengo County because they’re all territorial. We all finally figured out that if it happens in York, it’s going to help us. If it happens in Livingston, it’s going to help the people in York. I’m exceedingly proud.”

Welcome to Livingston, Alabama from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Livingston is located on the Sucharnochee River in west-central Alabama, about halfway between Tuscaloosa and Meridian, Mississippi, along interstate highways 20 and 59. Founded in 1835, the city is named after Edward Livingston, a statesman and jurist. About 3,500 people live there, many of whom join the city’s largest employer, the University of West Alabama (UWA), in elevating the region as a hub of economic growth and workforce development.

“One of the things we’ve really been promoting is the idea of regionalism,” said Tina Naremore Jones, vice president of the Division of Economic and Workforce Development at UWA. “You have a much stronger voice if you work for a region, especially if you’re talking about rural communities. You can leverage your resources better. You can show that you have a larger workforce. You have better capacity that way.”

City and county leaders ramped up those team efforts in 2017 with the creation of the Sumter County Economic Development Leadership Academy, a group of elected officials and leaders from businesses and community organizations tasked with taking an honest look at Sumter County’s future. Their discussions led to the creation in 2018 of the Sumter County Renaissance, a framework to provide economic impetus in Sumter County for job and population growth, new investment, renewed and sustained economic vitality, improved quality of life for all citizens and full participation in the global economy.

“We have a wonderful team,” said Allison Brantley, director of Economic Development at UWA. “We all want Livingston to grow and see its potential. We want the same for Sumter County. In order for it to reach its potential, to keep our students here when they graduate, to bring back those young professionals who’ve moved off, we know we have to work together.”

Bearing fruit

The enhanced focus on regional cooperation quickly began bearing fruit. In October 2019, Enviva announced it would invest $175 million to construct a wood-pellet production plant in Sumter County. Located at the Port of Epes Industrial Park near Livingston, the plant is expected to create a minimum of 85 full-time jobs and generate an estimated 180 additional jobs in logging, transportation and local services in the region, once the plant begins operating in 2023.

“We are privileged to have been invited by the people of Alabama to invest in a remarkable community like Epes,” said Enviva Chairman and CEO John Keppler at the 2019 announcement. “With its thriving forest resources, great local workforce and favorable transportation logistics, we look forward to the opportunity to grow sustainably in west Alabama for decades to come.”

Enviva joins a growing list of timber-focused businesses in the region, including Alabama Pellets and Two Rivers Lumber Co. in nearby Marengo County. Sidney Freeman, executive director of the Sumter County Chamber of Commerce, said landing these and other businesses happened in large part because of the region’s focus on workforce development.

“Workforce development is a priority, especially with new industry coming in,” Freeman said. “We’ve got to have able bodies available to do the work if we’re going to have these industries here.”

Workforce development efforts got a big boost in 2019, thanks to a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor and the Delta Regional Authority. The grant funded a UWA initiative known as LINCS: Leveraging Interconnected Networks for Change and Sustainability, designed to develop a regional workforce based on industry-recognized standards and increase the advanced manufacturing skills sets and employment in the region’s 10 underserved counties.

“If you’re going to recruit industry of any kind, the first thing they’re going to ask you is, if you have a workforce, and you have to prove it,” Jones said. “You can’t have economic development without showing workforce and developing that workforce. That can be from kindergarten all the way through those people who need to reenter the workforce.”

Jones said one of the first priorities of LINCS was the creation of Skills On Wheels, a set of mobile flex classrooms equipped with computers and broadband that can be used for education and employee training. Skills on Wheels eliminates access barriers commonly found in rural areas.

“In a place where you may not have the digital access and the broadband access to do some of this training, we take it to them,” Jones said. “We recently had a local industry who was having AIDT come and do training on their site and they weren’t really sure about some of their internet connections, so they called us. We trotted out the mobile unit. Their employees had a wonderful experience.”

‘Team Broadband’

Everyone involved in growing Livingston and Sumter County agrees the greatest challenge is access to high-speed internet. Sumter County Commission Chairman Marcus Campbell said broadband access is the fuel the region needs to ignite growth.

“It is a must-have,” Campbell said. “Anytime you look at recruiting industry, you look at your school systems, you look at telemedicine – all of those things that you need in order to go forward – broadband is up there. A lot of times our young at heart – our seniors – don’t have that transportation to get to that specialist they need. With broadband, that senior that lives in Whitfield can be talking to their cardiologist at UAB. That farmer – if that tractor breaks down and they’re trying to plant or gather crops, if they need to get a specific part right away, they can just pull out their phone or device and order the part right away.”

Broadband currently exists in parts of Livingston and areas of Sumter County, but Campbell said the region will prosper when broadband is expanded to all parts of Sumter County and the Black Belt. To accelerate that process, Campbell said a team of government and business leaders is busy laying the foundation necessary for high-speed internet providers to expand broadband access.

“We’re working to make sure we have everything in place so that when the connectivity can happen, we already have the road map,” Campbell said. “I can’t thank Alabama Power enough for their dedication to this particular area. Industry will be pouring in because of that connectivity and we will be vibrant and strong. ‘Team Broadband’ has laid the foundation.”

Education also benefits from the team focus on broadband. UWA created University Charter School (UCS) in 2018 as part of an effort to provide new, higher-quality public education options for students and families. JJ Wedgeworth of UCS said students are thriving thanks to the relationships developed with community and business leaders.

“We’re supporting one another,” Wedgeworth said. “We’re hearing what their needs are in terms of a workforce and they’re providing us with opportunities for students, relationships and scholarships. It’s great.”

Freeman said the region’s intentional efforts to improve career education are improving quality of life for families and helping her and others recruit business.

“We’re very proud of our education system,” Freeman said. “If you have a company that is looking to relocate here, their wife has got to love it here. Their husband has got to love it here. They’ve got to have a great education system for their children, too. It’s really important to have those things so that your community is attractive.”

Deep roots

Beyond the curb appeal of the region’s economic and workforce development efforts lies a thread that binds business with pleasure and culture with success.

“Sumter County is a great place to live, work and play. I had the great opportunity to go abroad, live in other countries and bounce an object that weighed 7 to 9 pounds,” said Campbell, who played professional basketball in Spain, France, New Zealand, Iran and Qatar. “It is just awesome to be here. Sumter County is not just a retirement place. It is a place where you can come and enjoy yourself.”

Among the amenities is 54-acre Lake LU on the UWA campus that provides facilities for fishing, boating, hiking and birdwatching, as well as Jaycee Neighborhood Park that offers baseball and softball fields, areas for picnics, a swimming pool, tennis courts and playground equipment.

“You’ve got all of the recreational amenities here,” said Tartt. “If you want to do something outside in this part of the state, you can do it 11 months out of the year. It’s a lot of positives.”

Among the tourist attractions are a 160-year-old covered bridge and the city’s 164-year-old bored well famous for its salty, alkaline water. The area is rich in fossils, including mosasaur bones from dinosaurs made famous in “Jurassic Park.”

“We are probably one of the best areas for fossil hunting,” Jones said. “Encouraging our young people to discover where they live and be proud of their backyard is important.”

Jones said newcomers are often surprised at how much they come to love the region’s quality of life.

“It’s kind of like peeling an onion,” Jones said. “I think they are amazed at the deepness of the layers of it. They come here and they are attracted for certain reasons and then they discover a whole new level of reasons to stay. That’s what you see when you come to west Alabama and Alabama’s Black Belt – it is a place where you can discover almost anything.”

Livingston is deeply rooted in rural living at its best, beyond the rich soil that gives the region its name.

“If you think what’s special about small-town America, we embody that,” Tartt said. “Neighbors know their neighbors. We take care of each other. It’s a very safe community and a great place to work and raise your family. We’d love to see you here.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

44 mins ago

Britt: Border crisis ‘a result of the weakness of the Biden administration’

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Katie Britt on Thursday appeared on News Talk 93.1’s “Dan Morris Show,” where she was interviewed by guest host Apryl Marie Fogel.

During the interview, she was asked by Fogel whether some of the recent turmoil overseas and at the border was attributable to the transition in the executive branch.

“There is no doubt that this is a result of the weakness of the Biden administration,” Britt outlined. “You mentioned the border — it is a total disaster. If you look at the number of people coming over the border, both in May and June we hit 20-year highs. President Trump placed policies and enacted policies that showed strength and got the border under control. I mean, the first thing that we need to do is seal and secure the border. If you look at the safety and security of our nation, but also the humanitarian crisis that is occurring there. We are seeing so many drugs being trafficked over the border. They said they are catching over 3,000 pounds a day, but Apryl Marie, what China is sending over in fentanyl to Mexico, to then come over our border, they said could kill every American four times over.”

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“And every bit of this, it’s interesting, when Vice President Harris said, ‘Oh, I’m going go to the border to see what the issue is,’ which obviously took her, how many days did it take her? – How many months? It was absurd. But I thought, ‘You don’t need to go down there to see (the problem), just look in the mirror.’ It’s you, it’s your administration, the Biden administration’s policies. It’s the weakness that you’re showing,” Britt concluded. “We’ve got to put back Trump’s Remain in Mexico policy. We’ve also got to make sure that, as President Trump did, when people came over the border, they knew that they weren’t going to be placed on our welfare system. Those types of policies, that type of strength, that deters people from coming. Same thing in Cuba. Same thing in Israel. I mean, they see weakness in the Biden Administration, and they see that the Democrats are starting to undermine that relationship, and they are taking advantage of it. Make no mistake: this is why we have to have strength in D.C. and in the White House. We must have strength in the Senate, and we must have strength in the House.”

Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia

2 hours ago

A new-look Alabama Crimson Tide, the same old Nick Saban

Nick Saban knows you want to know what he thinks. About the prospect of COVID-19 disrupting another college football season. Name, image and likeness rights for college athletes. The revolving door on the transfer portal thanks to the one-time free transfer rule.

Winning a poll-era record seven national championships, six of the past 12, including the 2020 title, has earned the Alabama football coach a bully pulpit. It’s also earned him the right to admit he knows what he doesn’t know.

“I know there’s a lot of interest in a lot of those things,” Saban said Wednesday at SEC Media Days at the Hyatt Regency Wynfrey Hotel. “I almost feel that anything that I say will probably be wrong because there’s no precedent for the consequences that some of the things that we are creating, whether they’re good opportunities, even if they’re good opportunities, there’s no precedent for the consequences that some of these things are going to create, whether they’re good or bad.”

Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban talks NIL, vacationing, sustaining success and a past SEC Media Days memory from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

The more college football changes, the more Saban and Alabama adapt to those changes and keep winning. They went undefeated to capture the 2020 national championship despite COVID disruptions such as Saban himself missing the Iron Bowl because he tested positive for the virus, and two games being rescheduled.

Saban explained how Alabama has handled the subject of vaccinations for the disease with its players heading into this season. He broke it down into “a personal decision” for each player and “a competitive decision” on how that choice could affect the team.

How has that approach worked to date?

“I think that we’re pretty close to 90 percent maybe of our players who have gotten the vaccine,” Saban said, “and I’m hopeful that more players make that decision – but it is their decision.”

Speaking a day earlier at a Texas high school coaching convention, Saban weighed in on the newest phenomenon affecting college athletics, NIL rights. He dropped a nugget that Alabama’s heir apparent at quarterback, sophomore Bryce Young, has earned almost a million dollars in endorsements. Saban didn’t expound on Young’s earning power Wednesday but applauded the opportunity for players to make money.

He also questioned the impact that a disparity in NIL earnings could have on the roster “because it’s not going to be equal, and everything that we’ve done in college athletics in the past has always been equal. Everybody’s had an equal scholarship, equal opportunity.”

“Now that’s probably not going to be the case. Some positions, some players will have more opportunities than others. And how that’s going to impact your team, our team, the players on the team, I really can’t answer because we don’t have any precedent for it.

“I know that we’re doing the best we can to try to get our players to understand the circumstance they’re in, the opportunity they have, and how those opportunities are not going to be equal for everybody, and it will be important for our team’s success that people are not looking over their shoulder at what somebody else does or doesn’t do.”

What Alabama does in trying to compete for another championship without 10 NFL draft picks from last year’s team, six of whom were selected in the first round, including Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, will reflect the program’s ability to adapt to the new era of college football “free agency.” Tennessee transfer linebacker Henry To’oTo’o, a potential “quarterback-type guy on defense” in Saban’s words, is one of the newcomers expected to make an immediate impact on a team that will start the season in a much different place than last season.

With eight new starters on offense and a new offensive coordinator and play-caller in former NFL head coach Bill O’Brien, the experience this time around is on defense. Just the same, Saban said, after setting school records last season with 48.5 points and 541.6 yards a game, “we’re not changing offenses.”

“We’ve got a good offense,” he said. “We’ve got a good system. We’ve got a good philosophy. Bill has certainly added to that in a positive way, and we’ll probably continue to make some changes. But from a terminology standpoint, from a player standpoint in our building, our offense was very, very productive, and we want to continue to run the same type of offense and feature the players that we have who are playmakers who can make plays, and I think Bill will do a good job of that.”

So as a new season awaits, Saban and Alabama find themselves in a familiar place in a new world, trying to defend a national championship with a new cast of featured players and assistant coaches. Saban called it “the penalty for success.”

“The challenge is you’ve got to rebuild with a lot of new players who will be younger, have new roles, less experience, and how do they respond to these new roles? That’s why rebuilding is a tremendous challenge,” Saban said. “That’s why it’s very difficult to repeat.”

Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban speaks at SEC Media Days 2021 from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Saban, who has won back-to-back national championships just once in 2011 and 2012, is heading into his 15th season at Alabama, his 20th in the SEC, including his five years at LSU. The SEC coach next in line in seniority is Kentucky’s Mark Stoops, who’s entering his ninth year. Eight of the league’s head coaches are in their first or second year.

Someone asked Saban the secret to his longevity.

“I think that’s simple,” he said. “You’ve got to win.”

Mission accomplished. Again and again and again.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

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3 hours ago

In Alabama, conservation is for the birds

Whether it’s the Yellowhammer State or the Cotton State, whatever you call the state of Alabama, an abundance of birds call it home. “Yellowhammer” in fact refers to the common name for the northern flicker woodpecker — which just happens to be the state bird of Alabama.

Specifically, coastal Alabama is home to a treasure trove of avian species that nest on the beach and use the area for stopover on their migratory journeys around the world. Coastal Alabama is a particularly vulnerable area, as well as the other four Gulf state coasts. The Gulf’s coast is subject to battering from hurricanes and storm surge, land loss from a lack of sediment transfers, and increased development — making coastal restoration projects all that more important.

The incredible amount of bird habitat in the Yellowhammer State is good news for outdoors enthusiasts. Birding trails and hunting opportunities are prevalent, and per Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism, birding as a sector of tourism is huge. Roughly $17.3 billion is spent on wildlife-watching trips and related expenses, with an estimated 20 million Americans traveling for birding.

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“While our 32-mile stretch of sugar-white sand beaches is what draws people to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach for their vacations, the broader nature and outdoors are part of our core marketing focus, especially in the last year with the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Beth Gendler, Chief Operating Officer of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism. “The Tourism Office learned during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill just how vital it is that we protect our special environment for residents and visitors to enjoy and appreciate in the future. Birding and bird conservation efforts are a key component of this because our area is part of the winter and spring migration routes.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (Service) Gulf Restoration Office is working to implement projects ensuring these opportunities continue to exist far into the future. Within these efforts, some Service biologists are focused on land restoration, while others are looking to the sky — literally — as they track birds’ migration patterns.

Dauphin Island’s West End

Amid settlement negotiations and cleanup efforts from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which occurred in April 2010, one spit of land remained in focus for some Service biologists. Roughly 840 acres of coastal habitat, which until recently was privately owned, is known as the West End of Dauphin Island. Located near the mouth of Mobile Bay, Dauphin Island is a 15-mile long barrier island. The U.S. Census Bureau has designated the area as 166-square-miles, which includes about 96% open water. It offers invaluable habitat for coastal bird populations.

A major milestone on the path to restoring the Gulf of Mexico was marked recently as the state of Alabama acquired the West End of Dauphin Island. The acquisition conserves habitat for coastal bird populations that are dependent on the area. The Dauphin Island West End Acquisition project was approved as part of the Alabama Restoration Plan III and Environmental Assessment in December 2019. The 840 acres is a diverse coastal habitat made up of dunes, marshes, and beaches. Sea turtle and several bird species use these habitats for nesting. Migratory birds use the area as a prime resting spot during migrations. The Service’s team will work in close coordination with the State of Alabama and Mobile County to restore this valuable property.

“Public ownership of the West End of Dauphin Island will allow for the protection and management of its habitats,” said Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “Through the collaborative work of the Alabama Trustee Implementation Group, and the local stakeholders, the acquisition of this land will have a tremendous benefit for coastal and water birds injured by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”

Among the bird species present at the West End are the piping plover and red knot. These two shorebirds are a threatened species within their Alabama range, and are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Piping plovers frequent Alabama’s quiet shoreline throughout fall, winter and spring. Red knots are known for their more than 9,300-mile annual migration, one of the longest-distance migrants in the animal kingdom. Conserving this parcel of land will ensure that the sensitive coastal habitat is protected for years to come.

Tracking birds on the go

Conserving bird habitat is vital for species conservation, but so is knowing where Alabama’s coastal birds are going and staying. A project to track seasonal movements and habitat use of two species of colonial wading birds is providing valuable information for future planning to restore wading bird species in Alabama still recovering from the Deepwater Horizon spill. The project relies on the use of electronic transmitters attached to captured birds.

The Colonial Nesting Wading Bird Tracking and Habitat Use Assessment project has been underway since last July. Biologists will use the information to better understand important colonial wading bird foraging, resting and nesting areas in coastal Alabama which will allow for more efficient and effective restoration.

“This project gives us an important way to understand the many impacts that affect colonial nesting wading bird populations, including human disturbances such as the Deepwater Horizon spill. The data provided through this project will help us to more effectively restore bird species injured by the spill,” said Kate Healy, a Service biologist who works in the Gulf restoration office.

16 hours ago

WBRC’s James-Paul Dice signing off after 26-year career in television

One of the most familiar faces on Alabama television is signing off the air tonight.

WBRC-TV’s James-Paul Dice has been the chief meteorologist at the Birmingham TV powerhouse for 13 of his 26-year career in television.

The beloved weatherman is starting a new career as a corporate pilot, flying Gulfstream IV business jets for Birmingham-based Drummond Company.

Dice will deliver his final weather forecast Friday night at 10 p.m. on WBRC TV Fox-6.

In a tweet, WBRC thanked Dice and wished him well on his new journey.

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18 hours ago

Gov. Ivey announces final recipients of Public School and College Authority bond

Governor Kay Ivey (R-AL) on Friday announced the remaining $23.5 million of the Public School and College Authority (PSCA) bond issue to five entities across the Yellowhammer State.

“I’m pleased to announce the more than $23.5 million to worthy infrastructural projects and upgrades to our educational facilities,” Governor Ivey said. “These remaining PSCA funds will make needed improvements to our public educational facilities, which will have a lasting impact on future generations of Alabamians. I am extremely grateful to Alabama’s retiring Finance Director Kelly Butler for his diligence on this project to ensure we are investing wisely in meaningful education and workforce efforts.”

“There is no question these dollars will provide a positive return on investment to the citizens of Alabama,” Kelly Butler said. “Despite the challenges of the last year, Governor Ivey and the members of the Alabama Legislature displayed great leadership by pursuing this important and meaningful initiative to transform our educational institutions.”

The PSCA projects announced today are as follows:

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University of Alabama:

The $16.5 million for the Smart Communities & Innovation Building will provide the critical research infrastructure for the transportation industry in Alabama. Ivey said the investment will position Alabama to be a national leader in innovation relating to mobility and be able to power and connect smart and resilient communities. This project will facilitate a public-private partnership between the state, the University of Alabama, Alabama Power Company and Mercedes-Benz U.S. International with the likelihood of additional partnerships in the near future.

Senators Greg Reed (R-Jasper), Gerald Allen (R-Northport) and Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro) applauded the announcement.

Reed says the investments will strengthen the state’s research efforts relating to automotive manufacturing.

“I fully believe that this investment by the state will modernize Alabama’s research and development in the next generation of electric vehicle technology in a manner responsive to industry and with an eye for future growth,” said Reed.

Allen praised the teamwork that was necessary to make the project come to fruition.

“This is great news for the Tuscaloosa community, the University of Alabama and our state as a whole,” said Allen. “A number of highly motivated people and organizations have come together and created a mission to set our state on a path towards a bright future in this important, fast-growing industry.”

Singleton says the investment will place the state in a strong position to supply global markets.

“Alabama will be on the forefront of this technology, which will lead to new and greener jobs for the people of our state,” said Singleton. “The international community is demanding battery-powered vehicles and this investment by the state will make West Alabama a global leader in this field.”

Snead State Community College:

$4 million to assist in establishing a regional workforce training center in Marshall County.

Talladega County Schools:

$1.75 million to create the East Alabama Rural Innovation and Training Hub.

Alabama A&M University:

$508,754.17 to be applied toward various capital improvement and deferred maintenance projects.

Alabama State University:

$763,600.00 for the Southern Normal School in Brewton (Escambia County) is the oldest African-American boarding school in Alabama. This investment will provide immediate improvements to seven buildings on the campus.

During the 2020 State of the State, Governor Ivey announced her support of SB 242, the PSCA Bond Issue for public schools to use toward construction, safety improvement or technology upgrades. The PSCA is comprised of Governor Kay Ivey, State Finance Director Kelly Butler and Alabama Superintendent of Education Dr. Eric Mackey.

SB 242 authorized the PSCA to sell up to $1.25B in bonds and allocated money to every city and county K-12 school system and to higher education institutions. 73% of the funds went to K-12 schools and 27% to two-and four-year colleges.

Due to low interest rates, the bond sale resulted in the PSCA receiving over $300 million in premium revenues. The true interest cost of the bonds is 2.145% over the 20-year repayment period.

Dylan Smith is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News