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In Abbeville, a potential model for rural economic development

Photo credit: Jay Hare, Dothan Eagle

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

The old WestPoint Pepperell mill in Abbeville, Alabama is a long, greyish white structure that stretches two city blocks in all directions at the corner of State Highway 27 and U.S. 431. 

For many southerners, the building’s long, column-stilted concrete exterior is familiar. Textile giant WestPoint Pepperell dotted the Alabama, Georgia, and Carolina landscape with dozens of similar-looking mills during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s when the industry was still booming. Cotton was plentiful and the labor was relatively cheap, as was the power from hydroelectric dams in places like the Chattahoochee River Valley. And while the buildings were spartan and austere on the outside, the inside housed the beating economic heart of their communities. 

But over time, a different kind of familiar sight began to set in. In the mid-2000s, WestPoint, now merged and reincorporated as WestPoint Stevens, began moving the manufacturing of many of its popular bedding brands overseas.  Mills once humming with thousands of workers slowly shuttered throughout the South, and the ridge-lined exterior walls turned to empty shells, the leftover fossils of industries that once sustained families and hometowns. 

Here in Abbeville, the plant where workers made bedsheets and pillowcases began to close in 2007. More than 1,400 employees were forced to find work elsewhere, not an easy task in rural Alabama, especially once the Great Recession set in. 

Abbeville’s story ultimately has a happy ending, or at least they are getting there.  But countless other rural Alabama towns face similar situations and few, if any, have a Jimmy Rane. 

“It was a real live depression here,” said Rane, CEO of Great Southern Wood Preserving, the homegrown lumber business he has built into a major corporation. 

It was Rane’s father who originally helped recruit WestPoint from New England to Henry County over spaghetti suppers with company executives in his family restaurant. 

“Just imagine a community of 3,000 people losing 1,400 jobs. That affected more than the population of the entire town.”

State Rep. Dexter Grimsley, D-Abbeville, who has represented Henry County and part of neighboring Houston County in the Alabama Legislature since 2010, said the plant closing exacerbated existing economic problems. 

“It wasn’t just West Point Stevens,” Grimsley said. “Abbeville used to be a thriving town with four or five of these manufacturing type industries, but a lot of them closed up and moved away. That left us with a whole lot of needs as a community.” 

Having tried unsuccessfully to re-purpose the mill, WestPoint Stevens explored selling the facility for salvage, with its inner metals broken down and sold for scrap. 

Finding that unacceptable, Rane stepped in. 

“I got them on the phone and said ‘you have no idea what this building means to my little town. You tear it down, and it’s the last chance we are ever going to have to bring in a big industry down here,’” Rane said. “They told me if I would pay them what the salvage company was going to pay, they’d sell it to me. I told the guy, ‘buddy, I don’t know how the hell I’m going to do that, but I’m going to do it.’” 

After Rane acquired the building, a painstaking effort to redevelop the old mill and bring the jobs back began. It involved local leaders, including from Houston County, as well as state officials spanning multiple governor’s administrations. 

“We’ve had to think regionally,” Grimsley said. “What’s good for Abbeville and Headland can be good for Dothan, and vice versa. I think everyone began to understand that.”

Now, more than a decade later, on a hot, rainy, late summer morning, this small town of Abbeville is gathering in that mill to proudly celebrate the opening of Abbeville Fiber, a state-of-the-art sawmill that will supply the timber to Rane’s famous YellaWood pressure treated pine lumber factories. 

Gov. Kay Ivey joins Jimmy Rane and officials in cutting the ribbon on the new Abbeville Fiber sawmill. (contributed)

The new sawmill will create 115 jobs, only a fraction of the 1,400 that left. Even so, there’s an inescapable sense of triumph in the muggy air. There’s a marching band from Marion Military Institute, Rane’s alma mater. The governor is here, as are the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, and two congressmen. Many of those 115 employees are here, too, dressed in white uniforms and seated alongside a who’s who crowd of Alabama’s political and business leadership. 

Everyone is celebrating a long-awaited victory for this rural town in the Southeast corner of the state. They are here because this long, column-stilted building along the highway in Henry County won’t be torn down or left to rot like so many others. Rather, it has been refurbished and repurposed into a new industry buzzing with opportunity and hope for its hometown. 

Challenges for rural economic development in Alabama aren’t new or novel, but recent approaches to fixing them are.

Rural Challenges 

“You could say I have a real passion for rural Alabama,” says Gov. Kay Ivey as she rides along Highway 27 en route to the Abbeville Fiber ribbon cutting. 

Out the car window passes the waterlogged country of Henry County, with its peanut fields, barns, silos and an occasional homeplace. We pass through Headland, a quintessential Southern small town whose white, paint-chipped water tower stands as metaphor for a place that has seen better days. 

Ivey grew up in Wilcox County, one of the state’s poorest and least populous areas on the southern edge of the Black Belt. She recalls that rural places like her hometown of Camden faced barriers to economic development back then. 

“The only manufacturing we had was MacMillan-Bloedel that came in the mid-60s. Other than that, it was merchants and farming.

“So yeah, jobs were sparse.”

Even amid a record low unemployment rate of 3.1%, some of Alabama’s most rural counties remain well above the state average. Wilcox has the highest at 7.5%, Greene is next at 7%, Perry sits at 6.7% and Dallas is fourth worst at 6.4%. 

Those also happen to be counties with some of the highest African American populations. Black unemployment in Alabama is 6.9% while White unemployment is 2.8%. 

Since taking office in April 2017, Ivey has quietly sought to bring a renewed focus to boosting economic development in rural areas. It’s hard sometimes to compete for attention from some of the larger projects near cities: Mazda and Toyota are building a massive joint assembly plant in Huntsville; Airbus just added a new aircraft assembly line in Mobile; Facebook and Google are locating data centers in North Alabama; Amazon is building a distribution center in Bessemer; and Shipt is locating its headquarters in downtown Birmingham. But Ivey has challenged the Department of Commerce, the state’s economic development arm, to look beyond the Interstate 65 corridor to recruit jobs in rural communities. 

“Small towns are wonderful places to raise children and have good neighbors,” Ivey says.

“Folks in rural Alabama need jobs, too. But a lot of these folks in rural counties don’t know who to contact or what the process is.”

That’s why the Department of Commerce recently created a new position to directly and specifically manage rural economic development efforts. Brenda Tuck, who previously spent 20 years working as a local economic developer in rural areas, started in August. 

“To be honest, I was one of those local economic developers who for the last 20 or so years was asking for this position to be created, so be careful what you ask for, I guess,” Tuck says with a laugh. 

She’s a busy woman these days, with a new directive from the governor, new legal tools to aid her efforts, and more interest from various partners in rural development than perhaps ever before. Still, the challenges facing many rural places are the same: the lack of infrastructure, of a trained workforce or local organization. 

“Infrastructure is the piece that a lot of times we struggle with because a lot of our rural communities are not on an interstate, they may not have rail nearby, and they may not even have a four lane road,” Tuck said of the challenges of recruiting job-creating businesses to rural areas. 

“There’s a lot of available land in rural areas, as opposed to metropolitan areas. The questions are can the land be acquired at a reasonable cost? Is it the type of land we need, and does it have access to infrastructure? Is there natural gas nearby? Is there sewer nearby? Trying to get all that infrastructure in place that a corporation would need can be challenging.”

A renewed focus on developing rural areas would be welcome news to State Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, who represents a mostly rural, mostly African American district in west central Alabama. 

“What some people in other areas might take for granted, like clean water or having a hospital nearby, in a lot of rural places we’re having to fight for some of those things. We’re having to fight for clean water and working sewers and to keep hospitals open. How can you recruit a company if you don’t have those things?” Singelton said.

There has been some recent momentum on the rural development front. According to the Department of Commerce, 2018 saw $1.8 billion invested in rural Alabama that created some 1,100 new jobs. 

Singleton noted that biomass company Enviva is close to a decision to locate a $125 million wood pellet plant in Sumter County, Alabama’s 8th smallest county that has been steadily losing population. 

“They’re going to bring in anywhere from 60-80 jobs. That’s going to be a real spark, and maybe one of the first we have landed in the Black Belt area since we updated the incentives.”

Among the other recent rural economic development wins include:

  • Rex Lumber just opened a $110 million sawmill in Pike County that will bring 66 jobs to the area;
  • Golden Dragon’s Copper recently completed a $3.5 expansion of its Wilcox County manufacturing facility and bringing total employment there over 300;
  • Lockheed Martin just broke ground on a 100-worker hypersonic missile facility in Courtland in Lawrence County;
  • Georgia Pacific is investing $110 million in its Cherokee County tissue paper plant which will sustain the 900 jobs it supports;
  • International Paper is investing more than $550 million in its plant near Selma, signalling the 700-worker facility will remain open and productive for years to come; and:
  • The Alabama Farmers Agriculture Foundation recently chose Clanton as the site of the new Alabama Farm Center, a 5,000 seat, 150,000 square foot, event facility that will attract rodeos, dog shows and festivals. The facility could create as many as 400 jobs and contribute $55 million annually in economic impact. 

From updating economic incentives to expanding access to broadband internet, state lawmakers are trying to give developers more tools to level the playing field for rural areas. 

Updating the law 

Economic incentives like tax abatements and infrastructure investments have long been part of Alabama’s economic development model. In 1993, the state offered Mercedes $293 million worth of incentives to locate its assembly plant near Tuscaloosa, and since then state and local governments have continued to use incentives to lure national and international companies and the jobs they bring.

During the 2019 legislative session, state lawmakers passed a measure amending the state’s incentives laws to help boost development in rural areas. Previously, only counties with a population of under 25,000 could qualify for targeted rural development incentives. Now, that limit is 50,000, opening up at least 13 new counties and 40 total counties to targeted incentives and grants. 

The bill, dubbed the Alabama Incentives Modernization Act, also created a new class of “jumpstart” counties that have experienced negative population growth over the past five years and lowered the threshold of the jobs created to access incentives from 25 to 10. 

“In a lot of rural places, projects don’t often roll in offering 50 jobs. But they might offer eight or ten jobs, and in a place like Thomaston or Abbeville, that’s a lot,” said State Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, who sponsored the AIM bill. 

Incentives bill to target rural and struggling urban areas

The legislation also allows local economic development organizations to apply for infrastructure or capital improvements at industrial parks, and it opened up incentives for companies bringing jobs in the tech and agriculture sectors. 

“We really tried to say, ‘let’s think about our rural areas and let’s enable rural areas to take advantage of these incentive programs by opening it up to critical industry sectors, decreasing the jobs threshold, and expanding the number of eligible rural counties’.” 

The legislature also passed two bills aimed at expanding access to high-speed broadband internet. One amends a grant program to make economically realistic for companies to run cable to rural areas and the other allowed utilities to piggyback fiber-optic lines on their existing labyrinth of electricity infrastructure. In August, Central Alabama Electric Cooperative announced it was laying 400 miles of fiber optic lines to connect a 5,000-square-mile service area consisting of rural counties. 

Singleton played a role in advancing both broadband bills because he sees it as a way to open up his Black Belt district to opportunities that high-speed internet brings. 

“If you think about it, a lot of rural, poor areas in this state have been shut off to the world. It won’t happen overnight, but getting these communities more access to broadband is going to open them up to the world. It’s another tool in the toolbox,” Singelton said. 

Poole, who chairs the powerful Education Ways and Means Committee in the House, stressed that the state must continue working to improve education quality to compete for jobs, whether in rural or urban areas. Connecting schools and neighborhoods to broadband will help, as will a continued focus on improving reading and math scores, he said. 

“We have to make sure we have high-quality K-12 education opportunities. If we want people to move back to those areas, stay in in those areas and raise families there, we have to make sure we have quality education options,” Poole said. 

“There are a lot of quality of life advantages in rural Alabama, but we’ve got to make sure there are education opportunities and job opportunities for people to prosper. That’s tough because there are multiple variables to contend with, but we have to do it.” 

Developing a workforce 

Decades ago, when leaders discussed improving education, they mostly talked of advancing the state’s K-12 school system to allow more students the opportunity to go to college. But in recent years, more of the state’s focus has shifted to helping students become aware of and interested in careers in the trades. The jobs pay well, in some cases better than the average right-out-of-college salary, and they don’t come with decades of debilitating student debt. 

Of course, the state’s efforts are intended to help individual students succeed. But they are also aimed at building a workforce that companies are looking for when locating a new facility. 

The Alabama Workforce Council has consolidated a network of disparate job training structures into a streamlined workforce development system. Branded as AlabamaWorks, the system is aimed to “recruit, train, and empower a highly skilled workforce driven by business and industry needs and to be the competitive advantage for Alabama’s economic growth.”

Earlier this year, Ivey upped the ante by announcing an ambitious goal: the state would add or identify 500,000 new workers to the Alabama workforce by 2025. 

Nick Moore leads those policy efforts as Coordinator of the Governor’s Office of Education and Workforce Training. Having attended Enterprise State Community College out of high school before graduating from Harvard University, Moore has a unique combination of real-world experience in how Alabama’s Community College System works and an understanding of the policy adjustments required to make workforce development successful. 

“That attainment goal – adding 500,000 new workers – is all about equity,” Moore said. “The governor’s plan is all about developing human capital and reviving civil society in order to create career pathways in occupations that pay families sustaining wages.”

To get 500,000 newly-credentialed workers, state looks to undereducated, underemployed

Moore said the state can leverage federal dollars designated to reach rural populations and those stuck in poverty to help avoid what’s called a “benefit split” that could ultimately discourage people from entering the workforce.

“When someone that might be suffering through inter-generational poverty tries to seek paid employment, oftentimes the rug gets pulled out from under them and they start losing benefits. Whether it’s a child care tax credit or earned-income tax credit or SNAP or TANF benefits,  those are all means-tested, so if they go to work, they often lose those benefits before they are able to make enough money at work” he said.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, offers states a dollar-for-dollar reimbursement for funds spent training eligible citizens. The Alabama Workforce Council is also utilizing funds from the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act and the Workforce Opportunity Investment Act, both federal laws, to lower barriers to community college courses, such as transportation and financial aid. 

Getting every able worker off the sidelines and into the workforce is essential to meeting Ivey’s 500,000 goal, said Ed Castile, director of Alabama Industrial Development Training, or AIDT. His agency is charged with finding and training the workers for companies that do locate here. With record low unemployment, Castile’s team has had to get creative. 

“We’ve created what we call a recruiting department. Their only job is to recruit people who can be trained to work. We’re going to pull out every stop. We’re going to be at every job fair, knock on doors, and push our marketing hard to find those workers.”

Castile said these recruitment teams could be deployed to rural areas when needed to find workers in the community.

Sometimes it’s having a kiosk at the Walmart or going door to door. Whatever it takes to get in front of potential workers who could be trained for incoming jobs.”

The AlabamaWorks effort and the continued growth of the Alabama Community College System are making a difference in rural Alabama, according to Brenda Tuck. She specifically mentioned the regional “World of Work” job fairs that expose 8th grade students to career opportunities near home. 

“They are able to come in and talk to the executives from local business and industry, know what opportunities are there, know what kind of wages they can make. And it runs the gamut from health care to agriculture to manufacturing to hospitality – you name it and it’s there,” Tuck said. 

“We want those students to really know and understand what opportunities are around them. It goes toward that ‘brain drain’ that we talk about so much. Why would they want to go back and work in those communities if they don’t know what’s there?”

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All hands on deck

Do a little digging into Alabama’s efforts to develop rural Alabama and you’ll quickly notice how many organizations are involved in the process. Whether it is helping pass legislation on the state level or assisting with specific projects on the local level, several of Alabama’s major businesses, utilities, and organizations are working together. 

“One thing that is unique and interesting about our state is that we have a coalition that works together like no other,” said Seth Hammett, the former Alabama Speaker of the House who now chairs the Rural Committee of the Economic Development Association of Alabama. 

“In most states you see competition between entities. In this state, we work together.”

Hammett said he sees more cooperation and focus on rural development than any time in his 40 years in public life. He said Alabama Power Company, the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, the North Alabama Industrial Development Alliance, Southeast Alabama Gas District, Spire, Regions Bank, PowerSouth, and the Alabama Department of Commerce all formed a group called the Marketing Allies to coordinate efforts to sell the state to site selectors looking to locate businesses here. 

“We meet, we work together, we find ways in which we can cooperate. And we are working now specifically to see how we can emphasize rural development.” 

Poole, who passed his Alabama Incentives Modernization Act on the last day of the 2019 legislative session, specifically said Alabama Power, the Business Council of Alabama and the Alabama Farmers Federation were instrumental in helping him and the Department of Commerce get the bill over the finish line. 

“Ultimately, Alabama Power, ALFA, BCA came to me kind of airing some different topics together, recognizing that I had been working on these issues for a while. We built a framework and got something we were comfortable moving forward to passage,” Poole said. 

“Quite frankly, we were able to evolve (the state’s economic development law) pretty substantially.”

For energy companies, assisting communities with economic development makes business sense because it means more customers for their power or gas lines. 

Patrick Murphy, Alabama Power’s vice president of marketing and economic development, said teaming with the state and other entities has been “ingrained in Alabama Power’s culture for more than a century. The company was recently named one of the nation’s top utilities for economic development by Site Selection magazine. 

“Teamwork is key in economic development. Much of the success we’ve seen in Alabama over the past couple of decades has been due in a large part to partnerships with state, regional, local and fellow private-sector economic developers,” Murphy said. 

The PowerSouth Energy Cooperative serves customers in 39 of the 40 counties the state identifies as rural.

Taylor Williams is the Governmental Affairs and Economic Development Manager for the company. 

“The thing we preach at our company is that we want PowerSouth to be a sought-after resource for communities to turn to when they need assistance,” he said. 

“We are really emphasizing the community development piece. Our main focus is identifying new industrial or agribusiness sites in our 39 rural communities. You can market the state all you want, but if you don’t have anything to sell these companies in terms of an actual site, then you’re really just spinning your wheels and wasting money.”

A model for other areas?

Back in Abbeville, Rane continues to emphasize industry’s impact on local public institutions. 

“Did you see the chart?” he asks.

For the ceremony, Rane had placed a giant, ten-foot long poster charting the rise and fall of local tax collections, including the cratering out after the loss of West Point Pepperell. Gross sales tax receipts, the lifeblood for city services like fire and police protection, fell from about $60 million in 2006 to $42 million in 2010. By 2017, with construction running on the new sawmill, those collections recovered to over $65 million and then spiked to more than $85 million last year. 

“It’s what drives growth and prosperity. You can see the impact of when Abbeville Fiber started construction with over 100 contractors out here everyday. Just that bit of activity helped create that sales tax result,” Rane said. 

And it’s that sense of a rising tide lifting all boats in the community that gets at the essence of why this small town celebration is possible today. Rane has spent the last several years revitalizing Abbeville’s downtown, buying boarded-up storefronts one-by-one, repurposing them into businesses, civic clubs, and organizations affiliated with Great Southern. It floated the community through the Great Recession and kept more jobs from leaving. 

“People cannot move to Alabama and stay in Alabama if they don’t have a job, and I mean a good job,” Rane says.  

“Everything starts there. If we can provide jobs, everything else will take care of itself. People will go home, they’ll invest in their schools, they’ll invest in their churches, they’ll invest in their civic organizations, their parks. They will make life better because that’s where they are putting down their roots. But it starts with a job.”

That’s an anecdotal observation from Rane, and as one of Alabama’s preeminent businessmen, he would know. But Nick Moore says the Alabama Workforce Council has data proving it.

“We find that many people in Alabama have strong ties to their homeplace,” Moore said. 

“We have to recognize that if we develop career pathways that are predicated on human capital development, we are also going to develop geographic mobility. That’s going to allow young people to maybe go off and work in an ‘emerald city’ like Birmingham or Huntsville or elsewhere, but then later, at the right season of life, return to where they came from. 

“So what we need is an organic economic development system that allows people to perhaps go off to a larger city early in their careers, but then allows them to return home to work and reinvest in their communities at a later stage in their career pathway.” 

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Ivey has known Rane for more than 50 years since their time together at Auburn University in the 1960s. She noted that it probably would have made more business sense to locate the new sawmill elsewhere. 

“He could have chosen to put this sawmill anywhere in the state of Alabama or beyond, and it could have been easier for logistics. But, instead, he decided to put it in his hometown and invest,” she said. “Jimmy has always been a big believer in hometown, and Abbeville is a small hometown. It’s not just the mill. He’s done a lot of investing in downtown, buying shops and bringing business back downtown.

“I really do hope it can serve as a model for other areas, and we’re starting to see some of that,” Ivey says. 

Can that be? Can Abbeville’s success story become a model for other rural towns and counties about perseverance and working together? For other hometown industrialists on the value of investing in the community? 

Rane isn’t sure, but he hopes so. 

“I don’t know about trends, Todd. I just know about our company and our town. I do think we have a duty to be advocates for our hometowns and for our companies and for our fellow associates and employees to make sure they get their share of the economic revival experienced all over the state.

“You’re right in that it’s not uniform. Many times it seems centered around more populous areas, but there is much talent and many worthy people to be invested in in rural Alabama.”

“You have to have a purpose, and it isn’t money. It’s about what that sign says: Duty, Honor, and Country. Those are Abbeville values and they are worth preserving.”

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