People in Valley, Alabama, have lots of reasons to smile.
“I am very proud of how far we have come,” said Valley Mayor Leonard Riley. “I’m just proud of our community and the fact that we’re growing. “
Pride and growth were hard to find here 13 years ago. In May 2008, the last of several large textile factories closed, pushing the unemployment rate in the eastern Alabama city to over 22%.
“We had about 12,000 employees in textiles in 1988,” said Riley. “When the last 1,800 were laid off in 2008, it was just sad. “
Valérie Gray, Executive Director of the Chambers County Development Authority (CCDA), remembers the pain. A native of Chambers County, she returned home 10 years before the collapse to recruit businesses in the region.
“2006 to 2009 was one of our darkest days,” Gray said. “Thousands of people have lost their jobs – thousands of people that I know, that we went to church with, to school with, things like that. It almost tore us apart.
Rather than walking on water amid tears, the region rallied. Gray said she and others across the county have banded together, encouraging businesses and investors to look at their hidden gem midway between Atlanta and Montgomery.
“It really energized me to really make a difference,” Gray said. “When I talk to people in our area, I tell them about our resources: our three exits on Interstate 85, our available water resources, our large utility bases such as electricity, infrastructure, water, sewage, gas and now the most important broadband. We are looking to develop some rural areas in our county to make them competitive so that we can not only recruit industries here, but maybe people want to relocate from the hustle and bustle of big cities, and they can work remotely and s ‘set up in some of our small rural towns.
Hard work paid off. In 12 years, the unemployment rate in the Valley has fallen to 2.6%, thanks in large part to the arrival of Kia Engines near West Point, GA and many auto parts suppliers such as AJIN United States.
“This is a testament to our people,” said Bruce Emfinger, Chairman of the Board of Directors of CCGD. “We were able to fight in a difficult period and we came back faster than many communities. It is a testament to our leadership, and it is only a testament to this area.
VARIOUS WORKFORCE OPPORTUNITIES
Despite the huge economic successes gained from auto manufacturing, leaders in Valley and Chambers County say the painful scars of job losses in the textile industry are a constant reminder to maintain a diverse industrial base. These memories are what fueled efforts to recruit other companies such as Norbord Alabama (now Fraser West), Knauf insulation and WestRock.
“The first project I ever announced was Norbord,” one of the largest manufacturers of oriented strand board (OSB) in the country, said Gray. “I really didn’t realize how important a deal this was until, after it was announced, all the local loggers and the local people who were going to support the factory started talking. That’s when it turned out – a real diversification of your industrial base – that made the difference.
The most recent industry to come to Valley is John Soules Foods, a food processing company based in Tyler, Texas. The company is spending more than $ 100 million to refurbish an abandoned 266,000 square foot textile factory.
“All the robotics that the company is putting in place is just amazing,” Riley said. “I have never seen so much change in a building. We are very happy to have them here.
[RELATED: John Soules Foods launches Alabama expansion]
The plant will employ more than 400 people when fully operational – jobs, according to Riley, will uplift families and the region.
“You can see the difference in our community,” said Riley. “We need good jobs that provide a good quality of life. This is what we recruit. We are recruiting an industry that pays well to improve the standard of living in our community.
In addition to industrial recruiting, Valley and Chambers County leaders are also focused on workforce development. Montray Thompson, Director of Valley High School, said career planning is very different from what it was as a teenager.
“I remember years ago, if you were smart or got good grades, you weren’t scheduled for any career tech course,” Thompson said. “Today, it’s just the opposite. You learn a trade in high school that is geared towards your interests, so you know what it looks like and how you feel. You know what to expect. I think career technology is the best avenue for this.
Thompson added that a consistent and concerted effort by faculty, staff and parents to help students is starting to pay off.
“It can’t be just one person,” Thompson said. “It has to be a collaborative effort. We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result over time. I feel like I’m guided by faith on all of this. We need to be able to build on what we have and not go in the opposite direction.
QUALITY OF LIFE
Valley leaders will quickly tell you that their 41-year-old town is one of the best places to live in the country – a statement backed by 24/7 Wall Street, a national financial reporting body that Valley classified in 2019 as the best city in Alabama to live. Valley was praised for its low cost of living and also for being selected as a pilot town for the Alabama Communities of Excellence program (ACE). ACE is a non-profit organization that partners with governments, businesses and universities to prepare participating communities for a more vibrant future.
“Partnerships are vital for a community like ours,” said Emfinger. “Without a Alabama Power, without Boom gas, without our local water authorities – without this partnership things could not happen because we could not at all afford to do it just through the development authority or just through the cities or simply by the county. It takes a team to make these things happen.
These partnerships are helping Valley solve a great need for available housing. The city at the end of last year approved a plan through Holland houses to build up to 350 new residences on the west side of town, a plan, according to Holland Homes president and CEO Dan Holland, has come about in large part due to the relationship with Alabama Power.
“The Alabama Power team were very critical at the start of this,” Holland said. “They put us in touch and we went to meet the town of Valley and we are now in partnership with them. It’s really cool.”
Holland says the new homes will be “smart homes” developed in cooperation with Alabama Power Smart District™ and will also include a vibrant community downtown with restaurants, cafes, parks and an amphitheater.
“We just love to create a quality product that not only changes where people live, but also their way of life,” said Holland. “It will be something that will help not only the people who live in the community, but the surrounding communities as well. This will start to change and raise the bar for what housing looks like in Chambers County. “
The city is also geared towards recreation. Kilometers of hiking trails crisscross the city and around the immense Sports Complex, a complex comprising several baseball and softball fields, tennis courts, a football stadium, two gymnasiums, handball fields and a swimming pool. Residents can also enjoy fishing or boating in the nearby Chattahoochee River.
“We have an extensive recreation program,” said Riley. “I feel like we are taking the right steps. “
RESISTANCE WOVEN IN
So how do a city and its neighbors turn despair into fortune? Gray said it starts with the desire to work hard.
“People say all the time that they are envious of our success,” Gray said. “We really watch it because it’s just hard work.”
The willingness to work with neighboring municipalities in the region has also helped spur growth, Riley added.
“The town of Valley was fighting with everyone,” Riley said. “We have never worked with anyone, but since becoming mayor, we have reached out to every community, and we work with everyone because you can’t progress and you can only move forward if you work together. “
This spirit of cooperation has led to a joint effort between Valley, Lanett and Chambers County to build a new terminal at Lanett Municipal Airport and lengthen the runway, making it long enough for business jets.
“It’s been a long project, but it’s going to put us in competition and give us an advantage over a lot of places in the state with our length of track,” said Emfinger. “We can attract the business here. We are ready to grow.
Gray said the project is just the latest in a series of examples that show the region’s currency in action.
“When you walk into our community, you see the ‘Force woven into ‘ logo in some form, form or fashion in the logos of all the different entities, ”Gray said. “We are working together to improve this place. You can see the difference in our community.
(Courtesy of Alabama News Center)