Bessemer is booming

After decades of high unemployment, the city has become a hub of job creation.

Bessemer Mayor Kenneth Gulley. Photo by Art Meripol
Bessemer Mayor Kenneth Gulley. Photo by Art Meripol

Bessemer Mayor Kenneth Gulley smiles, shakes his head and laughingly laments at just how successful the city has been recently in attracting major corporations to the area.

“We’ve brought in all these companies that are offering starting salaries of $18 and $20 an hour, and now I’m struggling to retain city workers,” Gulley says. “This past July, we lost 20 workers in one month to other businesses around Bessemer. It’s a good thing for them because we want people to go out and make the money that helps them provide for their family. But on the flip side, we’ve become a victim of our own success to a certain degree.”

Of course, Gulley isn’t overly upset, because having so many well-paying jobs in town is certainly a good problem for a mayor to have. Indeed, Bessemer is booming in a way not seen since the 1960s, when the city piggybacked off the expansive Birmingham steel industry.

Over the past decade, Gulley says Bessemer has added more than 10,000 jobs, an amazing number for a city with a population of approximately 27,000. This surge began in 2011, a year after Gulley was first elected mayor, with the addition of a Dollar General warehouse that brought in nearly 700 jobs. “It’s been a ripple effect ever since,” Gulley says.

Indeed, other companies big and small have followed, most notably Amazon, which opened a 50,000-square-foot warehouse and fulfillment center in 2019 and created nearly 6,000 jobs. Ironically, according to Bessemer Industrial Development Board Managing Director Devron Veasley, the city’s ability to land the center stemmed from Birmingham’s unsuccessful bid in 2017 to be the site for Amazon’s second North American headquarters.

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“A lot of the demographic and marketing analysis was done on Jefferson County and the Birmingham metro area at that time,” Veasley says. “So, when Amazon planned to bring in a fulfillment center, there was already a lot of information out there that had been collected about Bessemer.

“When you bring in companies as large as Dollar General and Amazon, that puts you on the radar screen for others.”

It has been a busy radar for several years. Milo’s Tea Company, Carvana and Blox have all opened facilities in Bessemer; Lowe’s is nearing completion of a 1.2 million-square-foot distribution center; and TSF Sportswear recently broke ground on a new building.

“There aren’t many places in the whole country seeing this level of investment,” says Birmingham Business Alliance President Ron Kitchens, whose organization has assisted Bessemer officials in company recruitment.

It is a burst of activity that has been decades in the making. Bessemer fell on hard times in the 1980s after the closure of the Pullman Standard railcar factory. Unemployment soared to more than 35%, and approximately a quarter of the households in the city lived in poverty.

The situation gradually improved over the next 20 years, then accelerated once Gulley took office. He immediately began developing as many working relationships as possible — including with the Bessemer City Council, the Bessemer Industrial Development Board and the BBA — in order to recruit businesses to the area.

“That was one of my major objectives,” Gulley says. “Because if individuals are employed with salaries that can support their families, then you can change an entire community. Never again do I want to see Bessemer dependent on one employer or one industry.”

Kitchens says Bessemer has a number of qualities that are attractive to companies, especially when it comes to the creation of warehouses and distribution centers. The city sits adjacent to a major east-west interstate (I-20/59) and only a few miles from a significant north-south connector (I-65), as well as the I-459 Birmingham bypass. This provides ideal transportation logistics, with nine states within a five-hour drive.

In addition, despite the modest population, Bessemer has a whole lot of land — more than 40 square miles — and much of it is flat and empty. This makes it easy to create sprawling facilities that can hire hundreds and even thousands of employees.

“I feel like if we can get a company to the table, then we have enough to offer that we can close the deal,” Gulley says. “We’ll just sit down and talk with them about what their needs are, and then come together to see what we can do to make the relationship work.”

But as much as anything, Kitchens says the key to Bessemer’s success has been the willingness of various city officials to work together during the recruitment process.

“This is a case where demand met opportunity, which then met leadership,” Kitchens says. “The Bessemer team has really stepped up in incredible ways and professionalized their efforts. We’ve seen agile leadership from both government as well as the land-development brokerage community.”

Bob Sykes BBQ is a gathering spot in Bessemer, founded in 1957. Photo courtesy of Alabama Tourism Department/Art Meripol
Bob Sykes BBQ is a gathering spot in Bessemer, founded in 1957. Photo courtesy of Alabama Tourism Department/Art Meripol

Lifelong Bessemer resident Van Sykes agrees. As the current owner of Bob Sykes BBQ, which his father founded in 1957, Sykes has a different type of access to what’s going on in the city. Since the restaurant is old enough to have reached legendary status, even corporate executives often stop by for some good ol’ Southern BBQ when they’re in town.

“When Amazon first got here, some of their people came in for lunch, and I welcomed them to town and told them how much it meant to us,” Sykes recalls. “They said, ‘One of the reasons we settled on Bessemer is your mayor and council and everybody all seem to get along and work for the benefit of the community. We don’t see that everywhere.’

“So, I can’t say enough good things about this administration and people like (third-term City Council member) Ron Marshall. They have been incredibly good for the area.”

Naturally, growth also brings a new set of issues, especially in terms of traffic and the effect on housing. Gulley admits he has received some complaints, particularly from residents along Morgan Road, where several of the new larger facilities are located.

“A lot of people love Bessemer because of the simplicity. There is a hometown feeling here,” Gulley says. “We’re starting to have traffic issues in some areas. But we’re trying to leave things as undisturbed as possible so we don’t jeopardize the integrity of the community.”

Still, many of those who lived through Bessemer’s bad times will gladly accept some of the issues that might come along with economic growth.

“We’re seeing a lot more (customers) at lunch, and that’s a direct reflection of all these new businesses that are here,” Sykes says. “Everything is just growing for us right now. After being kind of stagnant for so long, we’ve been waiting for this time to come.”

Cary Estes and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Estes is based in Birmingham and Meripol in Hoover.

This article appears in the December 2021 issue of Business Alabama.

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