Sen. RIchard Shelby’s lasting legacy

Alabama business and education leaders reflect on Sen. Richard Shelby's impact on the state's burgeoning economy

Sen. Richard Shelby turns a shoveful of earth at the groundbreaking for Mobile’s new airport. Photo by Mike Kittrell.

If Alabama is prospering, thank retiring U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby.

That’s the refrain from the coast to the mountains among those responsible for economic and industrial development.

While representing the state in the U.S. Senate for six terms — 36 years — preceded by work as an attorney, roles in state government and eight years in the U.S. House of Representatives, Shelby has earned a reputation as one who can understand the issues, work across the aisle to get things done and look ahead with a clear vision of what the state can achieve in the future.

Ask in Huntsville, they’ll tell you his support of space and defense is critical to that entire region. Ask in Montgomery or Tuscaloosa or Lincoln or Huntsville, and they’ll tell you federal dollars for roads and public works made it possible to attract an automotive industry that thrives today in the state’s heartland. Ask at the universities and they’ll tell you that federal support helps educate today’s students to meet the needs of growing industries. And ask in Mobile and hear the story of phenomenal growth at the port — how it impacts the Port City and then jumps on trains and interstates and inland waterways to reach the whole Alabama economy.

And all of them will tell you that without Richard Shelby, the economy just wouldn’t be what it is today.

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Business Alabama asked key individuals around the state for their examples of Shelby’s impact. Here’s what they had to say.

Chip Cherry

President & CEO, Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce

“Sen. Shelby has been a blessing to us in the sense that he has the ability to see how the different pieces of the puzzle are scattered about and what can be brought together to benefit both the country and the state.”

Cherry’s favorite example is at Huntsville’s Redstone Arsenal, centerpiece of the space and defense work and more recently of the FBI’s Southern headquarters. “He saw the synergies between what was happening at Redstone and what the FBI was doing” and helped bring the FBI. The move “allows for collaboration among federal partners on the same campus,” he says.

Shelby, he says, “has been a strong advocate, informing his colleagues of the value of what happens at Redstone and making the case for how investment there benefits the entire country. And that benefits us as a region.”

“I believe in my heart that he’s more of a statesman than a politician — able to work across party lines to make a case and build consensus. That’s an unusual thing to happen in D.C. these days.”

Finis St. John IV

Chancellor, University of Alabama System

“Sen. Shelby recognized and strongly believed from early on in his career that education and higher education were the ways that the state could advance. He has been a tireless supporter of higher education, research, health care — all of which are integral to our mission at the University of Alabama System.

“It’s hard to list all the ways he’s helped advance our mission, but nobody in anyone’s memory has been more important to that.”

And why is higher education important to the state’s economy?

“It’s the pipeline for the people that execute our economy,” St. John says. “If we do a better job at generating that raw material, then every entity in the state is better off, every business, government, all areas of the economy do better with higher equality results from higher education.

“Every time you talk to a business leader right now, the biggest problem they face is workforce. Nobody has enough people and they don’t have qualified people. Not only are we trying to address that with Alabama students but also by bringing in out-of-state students and then working with government and industry to entice them to stay in Alabama.” 

Shelby’s influence goes well beyond higher education and research funding, St. John notes. “It hasn’t been piecemeal, but comprehensive.”

Shelby was a family friend as St. John was growing up, and he considers the senator “a dear friend, mentor and advisor, whose wisdom I’ve been very fortunate to benefit from for a long time.”

Greg Barker

President, Economic Development Partnership of Alabama

“We’re in a global economy right now, so having somebody like Sen. Shelby, who is a constant advocate for the right federal policies that position the United States for growth and as a good place to do business, that’s paramount.”

“He was an aggressive advocate for a wide range of elements that made the U.S. a better place to live and work. That’s where you start,” says Barker.

“When you think of business growth and development, you have to have the right infrastructure and that infrastructure is expensive. It takes federal money to build roads and water systems and everything.”  Shelby was particularly good at “making sure Alabama is aware of the federal programs and very competitive to be able to receive federal money and put it to good use for Alabamians.”

Sen. Richard Shelby, shown here in his official portrait, has represented Alabama in Washington, D.C., for 44 years.

Shelby, he says, “was a very distinguished and influential U.S. senator, and that put him in a lot of interesting rooms with interesting people — and he was consistently an advocate for Alabama, suggesting that people consider it for future growth for their company.”

Barker especially respects the senator’s role in getting roadbuilding funds that enabled the establishment of Mercedes-Benz U.S. International in Tuscaloosa County and water system funding that enabled the Honda plant in Talladega County.

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration at all to say that Alabama’s advanced manufacturing success — for the auto industry alone — is due to him.”

Greg Canfield

Secretary, Alabama Department of Commerce

“From my perspective, what’s most impressive about Sen. Shelby’s legacy in Alabama is his impact on Alabama’s economic engines and the infrastructure that drives our economy.”

Canfield calls out examples across the state — the port with the most container traffic in its history; the universities with expanding research that gives home-grown and out-of-state students the tools they need for knowledge-based careers; the support of NASA and Marshall Space Flight Center, saying, “He really helped firmly plant that flag for future growth in space and missile defense.”

Most recently, Canfield notes the choice of Huntsville for a new Southern FBI campus, which already has thoughts of expanding. “Having thousands of FBI employees in Huntsville is no small matter,” he says, with their high-wage, highly skilled jobs.

“He has taken a long view and a really broad view in his support and legacy,” Canfield says. “I don’t think people fully appreciate that legacy.”

John Driscoll

Director and CEO, Alabama Port Authority

Alabama’s seaport may be at the Southern tip of the state, but its impact is definitely statewide, says the port authority’s John Driscoll.

And thanks to Sen. Richard Shelby, that impact is growing by leaps and bounds.

Driscoll talks about Shelby’s vision, recalling the senator’s story about how he came to lead the charge for a bigger and stronger port. As Driscoll tells it, some 20 years ago, Sen. Shelby visited Singapore — a tiny Southeast Asian city-state with about the same population as Alabama. During the visit, he saw work in progress to deepen and widen port channels to attract more seaborne commerce — the lifeblood of the country’s economy.

And he thought, as Driscoll tells it, if Singapore can do it, why can’t Alabama?

After all, Mobile has been a seaport since the French arrived 300 years ago.

“We were a port, but not a major port able to handle changes in the industry as the Panama Canal got wider and deeper.” After talking with Jimmy Lyons, port director until his retirement two years ago, Shelby set port improvements as a priority for himself. Collaboration between local and federal officials scooted the project through permitting and funding hoops so that it began work last year and should be done in 2025 — ahead of schedule.

From the standpoint of the port itself, “the importance is generational. It allows this port to be on the map for many generations to come.” The improvements enabled by Shelby are “his signature development that he’s allowed us to move forward.”

The port’s impact isn’t limited to Mobile, Driscoll asserts. A recent study showed a three-fold increase in economic impact from 2019 to 2021 and links 313,000 jobs — one out of every seven in the state — to activity at the port. Beyond the channel improvements and repeated expansions to container handling, the port is at work now on an intermodal facility in Montgomery with direct rail access and has plans for another in Birmingham and perhaps yet another at the north end of the state.

“We are very fortunate to have powerhouses like Sen. Shelby who understand these things,” as well as local officials working together. “They see we can have a positive impact on the people who live here.”

What Sen. Shelby has done for the port — and therefore citizens across Alabama — Driscoll asserts, is nothing short of “phenomenal.”

Nedra Bloom is a writer-editor on the staff of Business Alabama and Mike Kittrell is a freelance contributor. Both are based in Mobile.

This article appears in the January 2023 issue of Business Alabama.

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