Spotlight on Jackson, Marshall, DeKalb and Cherokee Counties

Jackson, Marshall, DeKalb and Cherokee counties enjoy a great location in northeast Alabama. Close to Huntsville’s successful high-tech community and opportunities in Tennessee and Georgia, the region enjoys a mix of outdoors adventure and economic vitality.

The counties are crisscrossed by major highways but still offer unsurpassed natural beauty with Lake Guntersville — one of the top five bass fishing lakes in the world — plus Little River Canyon, Weiss Lake and 18 mountain gaps that show gorgeous views of Sand Mountain and Lookout Mountain.

In fact, tourism is a very bright spot here — the number one economic engine for most of the region with another big year expected in 2014. Lake Guntersville is the site of the Bassmasters Classic fishing tournament in February. Hotel rooms throughout the area are booked, and the economic impact will be felt in a big way, officials say.

“We are very excited about this, ” says Matt Arnold, president and CEO of the Marshall County Economic Development Council. “It could bring about 40, 000 people into the area during that week.”

Yet, the region also has a diverse economy when it comes to manufacturing, business and industry. Automotive suppliers have located, expanded and hired hundreds; agriculture is still significant — both in row crops and poultry processing. Throw in health care, distribution, reemerging textile companies and high-tech, and it represents a good, diverse mix.

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The counties also are looking to capitalize on their proximity to Huntsville by working to attract cybersecurity firms, Arnold says. Jackson County, Marshall County and the cities of Guntersville, Scottsboro, Arab and Huntsville have formed an initiative called “cyber symbiotics” to help attract larger companies involved in data centers and cybersecurity.

“It’s an up-and-coming industry that North Alabama can be a player in, ” Arnold says.

The area’s school systems have jumped on board with community colleges and economic development agencies to assist with developing a workforce that can handle all types of jobs. For example, the Marshall County Technical School serves students not only in the Marshall County school system, but other cities as well, exposing students to different careers and allowing them to get a head start.

And county and city governments are partnering to develop more industrial and business parks, along with attracting industry. Regional cooperation is key here. For example, Guntersville’s Conners Island business park is set to support data centers, engineering firms and light manufacturing companies. Several parks have the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama AdvantageSite designation, and some have the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Primary Data Center location designation, as well.

Some of the counties are beefing up their airports, including Guntersville Municipal Airport, which will receive a new 5, 000-foot runway, sea plane operations and a floating dock. “This project will go on for several years, ” says Grant DeMuth, economic development director for the city of Guntersville. “The city has purchased 18-20 parcels of land and now we are ready to build. The current runway has 3, 200 feet. We also are in the design process for a new terminal building and more hangars.”

Cherokee County also has beefed up its Centre-Piedmont-Cherokee County Regional Airport, says Luanne Hayes, executive director of the Cherokee County Industrial Development Authority. The airport will soon have its own fuel facility, along with other improvements.

TVA’s plan to complete Unit 1 of Bellefonte Nuclear Plant, near Scottsboro, is on hold, a setback to the area that expected a huge boom in construction, housing and more. But TVA has a nuclear training center in Jackson County, where thousands of outage workers must train each year.

“The Bellefonte project is scaled back for now, but it hasn’t affected the training center, ” says Dus Rogers, executive director of the Jackson County Economic Development Authority. “It’s doing well and has had some good economic impact on the area.”

Lori Chandler Pruitt is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham. 

Text by Lori Chandler Pruitt

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