Jackson, Marshall, DeKalb and Cherokee counties in northeast Alabama are part of a tri-state area that includes Tennessee and Georgia, and close to the heart of the space program, Huntsville.
Crisscrossed by major highways for ideal economic development and blessed with unsurpassed natural beauty, the counties have the best of both worlds. They benefit from economic development in adjacent states and create their own in a pristine setting that attracts plenty of tourists — enough that tourism is one of the region’s largest economic engines. The area also hosts a diverse industrial base, ranging from agriculture to automotive suppliers to distribution and biotech.
“So much of our success rides on Huntsville, and its success buffers us from a lot of the unemployment woes that many have experienced, ” says Matt Arnold, president and CEO of the Marshall County Economic Development Council. “A large part of our population commutes to Huntsville, and we have a lot of very good jobs here, too. We believe this area is ripe for many more automotive suppliers and other industries.”
Arnold and Dus Rogers, president and CEO of the Jackson County Economic Development Authority, say the counties work well together on projects. And one of the biggest—expected to have a huge impact on the entire region—is the Tennessee Valley Authority’s plans to complete Unit 1 of Bellefonte Nuclear Plant near Scottsboro.
In fact, the region already is benefiting from TVA’s nuclear reactor training center in Jackson County, where thousands of workers are expected to receive training. Unit 1 represents the country’s first new nuclear power plant in decades. Long-term plans call for four reactors to be built at the site.
Officials hope to prepare the area workforce for the many permanent jobs that are expected when the reactor is online—about 650 so far, says Rick Roden, president and CEO of the Greater Jackson Chamber of Commerce. Many high school students already attend the Earnest Pruett Center for Technology, located adjacent to the industrial park, and the school works with community colleges and others to address the changing needs of industry.
“Fifty percent of TVA’s workforce has retired over the last five years, and no nuclear plants have been built in decades, so there will be a need to find qualified workers, ” Roden says. “We are already working early in our schools so that our kids can get a head start on that.” In fact, all the counties have workforce training programs in place.
There are several hundred workers there already on a temporary basis. Once construction begins, about 2, 800 workers will be living in the area for several months. Counties are working on building RV parks, apartments and other rental housing for those temporary workers, as well as ensuring there is enough housing for the permanent workers, Roden says. Hotels are full, and the chamber and the city benefit from the increase in lodging taxes. “The training center has already made a huge impact, ” he says. “There also is no question that with more development there will be a demand for more power. The TVA region is the fastest-growing, and we want to be a part of that growth.”
Some communities in the region are still recovering from April’s tornadoes, says Jimmy Durham, executive director of the DeKalb County Economic Development Authority. DeKalb lost 35 residents, the second-highest number of deaths within counties. “Some of our major industries have been able to come back, and we are continuing to work with others for recovery, ” he says.
Lori Chandler Pruitt is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.
By Lori Chandler Pruitt