Lauderdale and Colbert counties in northwest Alabama are known as The Shoals — where the cities of Florence, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield and Tuscumbia are nestled along the beautiful Tennessee River.
The hydroelectric power coming from the river at this junction has historically drawn industry to the area, going back to the TVA, and manufacturing still has a strong hold in the area — in such major employers as North American Lighting, Wise Alloys, SCA Tissue North America, Southwire and relative newcomers Navistar and FreightCar America.
In the last year, however, manufacturing jobs have taken a hit in the Shoals. Hillshire Brands and furniture companies HON Co. and izzy+ have announced plans to close, with a loss of more than 1, 500 jobs.
In response, the two counties’ single economic development agency, the Shoals Economic Development Authority, has hosted job fairs and has a program in place that encourages employers to fill positions they have been hesitant to fill because of the economy.
“This gives them a direct cash inducement to hire someone so that we can keep working people working, ” says Forrest Wright, president of SEDA.
That agency has also just completed the purchase of both counties’ industrial parks for better marketing and cooperation.
“We own and market the parks, so that we can concentrate all our efforts towards the goal of getting people to work, ” says Wright.
The U.S. Department of Commerce announced in August that it will give $200, 000 in grants to two North Alabama organizations to support economic recovery in the Tennessee Valley, including the Northwest Alabama Council of Governments in Muscle Shoals, which will use the funds to develop new strategies to recover from the major job losses.
Even with the shocks of the closings and layoffs, there are 600 more people working in manufacturing in the Shoals than there were last year, Wright says. Those jobs come mostly from existing companies that have announced major expansions, including North American Lighting.
“We are not only recruiting, we are helping the industries we already have here, ” says Wright. “We have a pretty diverse economy — to experience these types of announcements and still be able to move forward speaks well of our community.”
Lori Chandler Pruitt is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.
text by Lori Chandler Pruitt