The Shoals area has several programs that work to increase collaboration and partnerships to build a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation among students, budding entrepreneurs and existing business owners.
Shoals Alabama Launchpad, a competitive program that nurtures startup businesses, has awarded thousands in grants. The Shoals Business Incubator, open since 1992, has nurtured more than 150 young businesses and created more than 1,500 jobs. And Shoals Shift works to expand the area’s digital technology cluster and build a tech hub.
Also, Remote Shoals has kicked off its fourth round. The program started in 2019 to attract remote tech workers from around the country to relocate to the Shoals. An initiative of the Shoals Economic Development Authority, the program offers the winners up to $10,000 to relocate. To date, the initiative has had more than 3,000 applicants.
The Shoals has a diverse manufacturing base, and in recent years has grown in sectors such as automotive and metals. Those sectors are still highly sought after by local economic developers.
North American Lighting, which makes automotive lighting fixtures, is the Shoals’ largest manufacturer and recently expanded. Aluminum producer Constellium ranks second.
Other large automotive and metals industries include Southwire Company, TASUS-Alabama, Southeastern Extrusion & Tool, Mid-South Extrusion Die, Project XYZ and Bigbee Steel Buildings. New to the mix this year is Dura Automotive Systems, which makes EV battery enclosures.
Other major employers represent wood and flooring products, paper/plastic products, caskets, fireworks, fertilizer and protein processing.
Shoals Economic Development Authority (SEDA) owns all nine industrial parks in the Shoals, a move that streamlines marketing for the area. Several are designated as Economic Development Partnership of Alabama AdvantageSites. SEDA also develops spec buildings to be ready for new and expanding industry.
From a half-cent sales tax, the Shoals Economic Development Fund offers incentives and other help to industry, industrial park improvements, spec buildings and more. It also has helped new and existing companies with job creation through its Employment Growth Program.
The Florence-Lauderdale County Port Authority is a public port authority established as a special district of the city of Florence and Lauderdale County. It operates a 45-acre lease-hold port on the Tennessee River, with various tenants operating its terminals.
The authority recently moved its office from the Shoals Center for Economic Development into a new headquarters office at the port.
Port tenants include American Metal Chemical Corp., Alabama Farmers Co-op, McDaniel Service LLC, RMB Marine Service, Alliance Sand and Tennessee Southern Railroad. Port officials say the port handles an average of 500,000 tons of cargo each year. Those companies served by the port account for about 2,000 jobs and an $80 million payroll.
The port is in the midst of a $1.99 million dredging project to provide year-round port access. The project is expected to be finished by fiscal year 2023.
Northwest Alabama Regional Airport in Muscle Shoals, owned by Lauderdale and Colbert counties, also is an economic driver and is the sixth largest commercial service airport in the state, according to a 2020 economic impact study prepared for the Aviation Council of Alabama. That study estimates a
$10 million annual impact and a 202 jobs impact. Plans call for a new hangar and other improvements.
The Shoals is home to the rich history of the Muscle Shoals Sound — with studios that have made history with their recordings. Their impact is still being felt in the area, and the Shoals Economic Development Authority has launched a new incentive plan for those who wish to record or film in the area.
Program recipients will receive up to a 30% reimbursement of their budget if recording in Lauderdale or Colbert counties. “We are a point of contact and support for them to come here and for the possibility of reimbursement incentives,” says Kevin Jackson, president of the SEDA. “This is an economic development program as well.”
Tourism is a major industry here. That’s due to not only the area’s music heritage but also to the Helen Keller Festival, the W.C. Handy Music Festival, the Tuscumbia Depot, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home and an annual Trail of Tears commemoration, along with golf, tennis and sports tourism.
The Shoals region stretches along the Tennessee River. To build on that natural attraction, local governments are beefing up riverwalks, adding access for kayaking and canoeing, and more.
The two counties are at the hub of a tri-state corridor, so retail is also big business here. Several cities are adding downtown amenities to boost retail and related tourism.
This sector is very well represented in the Shoals economy. Hospitals are among the largest employers in the counties, and this sector continues to grow.
Patients are served by North Alabama Medical Center in Florence, and its sister hospital, North Alabama Shoals Hospital in Muscle Shoals. Helen Keller Hospital is in Sheffield.
The Shoals has three institutions of higher learning, and secondary education is a large economic driver.
The University of North Alabama in Florence is one of the largest employers in Lauderdale County. Also in Lauderdale County is the private Heritage Christian University in Florence.
Likewise, in Colbert County, Northwest-Shoals Community College is one of the county’s largest employers. The school has a campus in the Shoals and another in Phil Campbell.
August 2022: Ground is broken for a new Veterans Affairs clinic in Sheffield, which will double space for treating veterans and add 18 patient rooms, three telehealth rooms and other new services.
August 2022: Construction is expected to begin soon on the Lauderdale County Agricultural Event Center in Florence, a $50 million project created by legislative act. The facility is expected to generate $31 million yearly in economic impact and provide 269 jobs.
August 2022: Bank Independent, founded in Colbert County 75 years ago, announces plans to build an operations center in Muscle Shoals, an investment of more than $60 million. It will be built on 50 acres of former TVA property. Groundbreaking for the four-level complex is planned for spring 2023.
June 2022: The Shoals Music Makers Recording Incentive launches, offering approved music and film makers up to 30% off their production cost if recording and filming are done in the Shoals.
June 2022: The Northwest Alabama Regional Airport receives a nearly $3 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant to help it improve safety and runway lighting. Construction also is about to start on a
$5.2 million hangar at the airport.
April 2022: North American Lighting Inc., the largest manufacturing employer in the Shoals, celebrates its newest expansion in Muscle Shoals, doubling the size of its warehouse and adding 100 jobs. To date, the company has invested more than $265 million and created more than 1,400 jobs.
February 2022: The Remote Shoals program, which offers incentives for remote workers to relocate to the Shoals, is renewed for the fourth time.
February 2022: Kith Kitchens, based in Haleyville, celebrates the opening of its cabinet manufacturing facility in Florence. The $14 million investment will bring about 250 new jobs.
January 2022: Dura Automotive Systems celebrates the grand opening of its high-tech manufacturing site for EV battery enclosures in Muscle Shoals. The $75 million investment is the third new factory for EV battery structures in 18 months. It creates about 270 manufacturing jobs.
October 2021: The Shoals Economic Development Authority receives an Excellence in Economic Development Award from the International Economic Development Council in the category of Innovation Programs and Initiatives. The silver award honors SEDA’s Remote Shoals project.
April 2021: The Florence-Lauderdale County Port Authority opens a $600,000 home office at the port to help bring the authority closer to the port operations.
This article appeared in the October 2022 issue of Business Alabama.