Spotlight on Lauderdale & Colbert: Community Development

Economic growth continues as local officials make downtown improvements, encourage public-private partnerships and entice residents to the area

Big Bad Breakfast in Florence has been a staple in the community since 2008.

Lauderdale County

Construction has begun for the Lauderdale County Agricultural Event Center in Florence, a $50 million multi-use facility that includes an ag events center, expo hall, livestock arena, mixed-use development, and a vocational/career training facility in conjunction with local schools and colleges. It is expected to be finished in early 2023.

The center is expected to attract other economic growth, from hotels to retail. It is being funded by a 2-cent gas tax for county capital projects, authorized by the Alabama Legislature through a Lauderdale County Agricultural Authority Board. It is expected to have an estimated economic impact of $89 million and create up to 544 jobs.

Lauderdale County Commission and staff are moving to a next-door building, leaving more space for courthouse operations, a move funded with COVID-19 funds, says Brenda Bryant, county administrator. The county also has purchased a former bank building to house an Emergency Operations Center, which will move the city and county 911 responders to one place, she says.

In January, Charter Communications started work to lay 1,000 miles of fiber to expand internet access in Lauderdale County and other north Alabama counties.

The city of Florence, the county seat, is always working to make its parks system more accessible and enjoyable for residents and visitors. The ongoing River Heritage Park has a splash pad, playground and pavilion, and work continues on extending the greenway, says Mayor Andy Betterton. Florence and Shoals Rotary clubs have helped the city create Star Park, a special needs playground in McFarland Park, Betterton says. The city also is working on another disc golf course and plans to add pickleball courts at its sportsplex west of the city, also a popular venue for sports tourism and events.

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Downtown is doing well, with new restaurants and retail, and the city plans to tear down a parking deck to build a new city hall and a new parking deck connected to it, Betterton says.

Both city and county school systems emphasize career tech and Lauderdale County schools offer a simulated workplace.

Helen Keller’s home in Tuscumbia.

Colbert County

Colbert County is in the design stage of a new justice center to be built north of Muscle Shoals by converting empty TVA buildings, officials say. The new jail will hold about 300 inmates and should be finished by 2024.

Tuscumbia, the county seat and the birthplace of Helen Keller, is a popular destination with tourism worldwide. The city also is the home of the W.C. Handy Festival.

In September, the U.S. Department of Commerce awarded a $1.7 million grant to the Colbert County Tourism and Convention Bureau to build a visitors center in Tuscumbia. The grant is funded by the American Rescue Plan and will be matched with $829,000 in local funds. “This EDA investment will improve the visitor experience at the Helen Keller birthplace, the Tennessee Valley Arts Museum and other local attractions, creating new economic opportunity in the region,” said Alejandra Castillo, assistant secretary of commerce for economic development, in announcing the grant.

In the city of Muscle Shoals, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2023, Mayor Mike Lockhart points to updated U.S. Census numbers that show the city is the 13th fastest growing in the state. That means more need for residential housing, and a new mixed-use development has just broken ground on Wilson Dam Road that will include 209 single-family homes, about 65 town-homes and up to 60 commercial storefronts.

While the city doesn’t have a dedicated downtown, efforts are made to connect areas of the city with trails and other improvements. “We are focusing on retail and we are placing emphasis on that,” he says. “We also work hard to promote our music history here, and our sales tax revenues are up.”

The city also will begin a $2.56 million storm water retention project with a federal grant through the Economic Development Authority of the U.S. Department of Commerce, he says.

The city of Sheffield is proceeding on Inspiration Landing, a riverside resort development, says Mayor Steve Stanley. It will be built in two phases, and the city has put in roads and utilities. It is a public/private partnership with developer John Elkington and will include a town center to highlight the city’s history, an interpretive center, outdoor venues for music and events, a drive-in movie theatre, a zipline network, a marina on the Tennessee River, a hotel, a radio station/recording studio, brewery, ice cream factory and more. Restaurants and shops also are expected.

“It is a multifaceted development that will emphasize entertainment and recreational opportunities,” Stanley says.

The city also has completed a new walking trail over the Tennessee River from Riverfront Park to downtown, Stanley says. It is an extension and an effort to increase pedestrian access.

In addition, the city has been awarded a $2 million grant for engineering plans to build a railroad overpass that will eliminate blocked crossings, he says.

Schools are a priority in the Shoals. L.E. Willson Elementary was named a Blue Ribbon school in 2021 and W.A. Threadgill Primary School won a $100,000 TVA grant to upgrade facilities. Muscle Shoals City schools continually rank among the top in the state. All city and county school systems offer a variety of career and technical programs.

This article appeared in the October 2022 issue of Business Alabama.

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