The Shoals — Lauderdale and Colbert counties in northwest Alabama — are located on the Tennessee River and include the cities of Florence, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield and Tuscumbia.
It’s a desirable area on many lists for quality of life, education, tourism and economic development. Job opportunities are healthy, and it’s also adjacent to the Huntsville area, which means that job creation there or at home is a plus for all.
Not content to rest on those laurels, regional cooperation, partnership and collaboration is very important here. Economic development officials are partnering with higher education, industries and other entities to bring opportunities to the Shoals so that residents do not have to leave the counties for work.
The Shoals, which already has a successful business incubator and an active chamber of commerce, is looking to further foster collaboration and partner with students, entrepreneurs and existing business owners, especially in technology and innovation. Shoals Shift is one of those efforts seeking to attract digital technology companies and build a tech hub. In short, the area wants to be known as a tech community.
Another effort that will benefit existing workers, as well as high school students seeking careers, is a workforce development center that is in the planning stages with the Shoals Economic Development Authority (SEDA), University of North Alabama and Northwest-Shoals Community College, among others, says Forrest Wright, president and secretary to the board of SEDA. “We’ve made significant investments in many areas, and one of the most recent is to support a new workforce development center that will serve not only current workers but K-12 students of any public or private school.” It will be built in Lauderdale County, near a county agricultural center that’s also in the planning stages.
Local school systems are known for excellence on a national and state level, and some have their own career technical centers, sharing programs with other systems. Some employ the simulated workplace for students to learn what a typical workday looks like, and another has partnered with Southwire Co. for students to work there while going to school.
SEDA owns all of the industrial parks in the two counties. A half-cent sales tax supports the Shoals Economic Development Fund, which helps pay for speculative buildings, incentives and other assistance. SEDA expects to have two more spec buildings available this year.
In the two counties combined, larger industrial employers include North American Lighting, Constellium, FreightCar America, Essity, Southwire Co. and Tarkett Alabama. Those represent some of the larger economic sectors including automotive suppliers, metals, transportation, paper/wood products and flooring products. The Shoals has a diverse mix of industries that provide opportunities for workers of all skill levels.
Supporting the Shoals’ varied industry is another major engine — the Florence-Lauderdale County Port Authority, handling tons of material, storing and shipping products locally and beyond. The port and the North Alabama Regional Airport continue to grow.
While industry is strong, hospitals, higher education and distribution centers account for the largest overall employers. North Alabama Medical Center is slated to open this year in Florence, replacing the old ECM Hospital. Meanwhile, Helen Keller and Shoals hospitals have been working on improvements, expansions and more.
Cities are busy with downtown projects, with new hotels, retail and streetscape improvements. The city of Sheffield is working on a $160 million development called Inspiration Landing, which will include a marina, riverfront homes, restaurants, amphitheater, a town center and more. It will focus on the Shoals’ musical legacy and cultural history.
In Florence, where the city is celebrating its 200th year, two new hotels have opened in historic buildings, spurring more development. Other cities also have seen new retail and other improvements.
All the improvements help the Shoals celebrate and share its musical legacy that ranges from Muscle Shoals Sound to W.C. Handy, its historical legacies of Helen Keller and the Trail of Tears, and its remarkable features such as a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home.
Lori Chandler Pruitt is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.