Spotlight on Lee, Russell & Macon: Economic Engines

Anchored by Auburn and Tuskegee universities, these counties' economies are diverse, with an array of manufacturers, retailers and tourism-related entities.

Tuskegee University has been designated a National Historic Site.

Auburn University/Higher Education

Auburn University’s research and service provides an annual $5.6 billion impact to the state of Alabama and the university is Lee County’s largest employer. It has more than 150 degree programs and more than 30,000 graduate and undergraduate students.

In Macon County, Tuskegee University has an enrollment of 2,747 and offers 42 bachelor’s degrees, 16 master’s degrees and six doctoral degree options. Tuskegee also has been designated a National Historic Site.

Lee County is also home to Southern Union Community College, based in Opelika with campuses in Valley and Wadley. It has a total enrollment of 3,985 and offers academic, technical and health science programs, as well as academic transfer and dual enrollment.

In Russell County, Chattahoochee Valley Community College has 1,372 students, both Alabama residents and students from the Fort Benning and Columbus, Georgia, metro area.

Also in Russell County is the Troy University Phenix City campus.

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Automotive suppliers/Diversified manufacturing

This sector is very strong in all three counties. Automotive suppliers that serve factories in Alabama and Georgia have located and expanded here, including several expansions announced in 2020 and 2021.

In Lee County, automotive suppliers create hundreds of jobs. Those include Mando America Corp., Hanwha Advanced Materials America, SCA Inc., Seohan Auto USA Corp., WPM Holdings and Donghee Alabama. And in the county, diverse employers that make vitamins/supplements, kidney dialyzers, medical products, gasoline engines and specialty plastics round out the largest manufacturing employers.

Russell County is home to Daechang Seat Co. and ILJIN Alabama, automotive suppliers, and rounding out the largest companies are WestRock, which makes container board, plus companies producing cosmetics, fiberglass reinforcement materials, carbon black, licensed merchandise and hemp.

Macon County’s largest industrial employer is Hanon Systems, an automotive supplier in Shorter that recently announced an expansion. Nearby LogisAll offers testing, inventory and distribution of auto parts. Other large manufacturers include a turf farm, a U.S.-certified organic farm and a fiberglass company.

Auburn Research Park

For nearly a decade, Auburn Research Park has been a key contributor to the economy of the state and region. The 171-acre park was established by the state of Alabama, the city of Auburn and Auburn University in 2007. Adjacent to the university, the park is a mix of business, research and innovation focusing on entrepreneurship, technology and knowledge-based businesses and facilities.

Auburn Research Park is home to the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation, as well as a health sciences complex. It provides a network of support and programming tailored to the needs of start-up and early-stage companies. Tenants include the Auburn University MRI Research Center, the Center for Advanced Science, Innovation and Commerce, the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine and the Early Child Learning and Development Center, privately operated by Big Blue Marble Academy.

Recent additions include the new Auburn Medical Pavilion, opened this year. The $33.7 million facility houses the East Alabama Medical Center freestanding emergency department and an ambulatory surgery center.

Also in fall 2020, the park opened its Research & Innovation Center. It houses the university’s research and economic development office, the New Venture Accelerator, Fullsteam Solutions, Amsterdam Café and a new event center.

An aerial view of Auburn University’s airport, which has an annual economic impact of $24.4 million, according to the Alabama Department of Transportation.


Auburn’s airport, owned and operated by Auburn University, has strong partnerships with the cities of Opelika and Auburn and the Lee County community, serving as a transportation link and a gateway for economic development. Its annual economic impact is $24.4 million, according to the Alabama Department of Transportation.

The airport last year finished a $5 million taxiway relocation and a $3 million main runway rehab project, says Bill Hutto, airport director. Plans call for a set of T-hangars, a multi-year $7.5 million runway safety project and corporate jet hangars, he says. The airport also is looking for funds for an air traffic control tower, he says.

Auburn University also has a robust aviation program, with two degrees offered, says James Birdsong, program coordinator. Those are aviation–professional flight and aviation management. More than 600 students participate. “We are working on our first graduate degree in aviation management,” Birdsong says.

The Delta Air Lines Aviation Education Building, which has boosted the program considerably through the facility and scholarships, opened in 2018 at the airport. The 23,000-square-foot building is designed exclusively for aviation education at Auburn with enhanced classrooms, debriefing rooms for student pilots and flight simulators.

In Macon County, the historic Moton Field in Tuskegee, which was a training facility for the ground-breaking Army Air Corps Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, has a new terminal building and many other improvements, and is hoping to build more hangars, says Nikki Jordan, airport manager. The city of Tuskegee now owns the airport.

Agriculture/Food production

This is a large sector in all three counties.

Russell County has several companies that are involved in this sector, including AlaTrade Foods LLC, a chicken processor, and ArborVita8 LLC, a hemp extractor and processor.

Macon County has turf farms, agricultural research and a new business, Lifetime Natural Organic Farms, a U.S.-Certified Organic Grower.

Health Care/Medical Products 

All three counties have a good representation of health care facilities.

East Alabama Health in Opelika is a major employer in Lee County. Its largest facility is East Alabama Medical Center, a regional referral hospital with 340 beds. The system also includes EAMC-Lanier in Valley (Chambers County), the Spencer Cancer Center in Opelika, the Auburn Medical Pavilion and several other outpatient services.

Lee County has a large number of medical products companies, such as Baxter Healthcare, which makes kidney dialyzers; SiO2 Materials Science, which is currently making COVID-19 vaccine vials, and Pharmavite LLC, which makes vitamins and supplements.

In Russell County, Jack Hughston Memorial Hospital is in Phenix City, a 70-bed acute care hospital with several locations and specialties; and Regional Rehabilitation Hospital, an Encompass Health facility that provides comprehensive inpatient and outpatient rehab.

Macon County is the site of the Central Alabama VA Medical Center in Tuskegee, a 220-bed hospital that offers a wide variety of services to veterans.


Retail is big business in this region. Opelika is known as a retail hub and hot spot, which includes major shopping centers like Tiger Town and Pepperell Corners.

Phenix City experienced great retail growth in 2019 and early 2020, adding seven new restaurants, two new grocery stores and many other ancillary retailers. Because of the increased retail additions and the success of many local retailers, the city recognized a significant sales tax increase in the midst of the pandemic.

Tuskegee has five exits on Interstate 85, and Macon County is attracting new development in recent years with the Torch Travel Center and more. By the end of this year, the new Tuskegee Travel Center on exit 38 should open.


This area is a popular tourism destination for outdoor enthusiasts and youth sports. Add to that Auburn University football and all types of historical attractions, community events and more, and tourism has a huge impact.

Whitewater rafting is big on the Chattahoochee River between Phenix City and Columbus, Georgia. RushSouth Whitewater Park is home to the longest urban whitewater course in the world, plus zip lines, disc golf and more.

Phenix City and Columbus were awarded the 2022 International Canoe Federation (ICF) Freestyle Kayak World Cup and the 2023 ICF World Championship. Some 300 athletes from 30 countries are expected to participate.

In Macon County, there are many attractions that honor the Tuskegee Airmen, who made history as the first Black fighter pilots in World War II. The city was also home to George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington.

Auburn is home to a diversified manufacturing base, from automotive suppliers to medical products.

Business Briefs:

October 2021: The AuburnBank Building should open this year. The four-story downtown building will house the bank headquarters plus retail and office space.

October 2021: Buc-ee’s breaks ground for a travel center in Auburn, its third in Alabama.

October 2021: The Tuskegee Travel Center is expected to open on Interstate 85 at exit 31 by the end of this year. The fueling center, convenience store and restaurants are expected to create 75 jobs and $500,000 in annual taxes.

September 2021: Hanwha Cimarron LLC breaks ground for a manufacturing facility in the Northeast Opelika Industrial Park, a $130 million investment that will create 261 new jobs.

August 2021: AUBix LLC announces it will open a $120 million data center in Auburn, to provide a technology edge for businesses, enhanced internet and more.

August 2021: According to recent census data, Auburn’s population has grown some 43% since 2010, making it the fastest growing city in Alabama and the seventh largest city in the state.

July 2021: Point Broadband, a fiber-to-home Internet service provider operating in 10 states, announces it will relocate its corporate headquarters to Opelika, bringing at least 25 jobs.

June 2021: Seohan Auto USA, which makes automotive axles, announces a $6.6 million expansion with 10 new jobs.

June 2021: East Alabama Medical Center opens the Auburn Medical Pavilion in the Auburn Research Park, with a freestanding ER and Level III trauma center.

June 2021: Straehle & Hess USA Inc., which makes automotive textiles, announces a $3.6 million expansion, adding 12 jobs.

June 2021: The Auburn University College of Agriculture, in partnership with its campus dining department, is using recycled shipping containers as “vertical” farms to grow produce for students.

May 2021: Hanon Systems, the largest manufacturing employer in Macon County, completes a 35,000-square-foot addition to its original warehouse built in 2014. The company makes automotive climate products.

May 2021: Point Broadband will expand its fiber network in east Alabama to reach underserved locations throughout Macon County. The company and the Macon County Economic Development Authority have collaborated on the project, which should include more than 60 miles of new fiber.

May 2021: Jo-Ann Stores announces an expansion at its existing Opelika distribution center, a $7.7 million investment that will create 30 jobs over the next three years.

April 2021: Nashville Wire Products Manufacturing Co. Inc., a custom wire fabricating company, announces a $3.1 million expansion and 20 new jobs at its Auburn facility.

April 2021: CNJ Inc. announces it is expanding its Auburn operations with a $5.8 million investment and five new jobs.

April 2021: ID Plastics LP in Auburn, which makes automotive plastics, announces a $765,000 expansion.

March 2021: The Auburn-Opelika MSA ranked No. 6 on Site Selection’s magazine list of metros that added the most economic development projects in 2020, adding seven.

March 2021: Pharmavite, one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of vitamins, minerals and other dietary supplements, announces an expansion at its Opelika location. The $7.9 million investment will result in 81 new jobs.

February 2021: The U.S. Department of Defense launches an Aerospace Education Research and Innovation Center at Tuskegee University.

February 2021: The 2021 Milken Institute Best-Performing Cities Index names Auburn-Opelika Metropolitan Area No. 17 Best-Performing MSA in the U.S. and No. 2 Best Performing MSA in Alabama.

January 2021: Briggs & Stratton’s Auburn facility announces a $9.4 million expansion that is expected to create 35 jobs.

December 2020: Mando America Corp., an automotive parts maker, announces an $11.8 million expansion in Opelika.

September 2020: Wheel Pros has acquired the assets of an aluminum wheel maker and plans to create 300 jobs.

August 2020: Bonnie Plants Inc. breaks ground on a new $7.9 million corporate headquarters in Opelika.

August 2020: ArborVita8 LLC, a hemp processing company, announces plans to open in Phenix City.

July 2020: Auburn’s SiO2 Materials Science, located in Auburn Technology Park West, announces a $163 million expansion after contracting to supply the federal government with vials to support the COVID-19 vaccine effort. The project creates 220 jobs.

July 2020: Revere Plastics Systems, a maker of injection molded parts, will open its first Southeastern location in Auburn, with plans to hire 120.

March 2020: JVL Laboratories Inc., a cosmetics manufacturer in Phenix City, announces plans to expand and add 50 jobs.

February 2020: Lotte Chemical Alabama Corp. in Auburn announces a $5.2 million expansion.

February 2020: ATS Alabama Corp., a Korean automotive plastic maker, announces it will locate in Auburn with a $1.2 million investment.

February 2020: Aptar CSP Technologies Inc. announces plans for a $23.7 million expansion in Auburn.

January 2020: Winkelmann Flowform Technology announces an $2.2 million expansion of its Auburn operation.

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