Tallapoosa and Chambers counties in east-central Alabama have abundant natural resources, a strong emphasis on quality of life and an economy revived by automotive manufacturing suppliers.
Chambers County was established in 1832 from Creek Nation territory. Bounded on the east by the Chattahoochee River, its county seat is LaFayette and other key cities are Lanett and Valley. Tallapoosa County was established in 1832 as well, and Dadeville is the county seat. Other cities include Alexander City and Tallassee.
Lying along the state line, Chambers County benefits from neighboring Georgia’s economic resources, as well as Alabama’s resources. In the past few years, Kia located an automotive plant in West Point, Ga. – just about five miles from Chambers County. As a result, automotive suppliers have located in both Chambers and Tallapoosa counties and account now for hundreds of jobs. Suppliers also build components for Hyundai in Montgomery and other manufacturers in the state.
The auto industry has gained ground and has surpassed textiles, which used to be king here. “The automotive industry has totally changed the landscape of Alabama and this area, ” says Don McClellan, executive director of the Lake Martin Economic Development Alliance. “We are always looking for more. But we also are looking to diversify so that we do not rely solely on the automotive sector. We have been able to attract about 2, 700 jobs since 2002 – and that’s great. We also have an excess of IT and customer services employees so we are always looking to expand those sectors. Forestry also is still the largest sector in the state.”
Valerie Gray, president of the Chambers County Economic Development Authority, agrees that diversity is the key – as well as taking care of existing industries. Most of the auto suppliers already have expanded, and that means more jobs and lower unemployment rates.
“We have about 16 active retail and industrial projects working right now, and that’s a good problem to have, ” Gray says. “We had a competitive reality study done in 2012 and it helped us benchmark ourselves and know our strengths and weaknesses. One of our greatest strengths is our location, and we also work hard to develop our workforce.”
Cities have followed suit, knowing that their residents benefit from such jobs. For example, in the city of Lanett in Chambers County, efforts are underway to extend the city’s airport runway and make other improvements, partly to accommodate expanding needs of the auto industry, says Lanett Mayor Oscar Crawley. “We felt that these companies will need air services for several reasons, as well as accommodating UPS and Fed Ex, ” Crawley says. “Kia is only three miles from Lanett.”
The city of Valley also has benefited from the Alabama-Georgia partnership with nearby Point University in Georgia. Residential students live in Valley and enjoy that city’s sportsplex and community center. The college’s sports are played in Valley, and students are bused to class on Point’s campus.
“We feel like it has had a great impact, ” says Valley Mayor Leonard Riley. “It is the third semester so we still do not have a number on total economic impact, but we feel it’s been great. Our unemployment rate has gone down at the same time.”
Lake Martin is the crown jewel of the area, attracting both year-round residents and vacationers. Outdoor activities and attractions abound, and the extent of the excellent quality of life that stems from Lake Martin amenities is almost impossible to measure. Economically, Lake Martin has a huge impact. In Tallapoosa County, Lake Martin properties account for half of that county’s assessed value.
And there’s another plus. Many residents did not leave with the downsizing of Russell Corp., instead finding new jobs in construction and other industries related to Russell Lands, builder of several communities along the lake, as well as Russell Crossroads, a popular town center with many amenities.
“When Russell Corp. was taken public in the 1960s, they were advised that the land it owned on the lake would be a burden, so that it should be separated, ” says Steve Arnberg, vice president of real estate for Russell Lands. “Berkshire Hathaway bought Russell Brands for $600 million. But in contrast, we have more than a billion invested in Russell Lands on Lake Martin, and along with building beautiful properties and amenities, plan to protect 25, 000 acres of forest. Mr. Russell was a visionary, and Russell Lands has really been a wonderful thing for this area.”
The two counties also invest heavily in workforce development, with both county school systems operating technology centers. Tallapoosa County schools have a free tuition program for Benjamin Russell High School graduates, a program that school officials tout as K-14 education.
“Quality of life is very important here, ” McClellan says. “We know economic development is not just about industry. Every sector, from education to the lake to police and fire departments to the family lifestyle, works to make it a great place to live.”
Lori Chandler Pruitt is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.
Lori Chandler Pruitt