Gov. Kay Ivey heard a number of local suggestions, including broadband improvements and a state welcome center, during a forum on Tuesday afternoon, while also noting the need for revenue for …
Gov. Kay Ivey heard a number of local suggestions, including broadband improvements and a state welcome center, during a forum on Tuesday afternoon, while also noting the need for revenue for highways in the state.
The governor earlier had attended a ceremony where Bevill State Community College and Alabama Power signed a memorandum of understanding and joint program development agreement allowing an HVAC Training Center to relocate to Jasper.
She then toured the new Yorozu plant before ending the afternoon at the Jasper Civic Center for a reception. The reception included a one-hour meeting with invited area business and government officials.
In a standing-room-only setting in one of the center’s smaller meeting areas, Ivey spoke briefly before sitting at a table and listening to successes and requests.
Ivey pointed out Jasper was the first stop of a “Listen, Learn, Help and Lead Tour” she was conducting in the state to listen to the concerns of state residents.
“I’ve come to listen,” she said. “The reality is one has to get at least 50 miles out of Montgomery to meet with folks who know what the real needs are of this state, who know what the opportunities are for this state. You can’t listen to what is in Montgomery and start running the Capitol.”
She said she wanted to meet “real people who daily confront real solutions, real problems and deal with opportunities,” not just listening from people but learning from them.
Ivey appeared to address what the state went through with the scandal that led to the resignation of then-Gov. Robert Bentley and her taking office.
“When I took the oath of office, I stated then that my focus was going to be on steadying the ship of state and improving the image of Alabama,” Ivey said. “Our state has been through a lot. Our people didn’t deserve all that they had to go through. But we weathered the storm, and my job is to get started, and this endeavor was to steady the ship.
“Now that we are about to come up on 100 days of being in office, it is now time to plan to steer the ship. Where does the ship need to go? What direction do we pursue going forward? And, folks, that is the reason I am here. I simply want real people who deal with real opportunities and real challenges to share with me some of the things that Walker, Winston and Fayette counties are most proud of and that you have accomplished.”
She said that included future or current projects, needs for those projects or things in the state that are not working. Ivey asked the crowd to be frank and candid, saying she would also accept suggestions for the legislative package for the upcoming session.
Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed noted Ivey’s staff had even set up TV cameras to capture the questions and comments, saying they were serious about the effort. He served as moderator, while Ivey sat at a table with a microphone to respond from time to time while leaders addressed her.
David Knight, director of the Walker County Economic Development Authority, noted the automotive projects in the county, pointing out the authority has worked over the past year on projects investing more than $136 million in the community and creating more than 450 direct new jobs.
Linda Lewis, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Walker County, talked of the chamber’s initiatives, particularly retail and commercial growth over the past year. She listed retail openings and noted Milo’s will open in the fourth quarter of this year.
“With this new growth, we’ve created over 200 jobs, approximately $20 million in annual sales, and approximately $500,000 a year in new sales tax,” she said.
On tourism, she said four major fishing tournaments have been held in 2017, with each tournament’s economic impact being an estimated $1 million to $2 million.
Dr. Leslie Hartley of Bevill State Community College noted the college has obtained a $1.9 million Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) power grant for coal impacted communities to develop a job training facility at the Jasper Industrial Park. A new Bevill State program for management and entrepreneurship will start in the fall, she said.
Winston County Commission Chairman Roger Hayes said his county’s unemployment has come down from 15 percent in recent years to 5.9 percent, and total employment last year increased by 6.5 percent and wages are up 5.7 percent. An ARC grant kept 50 people in a trucking company and allowed another 50 to be hired by obtaining broadband internet. He also noted a recent $350,000 state water grant for Addison to resolve a problem with a bridge which carried a main 8-inch water lane that was about to wash away. Hayes said the county is turning the corner on its economy and is now ready to grow.
Ivey noted Hayes’ concerns on unemployment. “Honey, I’m from Wilcox County,” which brought laughs. “So I know exactly what you’re talking about. But hats off to y’all for pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. You’re doing great, and carry on.”
Haleyville Mayor Ken Sunseri started a discussion about the need for broadband service in rural areas, pointing to his city’s inadequate and overpriced internet service.
“When you go into Haleyville, Winston County and rural areas, for 20 megabytes, we are being charged $795 a month. Then compare that to Huntsville and Birmingham for 100 megabytes at $70 a month,” he said. “I can’t compete for new industry. It affects our health care. It affects our education system.”
Ivey responded that internet is essential in the state to do business in the 21st century. “Broadband is an absolute need that has to be addressed,” she said, again noting she understood being from Wilcox. “Similar things occur down there as well, so I’ll be working with the Legislature in every way we can. If the bills are brought forward, I’ll certainly work with them. We’ll continue to be on the lookout for ways to extend and expand broadband throughout the state, especially in rural areas.”
Kevin Callahan, owner of Honda/Hyundai of Jasper and member of the Walker chamber’s board of directors, said since 2008 local officials have been trying to get lighting on Exit 269 on U.S. Interstate 22, which is the most direct route to downtown Jasper. Ivey said the state has many infrastructure needs such as that. She said she would bring the need to the attention of John Cooper, the director of the Alabama Department of Transportation.
State Rep. Wadsworth, R-Arley, thanked her for the Addison grant, which was expedited over 45 days in what he said was a “remarkable” effort. He asked for help to upgrade a 16-ton city bridge to an 80-ton bridge, just off the interstate in Carbon Hill, which a loaded school bus and large commercial trucks cannot cross.
“The Pepsi Bottling Co. has to go completely around the city in order to service the convenience stores at the top of the hill. The school is at the top of the hill, and this is within a 100 yards of the interstate,” Wadsworth said. He noted the city has few funds to deal with the problem.
Ivey used her answer to apparently hint at the need for possibly increasing the state gas tax. In April she said in a release, “More than 1,400 Alabamians died on state highways due to insufficient roads in the past several years. Companies rate roads as the second most important reason for selecting a place to locate. Our transportation network supports nearly a million jobs. The numbers reinforce adjusting the gas tax to move Alabama forward.”
She told the Jasper crowd Tuesday the infrastructure in the state is aged and the state gas tax hasn’t been raised in 25 years.
“The infrastructure in this state needs upgrading. Some things need to be rebuilt and some things need to be added,” she said. “What you describe is a serious issue.” She said an investment in infrastructure is an investment in safety and helps commerce and school buses.
“But you can’t keep up roads and bridges throughout the state on yesteryear’s income from the gas tax. All the states around us have already increased their gas tax. I just bring that to your attention,” she said.
Parrish Mayor Heather Hall, while noting the new Capstone Rural Health Center to be built in that town, noted the competition for road grants is high for a small town with little funding. “It’s hard for me when I look at the budget and I see a $30 million project here and a $40 million project here and a $28 million project here for roads, and I have a failing road system throughout my entire town,” she said. She asked if more funding could be provided for smaller towns. Ivey said she would mention that to Cooper.
Jasper Mayor David O’Mary asked if a Wall Street Journal report was true if President Trump’s proposed budget might take funding away from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA), noting the agency was responsible for many good things in the state. Ivey said most of the funding comes from the federal level but she did not know of any threat to its funding. She noted the director of ADECA is former Enterprise Mayor Kenneth Boswell, whom she appointed in May.
Reed noted he had a good conversation with Boswell and was impressed with him. He said Boswell understands the needs of cities and counties and that he wants to do more to educate cities and counties on how to apply for different grants.
Al Moore, the dean of career technical education and workforce solutions at Bevill State, pointed out Manufacturing Skill Standards Council certification, which he said will be a game changer for the state, as he feels it will help prepare workers for automotive manufacturing. Production technicians may possibly be the first to be certified under such a program.
Reed noted the 1-cent sales tax referendum on Aug. 15, and recognized District 1 Walker County Commissioner Keith Davis to talk about it. Reed said the county is in “a financial crisis” as it is time to start paying on a debt arranged years ago. He noted the need to use some of the proposed local funds for roads, as the county has 1,200 miles of roads and 100 bridges to maintain on a limited budget. He said he hopes the state gas tax will be addressed by legislators. About $4.2 million from the county tax would be used for county roads, while local municipalities would get $470,000.
Davis noted he and Ivey have known each other for quite some time. “It is a privilege with what you are doing in Montgomery in putting back pride in that Governor’s Mansion, and I appreciate you for that,” he said to applause.
Ivey said the business community needs to get active with legislators “to assure them that if they brought up a gas tax that was reasonable, they would get your vote in ‘18. So many of our elected officials feel like they can’t even address the ‘T’ word a year out from elections. You have got to convince your legislators you will still give them your vote for re-election — and, in fact, you might not vote for them if they don’t vote for the tax.”
Jess Drummond, the Trussville-based marketing manager for Fontaine Fifth Wheel, made a suggestion, noting that I-22 is completed.
“Coming from Mississippi coming back toward Alabama, there is no rest area or welcome center. Do you think maybe you could look into that? That would be a great way to showcase northwest Alabama.”
Ivey replied, “Thank you very much for bringing that up. That is a real good idea.”
In concluding remarks, Ivey thanked the crowd and noted she had been given two pins. She said one concerned retail development downtown, while another said, “We can do that.” The audience applauded, and she said, “I appreciate that positive attitude as well. If we put our minds to something, folks, we Alabamians know how to make things happen. You have been most helpful this afternoon. We will learn from what you said.”