Battle: Jasper will see 'shadow economy' from broadband

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Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle repeatedly praised Jasper's efforts to be prepared for the future at a meeting of the Kiwanis Club of Jasper Monday, noting the city will see a "shadow economy" emerge from its advances on broadband connections. 

Battle visited the meeting with Jasper Mayor David O'Mary, who has had a close working relationship with Battle since taking office. 

"Three years ago when I was running for office, the first thing I did, I wanted to figure out who is doing it right in Alabama," O'Mary said. "My compass turned directly toward Huntsville, Alabama, and Mayor Battle." He added Battle has "become a friend to this city," and that no other mayor in the state has a resume like his in industrial recruitment and growth. He thanked Battle for his friendship. 

Battle congratulated O'Mary, noting Jasper was becoming a "Gig City," a phrase some cities are adopting to denote citywide gigabit internet speeds. The Alabama Rural Broadband Coalition recently announced a plan to install fiber-based high-speed internet in the area starting in 2020. The services will be provided by C Spire, a Mississippi-based technology company. C Spire is the newest member of the coalition and will contract for a portion of Alabama Power’s fiber infrastructure through a first-of-its-kind partnership. 

Battle said his city has taken similar steps.

"A Gig City is very important. Chattanooga has been a Gig City for a long time," he said. "They put in their own fiber, do their own sales and do the whole process." 

Huntsville Utilities put in a ring network and Google has taken to it so service can then be taken  from the street into the homes, he said. The cost is $80 million, but Google's lease on the fiber network is paying it back. 

The fiber network "will make a shadow economy for you," Battle said. A traffic engineer for San Francisco told Battle he lives in Huntsville and plans for intersections are sent back and forth between San Francisco and Huntsville. "I provide them a pretty good service and they send me a check every month. And that check is spent in Huntsville, Alabama," the man told Battle.

Battle knows of another woman in Huntsville who does work for Disney World, with plans also made over the internet. 

"You're going to see the same thing coming here," he said. "That fiber-to-home gives you the ability to work anywhere in the world from right here." He congratulated O'Mary, saying he had done a "great job" with the progress.

He noted the Mazda-Toyota plant, where 2,400 acres were set aside, because of people doing work to prepare that land for industrial development. He said the company would employ people for generations, guaranteeing 4,000 jobs and $2 billion in investment. They and Remington were pointed out as examples of how Huntsville has diversified its economy. 

"We will be able to provide generation after generation after generation with growth," he said, generating various tax revenue. 

Battle said Huntsville officials learned during the failed bid in 2007 for a Volkswagen plant that the city needed to do more preparation for such packages, getting certifications and testing. 

"It became pretty obvious we were not ready for success. And I think that is one of the things we all have to look at, is when are we ready for success," he told the Jasper crowd. "Y'all have been very forward thinking, especially with your industrial parks that you've done. With your industrial park, you've got three second-tier automotives sitting out there right now."

He said that was because Jasper made sure it invested to make sure it had something it could sell and was ready when a prospect arrived. 

"Y'all have been prepared for success," taking advantage of the automotive industry in Alabama, Battle said, pointing to successes than Huntsville has had as well, including Polaris, which had 2,000 jobs and a $130 million investment.

He said cities must be prepared for growth, recalling when some in Huntsville were not progressive and even fought against expansion of the interstate system there, saying  Interstate 565 would bring in robberies and thefts, and then leave on the interstate.

"And people believed that," he said, noting officials had to educate residents on the benefits of an interstate. The road system eventually was essential to bring growth to that area.

"You are doing all the fundamentals you need to do," he said, pointing to highway repaving work in Jasper and the work of Bevill State Community College. "You've got to have an educated workforce," he said, as that provides trained workers for prospective employers.

He noted Huntsville's diversification has allowed the city to provide jobs for North Alabama, adding many people from the Jasper area will come up to Huntsville daily to work at the Mazda-Toyota plant. 

"Our biggest challenge is workforce," he said, saying 94 companies were polled in the three-county Huntsville area. "Their number one issue right now is work force." They showed where 14,000 new workers are coming to the area, with another 11,000 in spin-off jobs. 

"We're going out and recruit the advanced manufacturing. I think the advanced manufacturing will come out of that 1.2 million person labor pool we have in North Alabama and South Tennessee," he said. "I think we'll be able to provide that." He said high tech personnel will also have to be recruited from throughout the Southeast and from two- and four-year institutions. Officials will make sure educational courses will be in place, including in the K-12 schools. 

However, he said he told his people that if the worst problem was finding people to fill the jobs they have, that is a good problem to have. 

He also said quality of life has to be provided, pointing out that Huntsville is trying to do what Jasper has done with its downtown, making it attractive to people. 

"When you are going out and recruiting those young engineers and IT people, they have a lot of choices," such as Austin, Texas, and Nashville, Tennessee. He noted efforts in Huntsville to put in parks and greenways that attract them, such as cross-country trails, mountain bike trails, disc golf courses, and a sand volleyball center. 

He noted Madison is building a stadium for the Trash Pandas minor league team, which has sold $2 million in merchandise already because of the name. An amphitheater is also in the plans. A music audit has just been conducted to see how the city can structure and promote its music industry. 

Battle, who said he visited a couple of Jasper stores during the visit, said he and O'Mary talk "every once and a while" about the progress in Jasper, notes it mirrors what is happening in Huntsville. 

"I want to tell you, y'all are doing a wonderful job," he said, noting he has visited over the past seven or eight years. Every time he visits, he sees more growth in the area and in downtown Jasper.

"You see a downtown that doesn't have all boarded up windows, like it used to be and like I used to have in my town. But you see places that are growing, and it is making opportunity. To each of you, I want to say congratulations. You have done the job that needed to be done to continue to grow and prosper."