By Adam Smith
For the past two years, Athens and Limestone County have benefited from positive industrial growth during a fallow economic period.
In late-March of last year it was announced that Limestone topped the state in capital investments in 2011. A total of seven new industrial projects and existing companies’ expansions provided $539.2 million in total capital investment for Limestone County.
In the first two months of this year, however, industrial headlines have been nil as economic and political leaders here wait to see if a compromise is reached in Washington on cuts that could cost tens of thousands of jobs at Redstone Arsenal.
Tom Hill, president of the Limestone County Economic Development Association said the weeks and months following a presidential election are typically slower than other times of the year. However, he’s also concerned about the uncertainty in Washington.
“There’s a lot of cash sitting on the sidelines wanting to go to work, but the sequestration that will take place March 1 affects people all over the country,” he said. “If there’s a budget in place, that might take away some of that uncertainty.”
Hill said while there are no new industry announcements to speak of, work continues behind the scenes to improve performance at existing industries.
Efforts to improve water pressure at the Elkmont Industrial Park North are under way. The park is home to Electricfil, an engine and transmission-sensor manufacturer, and Snap-on, a tool manufacturer.
Hill said the engineering work to install a 250,000-gallon water-storage tank has started, and construction could begin within 60 days. In addition to improving water pressure at the park, the tank should also satisfy fire mitigation efforts.
In Athens, officials are waiting to see if a planned oil re-refinery operation that would be located on 23 acres near the intersection of Airport Road and Alabama 127 gets off the ground. The project, which will refine used motor oil to produce a base component, received conditional-use approval by the Athens Planning Commission last summer. In September, the City Council approved non-educational property taxes in the amount of $1.039 million and non-educational sales taxes in the amount of $460,000. Both abatements are good for 10 years.
In turn, AGL will pay an estimated $850,561 in educational property taxes over 10 years and $321,0000 in education sales taxes during construction of the re-refinery. The total project is estimated at more than $32 million, which includes the cost of land, building and equipment and 25 to 27 employees.
Hill said all indications are that the project is still on, but project developer Alabama Green Lubricants LLC, may still be working to obtain bank financing.
“I think it’s due to the fact it’s a start-up company,” he said. “We still hear they’re working to get it finalized.”
In southern Limestone County, workers with Turner Construction continue to build what will become Carpenter Technology Corporation’s specialty alloys facility.
The project, which will employ 200 full-time workers, is slated to open in spring 2014. Officials with the company previously said a German-made forge will be delivered this spring via barge on the Tennessee River.
While many residents in Athens and Limestone County work in Huntsville, the city and county’s industries continue to hire and expand.
Steelcase Inc. is the leading manufacturing employer in the county and the third-leading overall with approximately 1,200 employees, up from 1,106 last year. Last February, Electricfil announced it would add 200 employees in a five-year period as part of a $95 million growth plan that would make the Elkmont location the North American headquarters for the automotive company.
Hill said unemployment numbers are a reliable indicator of positive economic growth. Limestone County’s unemployment rate of 5.8 percent compares favorably to Madison’s 5.5 and Morgan County’s 6.1. All three counties are well below the national unemployment rate of 7.8 percent in December, which the Labor Department reported was the lowest in five years.
“From a standpoint of recruiting new business, the economy continues to improve even though a lot of companies are waiting for Congress to get through more (fiscal legislation) before hiring additional employees,” Hill said. “The fiscal cliff was anticipated at the end of (last) year, and only part of it was resolved … automatic spending cuts could be devastating to those companies who depend on federal budgets.
“One of the primary things we focus on that would indicate health in our economy is unemployment going down, and I think we’ll continue to see that go down and improve in the coming year.”
Training for the future
One facet that sets Athens and Limestone County apart from other parts of the state is a focus on job training.
About 532 students in 10th through 12th grade attend Limestone County’s Career Technical School where students learn construction, design drafting, HVACR, welding, precision machining, electrical, information systems, business management, food and beverage service, cosmetology, graphic arts, health science, automotive technology, power equipment and collision repair.
In September, the school held an open house that coincided with Gov. Robert Bentley’s proclamation of “Work Force Development Month.”
Jobs of the future also require futuristic training, and that’s one of the functions of the Calhoun Community College’s Alabama Robotics Park, located across U.S. 31 from the school’s main campus.
Two phases of the planned three-phase park are fully operational. Phase 1 consists of a primary training center, while Phase 2 offers research and development opportunities.
Janet Kincherlow-Martin, spokeswoman for Calhoun Community College, said the park continues to generate interest in companies interested in moving to North Alabama.
“When our local chambers of commerce and economic development organizations are talking to (an industry) about relocating, they call and ask us for information about the robotics park,” she said. “(Economic development organizations) use (the park) as an incentive because it is state-of-the-art. It’s definitely proving to be everything the visionaries who created it thought it would be.”
Kincherlow-Martin said there is no timeframe for the third and final phase of the park, which she described as “an incubator” for people looking to develop new robotics technology or those looking to start their own business.
Despite the fact that work on the final phase has not begun, she said Gov. Robert Bentley and Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, want to see the park completed. Orr serves on the park’s advisory board.
“There is still a lot of support (for Phase 3), but money is scarce,” Kincherlow-Martin said. “It’s certainly been a good selling point for economic development.”
— Reporter Kim West contributed to this article.