Morgan County, long a state leader in industrial recruitment, in recent years has lagged well behind neighboring Limestone and Madison counties.
The problem, economic development officials say, is a function of past success. Industries already line Decatur's riverfront, and few properties are left with rail access.
“We’re been fortunate to be successful. We’ve had a lot of land, but we’ve filled it up, and they’re not making any more land,” said Jeremy Nails, president and CEO of the Morgan County Economic Development Association.
With 14 Fortune 500 companies and 21 that employ more than 130 people, past recruitment success in Decatur and Morgan County is undeniable. But frustration over the lack of recent new industrial recruits has some asking, what have you done for us lately?
One such critic is Decatur Councilman Charles Kirby. Kirby said Morgan County officials have become "complacent" in industrial recruiting because of past success. He said they’re failing in their recruiting approach, especially when it has been years since a large industry picked a site within Decatur city limits.
“We have to sit down with EDA and figure out why we’re not doing more,” Kirby said. “Maybe we need to disband EDA and find someone who will take a different approach. There’s all kinds of people soliciting for new locations, and somehow Decatur is not in the conversation.”
In response, former mayor, longtime MCEDA chairman and current board member Lynn Fowler was blunt: “Anyone who criticizes our industrial recruiting doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
Morgan County has plenty of land, but all land is not created equal when it comes to industrial recruitment. The land needs to be flat, a challenge in much of Morgan County. Unlike Limestone and Madison counties with their expanses of flat farmland suitable for large industrial developments, Fowler and Nails said properties that can be developed in Morgan County are scarce.
River, rail access
For most industries, transportation infrastructure is key. That means river and rail access for some, and easy interstate access for others.
Decatur and its police jurisdiction have the transportation and river access. Both played heavily in its past recruitment success. Industries like Nucor, Ascend, Indorama and 3M-Decatur line the city’s available riverfront. Much of the riverfront in the county is not available for development, however, due to the sprawling Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. Industrial newcomers seeking river access in Morgan County confront a virtual "No Vacancy" sign.
“The problem is the limited amount of industrial space, and that isn’t going to be resolved any time soon,” Fowler said. “We’re certainly not going to get the enormous Fortune 500 companies like we once did.”
Mallard-Fox Creek Industrial Park, home to many of Decatur's largest employers, is full, and industrial officials say there is a shortage of properties and buildings in the city and county large enough to reel in large industries.
Have times changed, forcing local officials to go for smaller catches?
State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, is chairman of the MCEDA board. He said property limitations resulting from the county’s past success have hurt current recruitment efforts.
However, Orr said that success also helped the county’s reputation. He pointed out that Nails received the David R. Echols Distinguished Service Award in February. The award is considered the Economic Development Association of Alabama’s top honor.
“Companies that choose Morgan County have been very successful, and that’s proven in the expansions of 3M, Nucor, Daikin and others,” Orr said. “People hear about that success, so they become interested in us.”
Decatur City Councilman Chuck Ard said the city and county are doing well in industrial recruitment “but the days of pulling in a ULA or a 3M are few and far between.”
Decatur Mayor Tab Bowling said Kirby’s focus on Decatur is too narrow and city officials should take a regional view, especially in light of the construction of the Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA plant in Greenbrier. It's expected to begin production in 2021.
“They’re building a $1.6 billion company within 4 miles of our corporate limits,” Bowling said. “I think he’s missing how we’ll benefit from sales by industry supply houses and between 2,500 and 3,000 construction workers coming to the area.”
Nails said he has lots of leads and he continues to receive many requests for information on Decatur and Morgan County.
“We do what we can to fulfill their requests and then we hope they pick us,” Nails said.
As proof that current industrial recruitment is successful, Nails points to a Polaris supplier that intends to locate in Decatur.
River & Rocket plans to build a 305,000-square-foot facility on Bibb Garrett Road. The facility would be leased by Power 3PL for the assembly and distribution of products made by Polaris.
The fact Bibb Garrett Road is in Decatur-annexed Limestone County underlines Bowling's point, that Morgan County officials must take a regional view.
In a sign of the times, though, Power 3PL expects to create only 10 new jobs, with another 15-20 current employees being transferred in from other north Alabama locations.
Kirby has been pushing for the city to find a place for a new industrial park, but he’s been unsuccessful.
Bowling said he agrees the city needs a new industrial park, but right now he thinks the city should focus on finding suitable properties to boost residential growth, which has been stagnant for at least two decades.
“People will make that short drive across the river,” Bowling said. “We’re doing OK on jobs. If we’re going to see more growth in our revenues, we need something to kick-start our residential growth.”
Morgan Center park
Orr said the county established the Morgan Center Business Park near Interstate 65 in Hartselle with the expectation of attracting call centers, but many of those centers went overseas instead.
The initial phase was completed in November 2011, and it has no tenants.
While the interstate is a positive, Orr said the park lacks the essential rail or water access that industries want.
Bond payments for the 135-acre park are draining about $1.2 million a year in Tennessee Valley Authority in-lieu-of-tax funds that would otherwise supplement the budgets of Morgan County and its municipalities.
“I do believe the Morgan Center will get its first prospect in the foreseeable future,” Orr said.
Fowler said the lack of available land for new industry forces local officials to focus on nurturing existing industries so they expand.
“You have to provide a workforce and workforce development so our workers coming out of high school and college can get the good jobs,” Fowler said.
In 2017, Morgan County ranked No. 2 in Alabama for new and expanding industry investments. Two new industries accounted for $30.2 million in capital investments, with the remainder of the $516.3 million total coming from expanding industries, according to Alabama Department of Commerce data.
Morgan EDA shows Morgan County attracted two new companies last year that made a combined capital investment of $7.4 million and hired 54 people. Those tepid numbers contrasted to more robust activity by industry already in the county. Statistics showed 14 existing companies spent $152 million on expansions while hiring 310 people in 2018.
“GE was a huge expansion last year,” Nails said. “That created 250 jobs.”
Bowling credited the expansions for boosting city revenues by 7% in fiscal 2018 at a time when there was a lack of residential growth.
“That tells me a lot of contractors are working in our area,” Bowling said.
MCEDA data show that 2013, with three, was the only year since 2010 that Morgan County had more than two new companies move here.
In contrast, Limestone County, home to the Mazda Toyota joint venture, in 2018 led Alabama in new and expanded industries with $1.68 billion in new investment and 4,172 new jobs.
Nails said Decatur has two areas in the city where companies could locate. These include Decatur’s annexed area in Limestone County and properties to the west, toward Lawrence County.
“These properties have to have access to utilities and transportation,” Nails said.
MCEDA lists 17 available Morgan County industrial sites in a database administered by the state, including nine in Decatur. Only three are described as being adjacent to a railroad track: a 298-acre site in Trinity; a 37-acre site in Decatur off Central Parkway, south of the Beltline; and a 92-acre site off Alabama 24 in west Decatur.
By contrast, the Limestone County Economic Development Association lists 36 available industrial sites, including 13 adjacent to rail.
Orr said there are some places in Morgan County that are attractive to industry. He said Huntsville’s growth into Morgan County could help Lacey’s Spring.
“Huntsville is able to offer services that industries want,” Orr said.