In the 50 years since the Morgan County Economic Development Association was formed, more than 150 new industrial companies and more than 1,500 expansions by existing industries have been announced.
EDA records also show that those projects created more than 28,500 new direct jobs, said Jeremy Nails, the president and CEO of the EDA since July 2004.
“The capital investment for the new and expanding industries exceeds $10.9 billion,” Nails said. “That includes foreign direct investment of 18 companies representing 12 different countries.
"Every project is a success story, even more so in today's competitive environment."
The EDA will celebrate its milestone 50th anniversary at a dinner tonight but isn't resting on past accomplishments. It's working to attract suppliers for the Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA auto assembly plant under construction in Huntsville-based Limestone County that aren’t required to locate in the plant’s supplier park.
“The majority of the announcements so far have been on-site suppliers,” Nails said. “We’re expecting to see additional projects come from those tiers that don’t have to be located right on-site.
“We’ve already had several projects associated with the Mazda Toyota facility look at Morgan County Business Park.” That 135-acre business park in Hartselle currently has no occupants, and the EDA is actively marketing it, he said.
“I would anticipate more behind-the-scenes activities in the coming months from the Tier 2 suppliers looking at Limestone and adjacent counties,” said state Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, the chairman of the EDA board. Those adjacent counties include Morgan, Lawrence, Madison and Lauderdale, and in southern Tennessee.
The EDA, originally called the Industrial Development Association, traces its history to September 1969 when nearly 100 business and community leaders signed up as charter members in an effort to recruit industry to the county.
“One of the greatest accomplishments was the creation of the (Decatur Morgan) Port Authority in April of 1982, and the port authority has been the Economic Development Association’s partner since then,” said Nails, the organization’s fourth executive. He previously worked at the North Alabama Industrial Development Association. The Port Authority serves as the development arm of the office while the EDA focuses on recruitment and marketing.
Another successful initiative, he said, was the development in the '80s of Mallard-Fox Creek Industrial Park, now the home to nearly 20 companies.
The impetus for financing that project was Morgan County's loss of a $300 million plant because it lacked the infrastructure on the Tennessee River, said Lynn Fowler, an EDA board member who was board chairman for 30 years. Fowler, who would later become Decatur's mayor, along with other community leaders like Bill Dukes, Tommy Ed Roberts, Larry Bennich and The Decatur Daily’s then-publisher, Barrett C. Shelton Sr., convinced county officials and officials in the county’s municipalities to pledge a pro-rata share of some of their Tennessee Valley Authority in-lieu-of-tax revenue toward paying off a bond issue to finance the park project.
“It was a positive, aggressive effort to make this happen,” Fowler said. “We’ve always responded when we need to respond. We’ve found a way to say yes to industry if it’s a good fit for the community.”
According to an EDA timeline, $8.5 million in bonds were issued in late 1987. After the original debt was paid off, “we took the same model used back in the '80s and did another bond issue which financed the development of Morgan Center Business Park on Thompson Road” in Hartselle, according to Nails.
“The whole reason the EDA was created was to be ready for industry, and you have to expend dollars to do that,” Nails said. “One of my favorite sayings from both (past EDA executives) Mike (Roberts) and Tommy Ed (Roberts) was, just because you have a large cotton field or cow pasture, that doesn’t make it right for industry if it doesn’t have a road and water and sewer and gas and electricity.”
Nails said the EDA continues its efforts to bring in a mix of industry, relying on partners like local governments, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the North Alabama Industrial Development Authority and the Alabama Department of Commerce.
“We’re still getting interest from chemical companies that need to be in the area and we’re also focused on aerospace-related companies, so we continue to diversify our economy,” Nails said.
“Fortunately in Morgan County, we make everything from refrigerators to cat food to rockets to steel to high-grade chemicals, so we’re not relying upon one industry,” Nails said. “I think that helped us weather the economic downturn in 2008-2009.”