Progress 2020: Etowah County welcomes new Mega-Site

March 2, 2020 chris
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Photo: Pictured above, Etowah County Economic Development Director Marilyn Lott smiles in front of the development plans for the Little Canoe Creek Mega-Site and Norfolk Southern Corporation Prime Site.

By Katie Bohannon, Staff Writer

In 2008, the Etowah County Commission began acquiring property adjacent to Little Canoe Creek with the goal of generating employment opportunities. Over the years, the commission purchased additional land until it satisfied the minimum acreage for mega-sites, expanding the property to cover 1,000 acres.

In 2015, the Commission formally voted to develop the Little Canoe Creek property as an industrial mega-site, allowing Etowah County the opportunity to compete for large projects in the future.

In January of 2020, a 2.7 million dollar site-improvement project was announced, funded through the state’s Growing Alabama Credit program and a donation from the Norfolk Southern Corporation to ensure that the mega-site is deemed a Norfolk Southern Prime Site and the land development is completed for the benefit of Etowah County.

The Little Canoe Creek Mega-Site’s development is an extensive process. The Etowah County Commission, along with Etowah County Economic Development Director Marilyn Lott, work together tirelessly to follow appropriate procedures as the site’s development progresses. In any industrial site’s development, the first step is assembling due diligence documents, which refers to prior research conducted before parties enter into agreements or financial transactions. After gathering due diligence documents like environmental and geotechnical reports and infrastructure information, the mega-site earned the Alabama AdvantageSite designation in 2018, which is a site-readiness program that confirms that documentation is available. The more developed the site, the more appealing the site appears to prospective companies, so creating a large pad-ready rail-served site is the next phase of development. The next phase focuses on enhancing the site’s marketability and creates a more competitive industrial location.

When Lott accepted the Economic Development Director position a year-and-a-half ago, she felt elated and excited to have the opportunity to recruit for such a great site, with so many location advantages to promote. The first thing Lott did was review the AdvantageSite documents to analyze them, looking for any obstacles for recruitment that might eliminate the site from consideration. Benchmarking the site against other mega-site success stories and borrowing lessons learned from other communities helped Lott form a strategy that would work best for Etowah County. In 2019, she hosted a meeting for all infrastructure providers to discuss the site’s assets and challenges. The insight shared from the site’s economic development partners proved very valuable.

“None of the issues identified are difficult to overcome, but they all require money, so I set a goal to seek funding for improvements that would reduce a company’s construction timeline,” said Lott. “During my research, I discovered that the Growing Alabama Credit program was a perfect fit for what we were trying to accomplish. I took the steps necessary to qualify for the program, secure a donor, submit a successful application and coordinate with our economic development partners to plan the project.”

Through Lott’s dedication, resourcefulness and insight, the 2.7 million dollar site-improvement project was secured for the mega-site. The Growing Alabama Credit program, administered by the Alabama Department of Commerce, allows private companies and individuals to receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit up to 50 percent of their income tax liability for donating to approved projects, including site preparation for industrial sites.

The Growing Alabama Credit program falls under the category of economic development incentives because the $2.7 million invested in the mega-site will save time and money for a company that locates to the site in the future.

When Lott began searching for a donor for the Growing Alabama Credit program, she contacted Norfolk Southern Corporation’s Industrial Development Manager Daniel Parker. Norfolk Southern Corporation, one of the nation’s premiere transportation companies, expressed interested in the mega-site, since the site is located on its main railway line. Parker and Norfolk Southern’s Senior Planning Engineer Michael Johnson attended the mega-site’s infrastructure meeting.

“When I approached Daniel about the program, he was already aware of it and was actually in the process of evaluating sites,” said Lott. “After further discussions, we began to plan the project and built the partnership between Etowah County and Norfolk Southern officials to secure the company’s donation.”

As a rail-served industrial site, the mega-site will increase job opportunities and private investment in Etowah County. Lott explained that manufacturing provides higher wages than average, and manufacturing has the highest multiplier effect of any business sector. For every dollar spent in manufacturing, another $1.89 is spent elsewhere, creating a spending ripple effect that stimulates the economy. The mega-site is suitable for a large operation with the potential for many jobs and suppliers that would provide additional jobs.

“There has been a lot of enthusiasm about the project among those who understand the value of further developing the site,” said Lott. “I realize most people don’t get extremely excited when they think of earthwork, grading or infrastructure, but I would like for our citizens to appreciate that every step we take to make the Mega-site more competitive gets us closer to reaching the community’s long-standing goal of recruiting a company that will provide high-paying jobs to the site.”

The mega-site holds numerous location advantages that display Etowah County’s value to potential industries. In addition to its 1,000 acres and partnership with Norfolk Southern Corporation, the site is adjacent to Interstate 59, centrally located between Birmingham, Huntsville, Chattanooga and Atlanta. Served by Alabama Power, the site holds 1.4 million plus gallons per day of excess water capacity, with three choices for natural gas providers. Through Lott and the commission’s efforts, the site is an Alabama AdvantageSite designation, with due diligence readily available. A workforce of 75,000 workers are located within a 30-minute drive and over one-half million workers are located within a 60-minute drive of the site. The cost of living index is 85.6 percent of the national average, and Etowah County’s quality of life is excellent, with beautiful nature, outdoor and water recreation, and the site’s nearby historic downtown Gadsden serving as the home to a growing arts and entertainment district filled with thriving businesses and restaurants.

2020 holds much in store for the Mega-site’s development. The Growing Alabama’s 2.7 million dollar site development project will include constructing a pad-ready, rail-served site of at least 50 acres, moving the natural gas lines to the edge of the property and constructing a new railroad crossing at the end of the site’s industrial access road. Engineering is currently underway, and bids will likely be taken in April. Physical work will begin in May or June and construction is expected to take about six months. Though all economic development projects are confidential, businesses have already expressed interest in Etowah County’s Mega-Site.

Etowah County’s Mega-Site garnered immense support. In 2018, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey attended the mega-site’s Alabama AdvantageSite dedication and announced her commitment to help promote the project. With job creation as one of Ivey’s priorities, her support for the mega-site comes from an understanding that large industrial sites have the unique potential to attract companies that will create a large number of high-paying jobs, ushering in substantial economic growth throughout the state.

Lott looks forward to the day when she sees people reporting to work at the mega-site to provide a stable, prosperous living for themselves and their families. She recently traveled to New York for a large international forum that focused on ways to attracted foreign investment. At the international forum, Lott marketed the mega-site to some of the top-site selectors in the world to let them know about the current improvement projects for Etowah County’s Mega-Site, and the enhancements the future months hold. Through Lott and the commission’s dedication to the project, the mega-site represents the recognition of Etowah County’s worth, a goal on the road to manifestation and the great success in Etowah County’s future.

“When you set a big goal and you know it’s attainable, stay focused,” said Lott. “Don’t give up when challenges arise. Keep moving forward until you reach the goal.”