(Photo courtesy of Etowah County Commission)
By Emma Kirkemier, News Editor
The Etowah County Commission voted on January 3 to approve a rebranding of the county’s Megasite, now called Northeast Alabama Regional Megasite.
The NEAR Megasite name change will make the property more recognizable, said Etowah County Commission’s Chief Administration Officer Shane Ellison. While Little Canoe Creek — its previous namesake — is a local landmark, Northeast Alabama is much easier to pinpoint on a map from anywhere.
“‘NEAR’ has many meanings in this situation,” Ellison explained. “It’s near to utilities and infrastructure, near to prospective employees for a new industry and near to our major partner, Norfolk Southern Rail.”
Norfolk Southern has added perhaps the greatest appeal to the industrial site by making it accessible via railway, as well as investing $5.7 million into the site’s development. The latter, based on Growing Alabama grant funding, has allowed the county to add a 70-acre pad and an access road — with 30 more acres and a second access road on the way.
The commission has made several corporate allies in the development of the property, including Alabama Power, from whose marketing department the new name arose.
“[Alabama Power is] working hard to help market the site so that we can get a major user on the property,” Ellison said. “They are in the process of building a new electrical substation there to serve the area and to serve the Megasite itself, so they have a vested interest (in the project).”
Pursuant to a Memorandum of Understanding executed between the county and city several months ago, the City of Rainbow City will annex the property upon its development.
“Annexation allows the City of Rainbow City to provide police and fire protection, as well as to service the site from a water and sewer standpoint,” said Ellison. “The Memorandum of Understanding says that at the appropriate time, the site would be annexed into the City of Rainbow City. There’s no reason to do so at this time, but when we land something, then that’s the appropriate time for annexation.”
According to Ellison, the site is a proverbial “stone’s throw” from Rainbow City. The two are separated only by Interstate 59, sitting on the interstate’s north and south sides, respectively. The commission is considering an initiative to add an interchange for the location.
At the January 3 meeting, the commission authorized a contract with Goodwyn Mills Cawood architecture to conduct an Interchange Access Request Study on the site. The study is expected to cost $240,000 total, the amount to be split equally between the county and Rainbow City.
This study will examine the possibility of adding an interchange — a distinct interstate exit with on and off ramps — to I-59 that would access the property. According to Ellison, construction of a new interchange “doesn’t occur very often,” which makes this a unique opportunity. It is, however, a long and tedious process.
“They’ll look at the feasibility of that, of whether it’s justified or not, and they’ll work with the Alabama Department of Transportation to submit this request to the Federal Highway Administration,” Ellison said. “Just the study itself is a lengthy process.”
The study officially began on January 4, the day after its approval by the Etowah County Commission.
“GMC has been our consulting engineer on this project since the beginning,” Ellison said. “They really have done a fantastic job (with) everything from road access to this 100-acre pad that we’re constructing out there as we speak.”
Ellison said the rebrand is a product of numerous factors “all coming together,” including the county’s recent contract with the Gadsden-Etowah Industrial Development Authority.
“There’s a renewed focus on marketing the Megasite through David Hooks and the IDA,” he said. “Then you have the new name with the new logo, which makes us much more identifiable as well.”
The IDA contract opens up new possibilities for the county, especially for the NEAR Megasite.
“We’re also kind of reintroducing ourselves to the Alabama Department of Commerce,” Ellison explained. “For so long it’s been somewhat dysfunctional with Etowah County not participating in the IDA. This is a chance to reintroduce ourselves statewide, so if the commerce department has a prospect, they know exactly who to call.”
As far as prospective owners, Ellison said the commission’s goal is to keep the site in one piece.
“There are industrial parks throughout the state of Alabama, but there aren’t a whole lot of Megasites,” he said. “In fact, I like to say that we’re the ‘last man standing.’ So the goal would be not to subdivide the site, unless it’s just an offer we can’t refuse.”
Ellison said to sell the property in its entirety will take patience, and that the commission has already turned down one offer.
“We did have a prospect that was interested, and they just weren’t a good fit for the site,” Ellison said. “It wasn’t a large enough industry; there weren’t enough jobs associated with it. I am very thankful that this commission has been extremely patient with the process, because you have to wait. We’re putting ourselves in a good position, but we don’t need to jump at the first thing that comes along. And they have not done that.”
In other items of business, the commission approved the FY 2022 Rebuild Alabama Report. District 2 Commissioner Johnny Grant passed the gavel to the new commission president, District 6 Commissioner Craig Inzer, Jr.