By Laura Ann Brown Tipps/Staff Writer
Last Friday, Gov. Robert Bentley visited Etowah County for a roundtable discussion of small business with Chamber of Commerce officials as part of Bentley’s Road to Economic Recovery Tour.
Representatives from a diverse group of small businesses in Etowah County met at the Gadsden Chamber of Commerce, where they expressed concerns and conversed candidly with Bentley.
Bentley began by saying, “The floor is open – you can ask anything you want, and we’ll answer the best we can.”
One of the first questions was about the extension of Interstate 759.
Bentley said that the Highway Reauthorization Bill (MAP-21), which will be voted on by Congress this fall, would allocate a certain amount of money for highway and road building.
He explained that Alabama has a budget of only about $100 million to put toward new roads and bridges each year, which is a relatively small amount compared to the cost of new construction.
“I could make out a five-year plan and I could make it sound like, in three years, we’re going to build four-lane highways all over the state of Alabama, but I’d be lying,” said Governor Bentley.
Bentley has an intimate knowledge of the MAP-21 reauthorization process, as he is the current chairman of the National Governors Association’s Economic Development and Commerce Committee.
He said that the development of an effective highway system will require a close look at the existing infrastructure.
Ultimately, Bentley promised to do the best he could to get the necessary funding for the Interstate 759 project.
Charles Walker, who owns the Old Walker Drug Store and Antique Mall in Attalla, thanked Governor Bentley for his support of the Main Street Alabama project, which helps small towns revitalize their downtown districts.
“I love small towns, so I think it’s very important, and your mayor over there can take credit for it, too,” said Bentley, referring to Attalla mayor Larry Means, who was present at the meeting.
Derrick Griffey, owner of Somewhere in Time Antiques and Collectibles in Attalla, wondered if businesses in historic districts would be eligible for other grant opportunities if they were unable to participate in the Main Street initiative this year.
Gov. Bentley recommended that Griffey reach out to Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs director Jim Byard, Jr. for assistance in finding and applying for grants that would help make the front of his building, which was built in 1909, look historically appropriate.
Jason Wilson of Gadsden’s Back Forty Beer Company expressed concern about Alabama’s restrictiveness regarding alcohol legislation despite its status as the largest, fastest growing brewery state in the country.
Bentley commended Wilson on craft brewery’s progress, and said that the state government needs to help legitimate, legal businesses expand because they bring so many jobs to Alabama.
Jahn Coppey of Wills Creek Winery is also seeking the right to have additional tasting rooms and festivals to increase tourism and encourage people to drink local wines.
Bentley responded by saying that many “small guys” get left out in legislation, but that those tourism dollars are important and that he would be willing to take a close look at any bill that came to his desk.
Other, state-level issues such as opening businesses on state highways, health department regulations on home-based businesses, and the Governor’s decision not to expand Medicaid were discussed.
This final topic culminated in Governor Bentley’s plea to separate our system from “Obamacare.”
“Obamacare is a philosophy, but I believe in the philosophy of helping people out of poverty [through education and job creation],” he said.
Bentley also urged attendees to tell their delegation in the House of Representatives to pass the Marketplace Fairness Act, which has already passed in the Senate.
“It’s a jobs tax: If you’ve got a small company, you’re at a 9 percent disadvantage to Amazon because they charge no taxes and ship free.
“If you have a local store, you can’t hire more people at a 9 percent disadvantage, but you’ve put money into this area with brick and mortar, and Amazon hasn’t,” Bentley said.
In closing, Bentley said that he has developed the Accelerate Alabama Plan to aid small businesses, providing resources to assist owners in finding the help or guidance they need.
“If you’re an Alabama business, I’m on your side. I want small businesses to thrive.”