I-85 expansion still long way off, but regional approach is best approach

Published 6:09 pm Tuesday, September 7, 2010

SELMA — Government officials involved in the planning of and public hearings delivering the plans of the extension of Interstate 85 generally all agree the freeway won’t come to fruition for years.

“We won’t be here, at least I won’t be here, when that happens,” said Dallas County Probate Judge Kim Ballard.

When it comes time to begin construction, then officials say they will gather together and push for its development.

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For years now, the extension of I-85 from Montgomery to the Mississippi line at Interstate 20 has been a plan on paper.

About two months ago Volkert & Associates combined with the Alabama Department of Transportation held public hearings across the Black Belt to show the various routes the interstate could take. The public hearings were well-attended and resulted in some discussion about the best route for growth and development in Dallas and Marengo counties, specifically.

Historically, the Black Belt has been slow to develop because of its rural nature. In 1950, when the first interstates were planned and under construction, the Black Belt region had 220,000 family farms, according to U.S. Census data. Farm-to-market roads seemed to satisfy the needs of a majority of people in the region.

But a half century passed and those family farms dwindled to 47,000 in the Black Belt, and along with them the acreage in crops fell from 213 million acres to 90 million acres, census data shows.

As the farms shut down, so did many businesses that drew their profits from agriculture — grain dealers, gins, feed stores and chemical companies.

Some industrial development

As the farms fell into history, the textile factories came. Most of the textile-related industry came to counties, such as those in the Black Belt, to keep overhead such as wages down and profits steady.

Joe A. Sumner, a Ph.D. who directs the Economic & Community Development Institute at Auburn University, and his former associate, Larry Lee, took a close look at these trends across time in a 2004 report called Crossroads and Connections: Strategies for Rural Alabama.

In the study, Sumner and Lee discussed the shift from farming to the textile industry in which many farm families invested their lives for low wages to support some agriculture.

But Alabama lost 56,500 manufacturing jobs from 1990-2002, 54,900 of those jobs, or 97 percent, were for non-durable goods, such as food or clothing. Sumner and Lee pointed out that 41,200 of those jobs lost in a dozen years were in apparel manufacturing.Rural Alabama had suffered a punch again. Indeed by the 21st century, Sumner and Lee reported that two Alabamas had developed, “ one urban and one rural. The first is enjoying relative success. The second for the most part, is making little or no progress and continues to keep Alabama from being recognized as a successful competitor.”

Proof in the numbers

How much has rural Alabama, especially the Black Belt, hurt in the latter years of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st century?

Again, Sumner and Lee pulled together numbers to show the stark difference between the rural and the urban:

n Of the state’s 15 counties with the greatest population over the age of 65, 14 of them are rural

n Of the state’s 12 counties with double-digit unemployment, all are rural (2004 numbers)

n Of the 20 counties in the state with the lowest household income, all are rural

n Of the 20 counties with the lowest percentage of high school graduates, all are rural

Sumner and Lee said in 2004, shortly after the 2000 census data was released, that 31 of the state’s 45 rural counties lost population. Shelby, Baldwin, Elmore, Lee and Greene counties grew in population.

Combined with these trends, which have changed little in the six years since the study, the counties of the Black Belt, the most rural in Alabama, have yet to develop as rapidly as others. A key missing element is transportation, according to Sumner and Lee.

“Lack of an adequate transportation infrastructure is a major obstacle to development in many parts of rural Alabama — especially in the western part of the state. An expanded highway system would allow rural Alabama to better connect with the outside world.”

Arriving at a solution

Sumner has said economic development, which brings with it more population and more dollars for retail, is not out of the grasp of the Black Belt region.

“Here state and local officials must garner the support of Alabama’s senators and representatives in Washington.

In a recent telephone interview, Sumner emphasized the benefit of regional cooperation. Rural communities must join together for the interests of their regions. They must pool their resources because each community has little to offer alone in the way of tax base, leadership, infrastructure and skilled labor.

“Regional cooperation is important for any project as important or for one as difficult as one like this to get done because of the cost,” he said of the I-85 extension.

The extension is expected to cost in the low billions to construct.

Sumner pointed to efforts in Northeast Mississippi by the PUL Alliance to have U.S. 78 designated by Congress as Corridor 22, which will be known as Interstate 22 and run from Birmingham to Memphis, Tenn. through rural Northeast Mississippi.

“It makes sense,” he said.

The PUL Alliance

More than a decade ago, officials in various counties in Northeast Mississippi realized its staple, the furniture industry, was on its way out. Furniture manufacturers could produce their wares better or equally as good for little money by taking their plants to the Far East — Cambodia and Vietnam — where the overhead was lower. Once the furniture industry pulled out of Northeast Mississippi, people would be unemployed and those who had settled in with retail (Tupelo has the largest mall in that region of the state) would also hurt. In other words, to lose an industry without replacing it would result in economic disaster.

Under the auspices of the Three Rivers Planning and Development District, three counties — Pontotoc, Union and Lee — joined together, took advantage of Mississippi law available for economic development and purchased land as a megasite. The group of counties became the PUL Alliance.

Randy Kelly, director of Three Rivers, held the center together, creating membership of the alliance from government, business and others. The land was bought and marketed to auto manufacturers. There were bites, but no catch.

Then came the negotiations with Toyota.

“They wanted interstate access, and if we wanted them, we had to give it to them,” Kelly said.

The PUL Alliance and experts at Three Rivers worked on a plan. They developed that plan and put it into a presentation. Then, representatives from the Alliance went to Washington, D.C. to present their plan to Mississippi’s congressional delegation. The end result was designation of U.S. 78 as Corridor 22.

Now, a Toyota plant sits on the megasite. Despite the recession, the plant has opened and has begun hiring local residents.

“Our alliance was for an industrial site, the road was just a spin off, so to speak,” Kelly said.

But the key to that development — regional cooperation. As to I-85, Kelly said, “I would start by creating a little support group. Start educating the people of the interstate’s economic advantage,” he said.

Then, a unified group should go to Washington and meet with all of the state’s congressional delegation.

“Tell them what it means to the Black Belt and all those counties,” Kelly said. “Shut them up in a room and give them that presentation. That’s how we got what will be Interstate-22, by doing a similar thing. That’s how you get it done.”