Overcoming nature’s adversity: Ten real comeback kids in the South
The last half decade has been rough on a handful of markets in the South. From hurricanes, the oil spill, to fires and tornadoes, here are ten places in the South that have overcome adversity and are coming back strong.
Baldwin County, Ala.
Tourism is big business in south Baldwin County, with 4.6 million visitors spending $2.3 billion in a typical year, creating over 40,000 jobs. In 2010, the BP oil spill threatened the beaches in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach resulting in over 40 percent of expected visitors not coming that summer. In 2011, tourism bounced back to its highest level in history with nearly 5 million visitors.
The challenge to local leadership was how to help the business community survive a disastrous 2010 season so that they would be around to enjoy what turned out to be a great 2011.
The approach the community leaders took was to band together in a "war room" surrounded by flip charts tracking critical things that they had to make happen. This ranged from staging huge music festivals to providing solid individual business counseling, and included sharp focus on supporting individuals and families who were without jobs for a long time.
The "war room" team is chaired by Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance VP Bob Higgins, and includes three mayors, Gulf Shores-Orange Beach Tourism, two chambers of commerce, Faulkner State Community College, and several other key leaders. Definitely a "best practice" for any area in the midst of a disaster!
The Northwest Florida Gulf Coast was an economic victim of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Although the direct environmental impacts of the spill were minimal, the national publicity surrounding the disaster resulted in thousands of cancelled trips and vacations, and revenue losses had a catastrophic domino effect throughout the region.
Recovery has been dramatic, as tourism revenues have surpassed pre-oil spill levels. New businesses have started across the Panhandle. Perhaps most importantly, the spill exposed the need to diversify the Northwest Florida economy. The Florida legislature passed legislation appropriating $30 million to assist the region in attracting new companies, and 75 percent of all federal Clean Water Act fines and penalties received by Florida will be directed to eight Northwest Florida counties, which will bring hundreds of millions of additional dollars to the region.
Bayou Region of South Louisiana
There are four parishes (Assumption, Lafourche, St. Mary and Terrebonne) that make up the Bayou Region of South Louisiana. The region is credited for providing as much as 30 percent of the energy that drives our nation’s economy. Its strong ties to oil and gas and the maritime industries that service the energy sector earn it a rank as one of the top local economies -- not merely in Louisiana -- but among 15 other southern states.
Then after April 20, 2010, with the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon that released oil into the Gulf of Mexico and in combination with a yearlong drilling moratorium, everything changed.
Prior to the incident, 55 rigs were working in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. By September of the same year, the number plummeted to 12 and with it the jobs (-4,200) and economic base of the region. Today, the jobs have returned, the rig count stands at 43 with prospects good for new exploration and drilling in the months ahead. More importantly, the region has again reestablished itself as an economic hub within the South posting the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, at 5.3 percent.
Millions of dollars are being invested in the heavily devastated downtown of Cullman, Ala., as dozens of businesses are in the process of construction and development following the April 27, 2011 tornadoes. The storms that swept across Alabama that day directly hit a large section of downtown Cullman, leaving many buildings destroyed or severely damaged.
Winds in excess of 150 miles per hour ravaged 98 businesses and churches, and over 900 homes. The storm ranks as the worst natural disaster in the 140-year history of Cullman. Cullman Mayor Max Townson and the Cullman City Council began strategizing how to best assist businesses with their rebuilding efforts, while maintaining the character and German heritage of the community.
The City appropriated additional money to replace and modernize utilities in the damaged area to include underground utilities. The City also implemented Design Guidelines and adopted a Façade Improvement Grant Program to help with the rebuilding efforts. The program will reimburse 50 percent of up to $5,000 per façade for downtown businesses. The program has approved 31 applications with a total investment back into downtown Cullman of over $6 million by the business owners with over 200 jobs being replaced or created.
April 27, 2011 will be remembered as the day of the most deadly outbreak of tornadoes to ever crisscross the state of Alabama (92). When the skies finally cleared, there were billions in property damage and 239 lives lost within just a few hours. On that deadliest day in terms of weather-related casualties in Alabama’s history, the deadliest tornado of them all entered the state just southwest of Hamilton in Marion County. It followed several miles of State Highway 43 north to soon find Hackleburg, a town of only 1,500 people. This storm was the only EF-5 recorded that day by the National Weather Service, at three-quarters of a mile wide with wind speeds exceeding 200 miles per hour.
It followed a path extending 130 miles across Alabama into Tennessee, killing 78 people in Alabama, 19 of those being residents of the tiny town of Hackleburg. In seconds there were 192 homes destroyed and the local elementary and high school were also totally destroyed. Of the 32 businesses in town, more than 20 were gone, their structures either flattened or carried away to the next street or field. No surprise why the American Red Cross estimated that 75 percent of the town was totally destroyed, while much of the rest suffered serious damage.
The city’s largest employer (representing over 20 percent of the tax base) was the Wrangler Division of Vanity Fair. The facility had operated in the town for decades. Once the storm passed over the solidly built concrete structure, it appeared that it had been chewed up and spit out. Jeans took flight and were found as far as 90 miles away.
Key to lifting Hackleburg back on its feet was the decision by the Alabama Board of Education to rebuild the schools. Another key was the decision by VF-Wrangler to rebuild its plant. After weighing all the pros and cons of operating in such a rural environment, the company saw clearly that the pluses far outweighed any challenges, even in a town that is rising from rubble.
Newly elected Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley led the recruitment team to help convince Vanity Fair to return and invest over $28 million in the project, a success that the governor has called the most personally satisfying in his tenure thus far as the state’s top official. Bentley recognized that the impact of having Wrangler back in Hackleburg would be greater and more personal to the small town that was almost gone with the wind than in most other places where new businesses are welcomed, but not quite so desperately needed.
Bastrop County, Tex.
On Labor Day 2011, Bastrop County suffered the worst wildfire in Texas history, claiming two lives, razing over 1,600 homes and scorching over 35,000 acres. While the city of Bastrop received only a fraction of the overall destruction, the aftermath threatened to bring its economy to its knees.
Within days of the fire starting, plans were being made for recovery efforts. Officials from federal, state and local levels began putting together a macro level look at how the city and county could rebuild once the fire was extinguished.
The Bastrop Economic Development Corp. began taking steps to help jump-start the economic recovery by partnering with local lending institutions to create an emergency wildfire loan program.
The BEDC began developing "BuyBastropTX," a shop local campaign aimed at encouraging people to think local while rebuilding. Then BEDC engaged the services of The Retail Coach to perform a complete retail assessment for the Bastrop community, including a trade area map and a gap/opportunity analysis.
More recently, the BEDC has helped create a county-wide tourism effort titled "PlayBastropCo" to address the misperception that the entire county has been lost to fire. Tourism plays a major role in Bastrop’s economy and a united message letting others know that Bastrop is open for business was critical in the area’s economic rebound. Bastrop isn’t just surviving the fire; it is thriving in its wake.
Everyone remembers Katrina. But there was another that summer. When Hurricane Rita struck Southwest Louisiana in late 2005, the area quickly began rebuilding. Local elected officials had witnessed the problems encountered only a few weeks earlier in the New Orleans area so they united and did not wait.
There was immediate action taken to plan for a new, stronger Southwest Louisiana region. Officials worked together and long range plans were made.
Helped by hundreds of volunteers, FEMA, and local governments, debris was removed and rebuilding began. One year later, the SWLA Economic Development Alliance was formed combining the Chamber SWLA, its foundation and the public SWLA Partnership. This organization serves the five parish (county) area.
An aggressive marketing program began as rebuilding efforts were underway. Federal Go Zone legislation encouraged multi-family housing, commercial and industrial growth. A construction boom began. The aviation industry expanded, gaming and tourism thrived, the petro-chemical industry grew, and a new industry, Shaw Modular Solutions, began the manufacturing of modular nuclear power plants.
Southwest Louisiana became stronger than ever with over $30 billion in new projects announced in 2011 and thousands of jobs created. In 2011, the Southwest Louisiana region won "mid-market of the year" from SB&D for its economic development performance in 2010. George Swift of the SWLA Alliance credits great natural resources and a cooperative spirit among business and public officials as key to the makeover.
On May 22 last year, one of the nation’s deadliest tornadoes hit Joplin, Mo., killing 161 people and destroying thousands of buildings, from homes and churches to large retail stores and one of the city’s two hospitals.
The tornado damaged nearly 530 places of employment, impacting more than 5,000 jobs. More than 80 percent of those businesses are back in operation in some form.
Community leaders in Joplin have endorsed a long-term tornado recovery plan that they believe will serve as a national example of other disaster-ravaged areas. Among other things, the plan includes the creation of four separate business districts that would allow residents to live, work and shop nearby.
At 5:13 pm on April 27, 2011, an EF-4 tornado, which was more than a mile-wide, left a six-mile track of destruction through the City of Tuscaloosa taking the lives of 52 citizens. Twelve percent of the City was destroyed and 7,000 people were unemployed in a matter of less than six minutes and more than 5,300 homes and 600 businesses were damaged.
Since the tornado, the city of Tuscaloosa has issued more than 300 commercial permits in the tornado recovery zone, and continues to work with business owners affected by the storm. After passing new mixed-use zoning regulations in the tornado recovery zone, the city anticipates the commercial industry will take advantage of the flexible new codes and begin the rebuilding process right away.
Tuscaloosa Forward has implemented an ambitious plan to overhaul parks, improve public access to technology and install a recreational walking trail throughout the tornado recovery zone.
These two tiny Virginia towns got a double-whammy in one week. On August 23, 2011, there was a 5.8 earthquake centered about four miles south-southeast of Louisa, Va., and four miles southwest of Mineral, followed by a flood from Hurricane Irene. The earthquake damaged or destroyed more than 1,400 homes in the immediate area as well as schools and other large structures.
Recovery in this rural part of Virginia has been slow, however, grants have been provided to rebuild several schools in the region. Last October, country music superstar Alan Jackson announced the results of a contest in which the prize was a free concert in the town that amassed the greatest number of online votes. Tiny Mineral, Va., won the free Alan Jackson concert with over 31,000 votes. The concert is set for May 20 and will take place in the parking lot behind the town library.