The people in Valley, Alabama, have a lot of reasons to smile.
“I’m very proud of how far we’ve come,” said Valley Mayor Leonard Riley. “I’m just proud of our community and that we’re growing.”
Pride and growth was hard to find here 13 years ago. In May 2008 the last of several large textile mills closed, raising unemployment in this east Alabama city above 22 percent.
“We had about 12,000 employed in textiles back in 1988,” Riley said. “When the last 1,800 were let go in 2008, it was just sad.”
Valerie Gray, executive director of the Chambers County Development Authority (CCDA), remembers the pain. A native of Chambers County, she returned home 10 years prior to the collapse to recruit business to the area.
“2006 to 2009 was some of our darkest days,” Gray said. “Thousands of people had lost their jobs – thousands of people that I know, that we went to church with, school with, things like that. It nearly tore us apart.”
Rather than tread water amid the tears, the region rallied. Gray said she and others throughout the county banded together, encouraging businesses and investors to look at their gem hidden halfway between Atlanta and Montgomery.
“It really energized me to truly make a difference,” Gray said. “When I tell people about our area I tell them about our resources: about our three exits on Interstate 85, our available water resources, our broad utility bases such as power, infrastructure, water, sewer, gas, and now the ever-important broadband. We’re seeking to be able to develop some of the rural parts of our county to make them competitive so that we can not only recruit industries here, but maybe people want to relocate from the hustle and bustle of big cities, and they can work remotely and locate in some of our smaller rural towns.”
The hard work has paid off. Within 12 years the unemployment rate in Valley dropped to 2.6%, thanks in large part to the arrival of Kia Motors in nearby West Point, Georgia, and numerous auto parts suppliers such as AJIN USA.
“That’s a testament to our people,” said Bruce Emfinger, president of the CCDA board of directors. “We knew how to fight through a hard time, and we came back quicker than a lot of communities did. It’s a testament to our leadership, and it’s just a testament to this area.”
DIVERSE WORKFORCE OPPORTUNITIES
Despite the huge economic successes reaped from automobile manufacturing, leaders in Valley and Chambers County say the painful scars of the textile job losses are a constant reminder to maintain a diverse industrial base. Those memories are what fueled efforts to recruit other businesses such as Norbord Alabama (now West Fraser), Knauf Insulation and WestRock.
“The first project that I ever announced was Norbord,” one of the largest OSB (oriented strand board) manufacturers in the nation, Gray said. “I really didn’t realize how big of a deal it was until, after it announced, all of the local loggers and the local people who were going to be supporting the mill started coming up in conversations. That’s when it kicked in that this – true diversification of your industrial base – is a difference maker.”
The newest industry coming to Valley is John Soules Foods, a food processing company based in Tyler, Texas. The company is spending more than $100 million to refurbish a 266,000-square-foot abandoned textile mill.
“All of the robotics the company is putting in is just amazing,” Riley said. “I’ve never seen so much change in a building. We’re real pleased to have them here.”
[RELATED: John Soules Foods launches Alabama expansion]
The plant will employ more than 400 people when it’s fully operational – jobs Riley says will elevate families and the region.
“You can see the difference in our community,” Riley said. “We need good jobs that provide a good quality of living. That’s what we’re recruiting. We’re recruiting industry that pays well so it brings the standard of living up in our community.”
In addition to industrial recruiting, leaders in Valley and Chambers County are also focused on workforce development. Montray Thompson, principal at Valley High School, said career planning looks very different from what it did when he was a teenager.
“I remember years ago if you were smart or got good grades, you were not scheduled for any career tech courses,” Thompson said. “Today is just the opposite. You learn a trade in high school that’s geared towards your interests, so you know what that looks and feels like. You know what to expect. I think career tech is the best avenue for that.”
Thompson added that a consistent, concerted effort by faculty, staff and parents to help students is beginning to pay dividends.
“It can’t be about one person,” Thompson said. “It has to be a collaborative effort. We can’t keep doing it the same way and expect over time that we’ll have a different result. I feel like I’m led by faith on all of that. We’ve got to be able to build on top of what we’ve got and not go in the opposite direction.”
QUALITY OF LIFE
Leaders in Valley will quickly tell you their 41-year-old city is one of the best places in the country to live – a statement backed up by 24/7 Wall St., a national financial news organization that ranked Valley in 2019 as the best city in Alabama to live in. Valley was praised for its low cost of living and also for being selected as a pilot city for the Alabama Communities of Excellence (ACE) program. ACE is a nonprofit organization that partners with governments, businesses and universities to prepare participating communities for a more vibrant future.
“Partnerships are vital for a community like ours,” Emfinger said. “Without an Alabama Power, without Spire Gas, without our local water authorities – without that partnership, things couldn’t happen because we couldn’t afford to do it at all just through the development authority or just through the cities or just through the county. It takes a team to make those things happen.”
Those partnerships are helping Valley resolve a big need for more available housing. The city late last year approved a plan by Holland Homes to build up to 350 new residences on the city’s west side, a plan Holland Homes President and CEO Dan Holland says happened in large part because of relationships with Alabama Power.
“The team at Alabama Power has been super critical in the beginning stages of this,” Holland said. “They got us connected, and we went and met with the city of Valley and now are partnering with them. It’s really cool.”
Holland says the new homes will be “smart homes” developed in cooperation with Alabama Power’s Smart Neighborhood™ program and will also feature a vibrant community town center with restaurants, coffee shops, parks and an amphitheater.
“We just love building a quality product that not only changes where people live but how they live,” Holland said. “This is going to be something that not only helps the people that live in the community but also the surrounding communities. It will begin to change and raise the bar for what housing is like in Chambers County.”
The city is also focused on recreation. Miles of walking trails wind through the city and around the city’s massive Sportsplex, a complex featuring multiple baseball and softball fields, tennis courts, a football stadium, two gymnasiums, handball courts and a swimming pool. Residents can also enjoy fishing or boating in the nearby Chattahoochee River.
“We offer a huge recreation program,” Riley said. “I feel like we are taking the right steps.”
STRENGTH WOVEN IN
So how does a city and its neighbors turn despair into fortune? Gray said it starts with desire to work hard.
“People all the time say they are envious of our success story,” Gray said. “We really just look at it as it’s just hard work.”
A willingness to work with neighboring municipalities in the region has also helped spur growth, Riley added.
“The City of Valley used to fight with everybody,” Riley said. “We never worked with anybody, but since I’ve become mayor we’ve reached out to every community, and we’re working with everybody because you can’t make progress and you can’t move forward unless you are working together.”
That spirt of cooperation has led to a joint effort between Valley, Lanett and Chambers County to build a new terminal at the Lanett Municipal Airport and lengthen the runway, making it long enough for corporate jets.
“That’s been a long project, but it’s going to put us in competition and give us an advantage over a lot of places in the state with our runway length,” Emfinger said. “We can draw the business here. We’re ready to grow.”
Gray said the project is just the latest in a series of examples that show the region’s motto in action.
“When you come into our community, you see the ‘Strength Woven In’ logo in some shape, form or fashion in all the different entities’ logos,” Gray said. “We are working together to make this place better. You can see the difference in our community.”