Marengo County, Alabama, is a diamond in the rough waiting to be discovered. “People may overlook us because it is rural Alabama and they think that there is not going to be anything here,” says Brenda Tuck, Executive Director of the Marengo County Economic Development Authority, “but nothing could be farther from the truth. We are a gem, waiting to be utilized to our fullest potential.”
“With vast natural and logistical resources, including industrial properties located on navigable waterways, 4 lane divided highways that connect to Interstates 20 and 59, and highly in demand work force development programs, Marengo County is ready to meet the needs of any industry.”
Deeply rural with an economy traditionally dependent on agriculture, Marengo County is located along a fertile crescent of rich, black soil known as Alabama’s Black Belt. While farming still underpins the community, Marengo County is becoming increasingly diverse economically, and a number of industries are beginning to recognize the region’s remarkable assets. “We are a much bigger player in the world economy than people realize when they think about rural Alabama.”
Alabama is in the center of the fastest growing region in the United States and has become known for the many international companies that have located there. With its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, it is the perfect hub and gateway for foreign-based businesses, or any business with an international focus. Currently, more than 425 foreign-based companies from more than 30 nations operate in Alabama.
The Port of Demopolis, previously permitted for a barge manufacturing facility, is currently in redevelopment, and is available as a build to suit facility for any industry. Located just 212 nautical miles above the Port of Mobile on the Tombigbee River, it is a part of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway System that can move goods throughout many areas of the U.S. and internationally.
Mercedes-Benz is one of the most highly recognized foreign investors in Alabama’s economy, but Alabama is home to more than 425 foreign-based companies from over 30 nations. Additionally, 2400 Alabama companies provide high-quality products that were made in Alabama to 197 counties; ranked 23rd for U.S. exporting in 2013, exported goods include automotive, aerospace, agribusiness and forestry products, chemicals, medical and biotechnology, electronics and steel. Canada, China, Germany, Mexico and the United Kingdom are historically the top five destinations for many of these products. “Alabama can continue to win projects of that magnitude,” Ms. Tuck states. “The State has just revamped our incentives to be even more aggressive in our efforts to [attract] businesses.” Marengo County is poised to be part of that attraction.
Located within the Demopolis Intermodal Complex, the previously permitted river port is one of Marengo County’s most exciting assets. “It is a tremendous opportunity that we want to capitalize on and utilize to help change the whole landscape of the entire Black Belt.” Located on the Tombigbee River in the City of Demopolis, the site has enormous potential for the entire region. Mobile, Alabama – a key port city on the Gulf of Mexico – is located just 212 nautical miles to the south, so “we have the capability here to be able to ship anywhere in the world,” Ms. Tuck explains. “Because if it can go down to the Port of Mobile, it can go anywhere it needs to go.” This capability sets Marengo County apart from surrounding communities. “We have the navigable waterway for this region.”
Local officials and business leaders are committed to redeveloping the port – and to making it bigger and better than it was before. “We are being very aggressive in working toward getting this port reopened. We have so many existing industries that need to use this now.” And even more industries are considering a move to the county if the port reopens. “We have had a lot of interest, both public and private.”
The fact that the port has been utilized in the past will simplify the development process. “We have a unique situation because we have a port that was previously permitted” – and getting that permit “is half the battle,” Ms. Tuck points out. “All of that has been done ahead of time.” In addition, the 78-acre site, with additional acreage available, already has a 100,000 square foot building with 35 foot eaves, five 10-ton cranes, plus 4800 square feet of office space, ready for occupancy. The infrastructure needed to whisk goods to and from the port is also in place. A new rail spur runs through the site, an airport is located adjacent to it, and a four lane divided highway (65mph) leads to Interstate 20/59, approximately 30 miles away.
Incoming businesses may also be interested in additional county industrial parks. Bordered by two railroads, the Linden Industrial Park has power and water as well as a natural gas pipeline with fiber optic transmission lines. Also served by rail, Demopolis South Industrial Park has over 80 acres available, all of which already have major utilities in place.
Despite the county’s rural nature, a dedicated workforce is available for incoming industry. “Marengo County is uniquely situated in the heart of the Black Belt of Alabama. It is in a rural setting but it is bordered by eight other counties, so we are naturally a nine county hub with well over 100,000 people to pull from as far as the workforce. Certainly county by county our numbers are much smaller than Alabama’s metropolitan areas but, [because] we work together as regional partners, we are much larger than we appear. People love their quality of life in our rural counties and they are willing to commute farther, providing us with a larger quality work force for the region.”
This workforce is renowned for its strong work ethic, traditional values, and old-fashioned Southern hospitality. “It is like a big family where everybody helps each other,” Ms. Tuck says of the community as a whole. “If somebody is stranded on the side of the road, four people will stop to help… That is a great dynamic that we have here in the South and especially Marengo County.” In fact, many employers insist that the region’s greatest asset is its people. “The people here work hard. They are dedicated.”
AIDT, “Alabama’s shining star of workforce development,” operates within Marengo County, and the community maintains a variety of top-notch programs to ensure the local workforce is well trained. Residents enjoy easy access to three institutions of higher learning: Shelton State Community College (SSCC), Alabama Southern Community College (ASCC), and the University of West Alabama. “All three institutions are tremendous partners with us to provide much needed programs that focus directly on Work Force Development needs and opportunities,” Ms. Tuck reports. In addition, businesses in need of a training facility can utilize a 5,000 square foot space within the Marengo County Economic Development Authority building.
The workforce is already in place; the next step is for businesses to bring employment. “The work ethics and skills of these rural Alabamians are not being maximized,” says Ronnie Davis, State Director for USDA Rural Development. “These people could prove to be key leadership and the backbone of any new and growing company, should such an opportunity locate in their community.”
With a dedicated workforce, plenty of available land, and a port that is ready for redevelopment, all of the pieces are in place for Marengo County’s economic success. “This part of the state is poised to really begin to create change for the whole Black Belt region,” Ms. Tuck insists. “We are moving forward.” Efforts to redevelop the port and revitalize the region are putting Marengo County on the map and attracting the attention of federal agencies eager to lend a hand. For instance, United States Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack both recently visited Marengo County to offer support.
A number of sectors have the potential to thrive in Marengo County, particularly those related to agriculture. “Agriculture is in almost everything we do in Marengo County and our surrounding counties; there is a heavy emphasis on that.” For instance, the pulp and paper industry is quite strong because it takes advantage of local pine trees that flourish in the rich Black Belt soil. Food processing is another sector well suited to the farming community. But the region can also support manufacturing sectors that are unrelated to agriculture, such as steel and automotive. “Certainly we will continue to have family farms, but at the same time those manufacturing opportunities should continue to grow as we move forward. We are open for business for all sectors. There is no industrial segment that we are not looking at.”
Marengo County is encouraging small startups to take advantage of local opportunities as well as large corporations. “We created a small business incubator in our facility, so that we have a one stop shop now for any enterprise, whether it be a small business, an entrepreneur, or even a corporation that needs some space or needs to work with us.”
From savvy entrepreneurs to multinational corporations, an increasing number of investors want to take advantage of Marengo County’s remarkable assets. Local leaders like Brenda Tuck are determined to make that possible. “I just came here in April of 2012, and part of the draw was the potential that I saw,” she remembers. “I really wanted to help Marengo County reach that potential.” From reopening a game-changing port to supporting new businesses, the community is putting the shine on this diamond in the rough.