Growing jobs, growing revenue

Published 1:15 pm Saturday, March 31, 2012

So far four businesses, Holiday Inn Express, McDonalds, Hardee’s and Hampton Inn call Rivercane home. Waffle House will join them later this year.

Even as the city of Atmore’s Rivercane development property continues to bring in new businesses, there are local residents who remain critical of the project’s utility and potential for success. Days after announcing Waffle House will become the newest business to call Rivercane home, Atmore Mayor Howard Shell said the project is on track to achieve its intended goal — bringing in revenue for the city from a predominantly out-of-town source, while creating jobs for locals in the process.

“The original idea for Rivercane was to provide almost an outside source of revenue for Atmore, because almost everything you get coming off the interstate is outside dollars,” Shell said.

Richard Maxwell, chairman of the Atmore Industrial Development Board, said the project is bringing more jobs to the community.

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“The two primary goals we had when we started Rivercane were jobs and a revenue stream for the city,” said Richard Maxwell, chairman of the Atmore Industrial Development Board. “And you get that with the businesses that are out there. When Waffle House becomes employed, we’ll have almost 200 jobs out there. That’s the equivalent to a pretty good size plant.”

In the wake of an Alabama-China symposium held several weeks ago in Monroeville, residents in Thomasville are preparing to welcome a Chinese factory to the area. Maxwell said that new industry has become a cause for celebration in that community — and he said Rivercane offers the same kinds of benefits for Atmore.

“That Chinese factory is going to employ 300, and they had to give them all kinds of stuff to come here,” he said. “We’ve got 200 jobs out there, we sold the land at retail and we have a several-hundred-thousand-dollar revenue stream coming in and we didn’t have to give anybody anything.”

Maxwell also echoed Shell’s sentiment that a major perk of the Rivercane project is its location on exit 57 of Interstate 65 and the “outside” dollars it produces.

“The good part about it is that this revenue is primarily coming from interstate traffic, so the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year that is currently provided for the city is not coming out of the pockets of Atmore citizens,” Maxwell said. “We have other people paying for our city services.”

Despite the advantages Rivercane seems to bring to Atmore, there remain local residents that are using Facebook and other social media to cry foul over the types of businesses the project is attracting and the slow rate in which it is bringing them into town. One major complaint has been that the project is acquiring fast food only — not casual dining — and that the fast food coming to the property already exists in Atmore or is similar to existing businesses.

Maxwell said local residents should have patience and focus on what the new arrivals mean for the town as a whole.

“There is a place for industry, and we all want a mix of opportunities,” he said. “But a bunch of small businesses is a great way to diversify. We loved it when Touch 1 was here. We loved it when Vanity Fair was here, but when they left, that was hundreds of jobs gone in one day. You don’t have that threat when you have multiple small businesses.”

As for those eager to see something completely new join the Atmore market via Rivercane, Maxwell and project manager Joe Webb said those kinds of businesses will come with time.

“It will start with hotels and fast food restaurants and then you will start seeing casual dining and retail,” Webb said at a recent IDB meeting.

Maxwell said that is exactly the progression Rivercane is taking so far.

“We’ve been told that from the beginning and, so far, that is how it has gone,” he said.  “It’s a growth process, and I think we’ve done very well considering the economic climate we’ve had to do this in.”

A 1-cent sales tax passed two years ago in large part to help pay off the debt for Rivercane also drew criticism. But the development’s advocates said the debt will be paid off quickly, especially with new businesses.

Although currently only five lots on Rivercane’s 740-acre property have been filled, the city is already close to meeting the just-over $16 million dollar debt incurred by the purchase of the land.

“We’re just a couple of more good businesses away out there from servicing the debt,” Maxwell said. “And it’s only a small part of the total amount of acreage we have. The potential for income and jobs for Atmore over the next several years is huge.”

Shell said the goal is to pay off the debt — and fund more city services.

“If we were to get many more properties out there, not only would we service all of the debt, but we would have extra income for the city,” Shell said.

Already in 2012, two more businesses have joined the ranks of McDonald’s, Hardees and Holiday Inn Express at Rivercane, with Hampton Inn opening for business earlier this month and Waffle House scheduled to begin construction in October.

A ribbon cutting for Hampton Inn will be held today.

“The Hampton Inn is in operation,” Webb said. “They have reported very good occupancy rates and they are very pleased with the way things are going out there.”

Maxwell said, while he expects many more to join the project in the coming months and years, right now every newly occupied lot is a win for the city of Atmore.

“The revenue stream that comes from these through sales tax and lodging tax is huge,” he said. “That’s very important to the city. You don’t get any of that from industry. You get jobs, but you don’t get any revenue back for the city.”

Maxwell said that despite a still-sluggish economy, things are looking up at Rivercane and added that is a sign that Atmore is in prime position to be an economic leader in the area.

“There are towns around us that are losing jobs,” he said. “We see what’s happening in Mobile with the budget issues they’re having and we see what’s happening at the state level, but Atmore is paying its bills and that’s a lot to say in this economic climate.”

Maxwell said, as Rivercane grows, it is the hope of the IDB and city officials that residents will see the positive changes Rivercane can bring to Atmore.

“I want people to be excited about the development out there and the future it gives for Atmore. That’s our front door now, the interstate, and we’re very blessed to have the opportunity to have frontage on the interstate. There are an awful lot of cities that would die for that opportunity. We hope it is the beginning of a good future for Atmore for a long time.”