Lessons from city’s adversity

Published 9:13 am Wednesday, June 5, 2013

My first job out of college was at The Alexander City Outlook. In my first few months on the job, Russell Corp. — the largest employer in town — announced it was selling out to Fruit of the Loom.

With jobs throughout the textile industry already moving offshore, Russell soon followed. Hundreds of jobs were lost in that first year.

A few years later, after a stop elsewhere, I was back in Alexander City as managing editor of the newspaper. In my first two weeks, Russell announced more plant closings.

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Perhaps I was the bad luck charm?

But while the news was met with the usual fears, there was a slight difference this time. In the years between those first job losses and the next major round, leaders in Alexander City, Dadeville and Tallapoosa County — who admittedly were not always on the friendliest of terms — had bonded to form an economic development alliance with one intent: diversity.

For decades, Alexander City had relied on one industry, and it served the city well. In fact, I’ve always thought it bonded that community like no other. Whether you were working on the sewing machine or packing boxes or sitting in a corporate office, everyone had one major goal: making T-shirts.

That unity spilled over into other areas, whether it was raising funds for a state-of-the-art children’s library or building a new playground in a weekend.

And in recent years, that experience with unity has brought Alexander City farther than most would have thought when Russell started dismantling its textile operations.

Last week, Russell announced another plant closure, with some 300 jobs lost.

My husband mentioned the news later that day, telling me, “Well, I guess the town is about to shut down.”

I took pleasure in telling him how wrong he was.

In the same week, one of Alexander City’s newest industries — an automobile supplier — announced an expansion that will replace nearly all of those jobs.

Alexander City has not fully recovered yet from its Russell job losses, but it learned quickly in those first days after Russell was sold what it had to do — and leaders were aggressive in their pursuit of new industry.

Its economic development efforts have lately been focused on the automotive suppliers; in fact, Alexander City and Tallapoosa County were among the first to sign up to participate in Hyundai incentives when that company announced its move to Hope Hull. Those efforts are paying off.

When everyone else counted them out, they relied on their biggest strength: each other.

Kerry Whipple Bean is publisher of The Atmore Advance. She can be reached at kerry. bean@atmoreadvance.com.