Etowah County gets more Growing Alabama money from Norfolk Southern for megasite

There’s about to be a vertical, and tangible, sign of progress at Etowah County’s NEAR Megasite. 

The county is getting $3 million more for the 1,100-acre site through the Growing Alabama Credit program and a continued partnership with Norfolk Southern. 

That money will be used to construct an elevated, 500-gallon water tank that will be essential in tying into water and sewer service from Rainbow City, which last year joined in a partnership with the County Commission as far as those basic infrastructure services and access to first responders. 

This map shows where a 500-gallon water tank will be located at Etowah County's NEAR Megasite. The tank will be funded with a $3 million Growing Alabama grant.

The commission at its meeting Tuesday approved the credit as well as a bid of $2,605,412 from Phoenix Fabricators & Erectors to construct the tank, which will be located near the site’s rail line. (A separate bid for another tank near Interstate 59 was rejected because it was more costly than the one approved; officials say only one tank is currently needed.)

Phoenix was recommended for the project by architecture and engineering firm Goodwyn Mills Cawood, which is closely involved with the county on the megasite and received praise Tuesday from commissioners, as did Daniel Parker, Norfolk Southern’s industrial development manager for Alabama, and David Hooks, director of the Gadsden-Etowah Industrial Development Authority. 

The latest funds push Norfolk Southern’s total commitment to the megasite through Growing Alabama to $8.7 million over the last three years. “That’s incredible, absolutely incredible,” county Chief Administrative Officer Shane Ellison said. 

Growing Alabama, administered by the state Department of Commerce, allows companies to receive state tax credits up to half their total liability for investments in qualified projects. 

Norfolk Southern started with a $2.7 million donation in 2020, to be used for grading work to make 70 acres of the property pad ready and set for rail access, for relocating adjacent natural gas lines and adding a new railroad crossing to the industrial access road from U.S. Highway 11. 

The company chipped in $3 million more in 2021 to extend the pad size by 100 acres, construct a new connecting road between Canoe Creek Road North and Wesson Lake Road, and remove trees from the pad area and from Interstate 59. 

“This grant was a little bit harder because Commerce was being a little stingy with Growing Alabama,” commission President Craig Inzer Jr. said. “They’ve extended the program up to $35 million, but that doesn’t start until 2027.” 

Inzer said Rainbow City Mayor Joe Taylor, Parker and Goodwyn Mills Cawood officials Wheeler Crook and Jason Harper, who were at Tuesday’s meeting, were “instrumental” in discussions with state officials about the grant. 

More: Interactive site plan for Northeast Alabama Regional Megasite

Ellison said there were multiple applicants for Growing Alabama money and nine grants were approved. The only entity to get more than Etowah County was the Alabama Port Authority, which received $5 million. Lawrence County’s Industrial Development Board also got $3 million. 

He said the county has consistently received between 18% and 25% of the funds available each year through the program. 

“With the railroad continuing to invest in what we’re doing, we’re in a good spot now and a good spot going forward with these funds,” Inzer said. “The water structure will help immensely in tying into Rainbow City’s water and sewer. It’s another step in the right direction.” 

Inzer noted that the progress comes a couple of weeks after Ultra Safe Nuclear, which first looked at the megasite, announced that it’s placing a microreactor assembly plant near the Northeast Alabama Regional Airport. 

“When we put this on our website, it’s going to bring more people and I think we’re going to land somebody (for the site) pretty quickly,” he said. “Everyone pulled their weight, and it’s nice to see that kind of teamwork and things come together.” 

Taylor stressed the tone of unity that now surrounds local development efforts, which wasn’t there previously. 

“(After) all the arguing and talk about cooperation, we’ve actually put that together and put that to bed,” he said. “There’s no doubt that the commission, the cities around here and the mayors’ association are doing things together now. We’re getting the chance to take it outside Etowah County, to go to Montgomery and present our case, and we’re finding fruit in that.” 

Taylor said he frequently hears “where’s the County Commission at” in development discussions. “It shows that’s important,” he said. “In the past, it was like the municipalities ran the county, and that’s not true now. People are looking for a united front, and we’ve got a very strong front.” 

Commissioner Jamie Grant observed, “This shows we’re next in line. We are the next big project that comes to this state, but instead of waiting and preparing, we’re going to be ready when they get here.” 

Commissioner Joey Statum called it “an exciting time” in the county. He said he’s serving his final term, and the reason he sought it was “to see this through,” noting that the megasite has been one of his priorities for more than a decade. 

“There have been some ups and downs in the process, but I’m super, super excited to see things coming to fruition,” Statum said. “More than ever, I know we will have something in there pretty quickly.” 

He called the $8.7 million influx “a blessing,” which has allowed the county to do things wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise and help it “become what Etowah County is supposed to be.” 

Greg Bailey

The Gadsden Times