By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
Fourteen years ago, the Etowah County Commission planted a seed for economic growth at Little Canoe Creek, cultivating significant promise for the future in its industrial mega-site.
As time progressed, so did improvements for the mega-site, with the latest developments transforming a once-meager dream into a magnificent reality. Now, with the prospect of generating industry and substantial employment opportunities for the region closer than ever, passionate pillars of the Etowah County community reflect on the mega-site’s transformative advancement, looking forward to its monumental impact on their home.
“In general, counties aren’t this involved in industrial development,” said Etowah County Chief Administrative Officer Shane Ellison. “But the current Etowah County Commission and commissions before felt like something else had to happen – and it is happening. We just have to continue to raise this child until it can walk on its own. We want to see all of our cities continue to prosper.”
Around three years ago, the state of Alabama’s Growing Alabama Credit program awarded Little Canoe Creek $2.7 million, while Norfolk Southern Corporation partnered with Etowah County as the donor. This phase introduced plans for a new railroad crossing, relocation of natural gas lines to the property’s perimeter and an extension of the site’s industrial access road. 2020 brought construction for a 70-acre, rail-served, pad-ready site, with Alabama Power obtaining property from the county to build a new substation capable of serving almost any large industry.
Phase two of site preparation arrived in November of 2021, with an additional $3 million donation again from Norfolk Southern through the Growing Alabama program. Phase two increases the pad size to 100 acres, while building a new road to connect Canoe Creek Road North and Wesson Lake Road, which creates another access point to-and-from the mega-site. Any remaining funds will be used to remove trees between Interstate 59 and the pad to prepare the site further for future development.
“The mega-site has the unique potential of generating significant economic impact for Etowah County and the entire region for generations to come,” said Etowah County’s former Economic Development Director Marilyn Lott, who diligently worked to promote and advance the mega-site before her recent retirement. “In 2021, we received ten requests for information with an average of 1,500 jobs and $2.5 billion in capital investment. It’s just a matter of time before the goal will be reached to recruit a company with a large number of high-quality, high-paying jobs.”
In early January of this year, Governor Kay Ivey announced $231.6 million rail projects as a part of A-USA Corridor, with the intent of upgrading economic development infrastructure across central and southern Alabama and improving the movement of goods via Mobile’s port. The 280-mile A-USA Corridor partners the State of Alabama with Norfolk Southern Railroad and connects the port of Mobile to Little Canoe Creek mega-site, which Norfolk Southern recognizes as a “prime site.” Norfolk Southern expressed its support of the incentive and Little Canoe Creek, collaborating with the state and Etowah County Commission to invest $5.7 million in improvements for the site.
“If people only realized what that means [to have A-USA Corridor connect Etowah County to Mobile],” said Etowah County Commissioner Joey Statum. “The opportunities are endless, with imports and exports from all over the world coming from Etowah County to the port of Mobile. I think we look at it way too small – it is bigger than any of us can imagine.”
Just weeks following Ivey’s statement, Etowah County unveiled an exciting announcement of its own: the Etowah County Commission approved a resolution to contract with engineering consultant Goodwyn Mills Cawood (GMC) to develop plans for the installation of water and sewer infrastructure at Little Canoe Creek. GMC currently provides engineering services for the roadwork and pad construction underway at the site. The commissioners voiced their gratitude for the two-million funding the project, available through the American Rescue Plan.
Pathways paved in the past laid the foundation for the site’s success today, establishing Etowah County as an appealing setting for companies to locate. In 2018, the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama deemed Little Canoe Creek an official Alabama Advantagesite, signifying the completion of all due diligence and incorporating Etowah County’s mega-site into the industrial site preparedness program, designed to increase industry and boost Alabama’s competitive edge with companies considering locating in the state. As the largest tract of land in North Alabama currently designated as an Alabama Advantagesite, several unique factors coincide to set Little Canoe Creek apart from its competitors.
“Having only one owner and being publicly owned is rare for such a larger site, which should provide a competitive edge,” said Lott, discussing what differentiates the mega-site from other similar locations. “Companies prefer that because problems with closing the deal can arise when multiple private landowners are involved.”
The construction project for the 100-acre, pad-ready, rail-served site generates further interest for the site. The area for immediate development – spanning over 4.3 million square feet – is considerable enough to accommodate a large manufacturing facility such as an auto assembly plant. Being adjacent to Interstate 59 with Class 1 rail access, international air service 45 minutes away and local air service only 15 minutes away, prove advantageous benefits for industries concerned with transportation. Alabama Power serves the site with its new substation soon set for construction on the location, and there are three options for gas providers: Boaz Gas Board and Spire can serve the site, with Southern Natural Gas a possibility for larger users. In addition, AT&T provides redundant telecom services through their fiber optic system located adjacent to the site.
“There’s such a finite number of these sites around the state,” said Ellison. “I think the thing that makes us unique is the partnership between Etowah County, Norfolk Southern, Alabama Power and the state. You have support from other utilities and local industry, which are the key players that seem to work well together for development of the site, with good communication among each one of those entities.”
Little Canoe Creek’s potential workforce – comprised of over one-half-million people – lives within commuting distance of the site, including 60,000 who work in manufacturing. Etowah County Commission President Johnny Grant emphasized the county’s partnership with its school systems and Gadsden State Community College’s workforce development programs to foster future generations of skilled professionals, noting its impact on the mega-site. Under the leadership of President Dr. Kathy Murphy, Dean Alan Smith and educators, Gadsden State equips students with essential skillsets to ensure their success and readiness upon entering the workforce, preparing them for technologically advanced positions such as the ones Little Canoe Creek will generate.
Etowah County Commissioner Tim Ramsey encouraged the community to remain patient as the mega-site progresses, noting that attracting industry of this caliber requires time. He stated that with the prospect of 1,500 to 2,000 additional jobs available through Little Canoe Creek, everything throughout Etowah County improves – boosting the quality of life residents treasure.
“We are a growing state and we’re attracting a lot of new industry,” said Ramsey. “Our community is so very blessed in the resources we have – and the people in our community are one of our greatest resources. When you really get involved in community affairs, you realize we’ve really got some fantastic people who give their time and talent toward Etowah County. I believe more people are paying attention, voicing their opinions, getting involved and doing great things for our community. We are better together.”
While these significant improvements illustrate the incredible progress on Etowah County’s horizon, they are also indicative of the unwavering determination of those impassioned individuals who recognized the invaluable potential of Little Canoe Creek years ago. Statum witnessed the mega-site’s evolution from its inception, understanding the importance of encouraging its advancement. He shared that although it is difficult for the average person to grasp onto something intangible, gleaming the foresight for the future, establishing plans and acting is essential to achieve the best for Etowah County and all generations to come.
“You’ve got to have somebody in leadership that sees something that’s not there,” said Statum. “Everything you see around you, that was once because of somebody that had a dream. Somebody had a vision that was going to happen [and acted to make it happen]. When I leave the county commission, my greatest accomplishment will be what I’ve been able to contribute – to keeping the mega-site alive, keeping it going and seeing that vision. I’m glad to be a part of it. I’m glad I’ve been able to see that vision, and I’m excited.”
“The more I learned about the mega-site and the more I’ve seen its progress, I realized the mega-site was not only a possibility…it is a reality,” said Grant. “We’ve come a long way just in the last six years I’ve been here. We (the commission) feel like now, the mega-site is not a maybe. We are going to get quality industry here. We owe a lot to those prior commissioners. They had the insight to buy the property and get it started…we wouldn’t be at this point if it wasn’t for them.”
“These folks feel passionately about Etowah County as a whole, or they wouldn’t be as helpful as they’ve been,” said Ellison, commending the commission and the partnerships formed to propel the mega-site forward. “We’ve got several commissioners who run and own small businesses, and they can see the value in this investment. Partners like Norfolk Southern, Alabama Power and Alabama Department of Commerce continue to support us and communicate with us about prospects. We appreciate them and know they’re behind us, 100 percent.”
Statum, Grant, Ellison, Ramsey and Lott reiterate the commission’s mission to benefit Etowah County as a whole, with the mega-site emerging as yet another avenue to uplift the community and provide greater opportunities for its citizens. As the commission checks boxes off its list, the mega-site steps toward completion, proving an attractive location for successful companies to settle. Describing Little Canoe Creek Mega-Site as “the next best economic advantage for Etowah County, Northeast Alabama and the Southeast United States,” Statum emphasized the vision that served as a catalyst – showcasing Etowah County’s worth for decades to come.
“The Etowah County Commission is doing everything humanly possible to bring economic growth and high paying joys for our kids, grandkids and future families,” said Statum. “I know that is what the mega-site will bring – hope, from now on and many generations to come. My hat’s off to the old commission and our commission now, who opened their minds and eyes to see what could be – something great for Etowah County.”
“We want this – the development and growth of the mega-site – to be something the entire community can be proud of, in addition to benefitting from,” said Ellison. “I would love to see our population trend positive as a result, because it means we’re doing things right here in Etowah County that makes people want to put down roots here, to be a part of the community. Years from now, we can look back and say, ‘We did the right thing.’”
“I believe the mega-site will be a catalyst for the whole county and the whole region,” said Ramsey. “We’ve made great strides in the last four years and the feeling is very positive with the commission that something good is just around the corner. I’m expecting something outstanding to land at Little Canoe Creek – it has all the potential and positives in the world.”
“We’re looking for the day something comes to the mega-site and Etowah County grows,” said Grant. “We’re here for the people of Etowah County, all of them, to create a place where families keep their kids and grandkids here, where they can make livable wages and we can generate more revenue for the county. There’s only positive things that will happen when this mega-site becomes a reality…nothing but positive.”