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Spotlight on Limestone, Morgan and Lawrence Counties

A scenic view of Joe Wheeler Lake in Decatur.

A scenic view of Joe Wheeler Lake in Decatur.

Photo courtesy of the Decatur/Morgan County Convention & Visitors Bureau

Limestone, Morgan and Lawrence counties in north Alabama are blessed with an abundance of natural resources and beauty, major interstate and rail that attract a diverse number of industries, proximity to the high-tech hotspot of Huntsville and a strong sense of quality of life that is backed up with many amenities for residents and visitors alike to enjoy.

Once almost completely agricultural, this area has diverse economies that include all types of manufacturing, from automotive to steel to chemicals and aerospace.

All three counties and their industries invest in young people, offering career education from middle school on, so students can prepare for careers ranging from manufacturing to agriculture. Morgan County’s Endless Opportunities Hands-On Career Expo, for example, offers programs for eighth graders in Decatur City, Hartselle City and Morgan County schools.

Limestone County’s county seat is Athens. The county includes small portions of Decatur, Huntsville and Madison, but Athens is the only city completely within its borders. “Due to Interstate 65 north and south, and U.S. 72 from Memphis to Chattanooga, we have an excellent system of delivery,” says Tom Hill, president/CEO of the Limestone County Economic Development Association. “Many of our sectors are poised for rapid growth.”

Morgan County’s county seat is the riverside city of Decatur. “Fortunately, we are pretty diverse in our manufacturing sectors,” says Jeremy Nails, president and CEO of the Morgan County Economic Development Association. “We make everything from cat food to rockets to everything in between. We also are seeing growth in many sectors.” The Morgan County Business Park opened recently in Hartselle.

Lawrence County’s county seat is Moulton. It is the leading county in Alabama for incorporating precision agriculture into farming and one of the top cotton producers in Alabama. 

Lawrence County was dealt a major blow this year when International Paper, its largest employer with about 1,100 workers, announced it would close by early 2014. It caught everyone by surprise, says Prentis Davis, Lawrence County Commission chairman.

“It is the big elephant in the room,” Davis says. “Someone called me that morning to tell me, and I said, ‘you gotta be kidding.’ They still had ads in the paper to hire people. We really thought the recession had let up some. The state is sending in a Rapid Response Team to help employees with job searches and more.”

And, the Lawrence County Commission has appointed a committee to study the effects of the closure in Courtland. The closing also will affect about 5,400 loggers in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee.

Tony Stockton, president/CEO of the Lawrence County Industrial Board, says there will be job fairs, counseling and more through the state and other agencies. “We do want to find out what IP plans to do with the site and we would love to be able to market it,” he says. Davis says there is a water treatment plant on the site that would be a valuable asset.

Softening that devastating blow from IP, two other industries have announced plans to open in Lawrence County – Jack Daniel Cooperage, which expects to hire 200 people to make barrels, and IT-TRI LLC, which announced plans for a new steel tubing and pipe plant in the Mallard Fox West Industrial Complex. The IT-TRI plant is estimated to cost $68 million and to create 100 jobs. Production is set to begin by late 2014.

“We are very, very happy about these new additions – right now, it does soften the blow but we have a long way to go,” Davis says. “We will pull together.”

Stockton says the county will work toward getting several companies that have 100 to 200 jobs in order to be more diverse. “A hundred here, two hundred there add up,” he says.

Lori Chandler Pruitt is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham. 

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