LANETT, Alabama – In East Alabama’s Chambers County, the textile industry facilities are all gone, many of the last survivors wiped away in one brutal year of rapid-fire plant closings. In their place have come a string of companies that use plastic injection molding machines to make automotive parts and firms that stamp out metal body panels.
Valerie Gray, executive director of the Chambers County Development Authority, has had a first-hand view of the dramatic shift that began reshaping Alabama’s manufacturing sector when Mercedes-Benz announced on Sept. 30, 1993, that it would build vehicles in the state.
The shift has played out in many rural communities across Alabama as the old-line textile industry, a longtime provider of bread-and-butter jobs, accelerated a decline that had started years before. At the same time, the rise of Alabama’s auto industry, powered by Mercedes’ arrival, began bringing many supplier companies to communities such as Alexander City, Opelika, Greenville and Selma.
Chambers County, which borders the Georgia state line and stands 80 miles from Montgomery on Interstate 85, has been ground zero for this transformation. After enduring a bloodbath of lost textile industry jobs, the county is now home to a dozen auto suppliers that have replaced nearly all the lost textile jobs and could continue to add more workers.
“I don’t know how to say what this has meant to us without getting religious,” Gray said. “It’s been a savior. It’s been a blessing.”
THE DARK DAYS
In February 2009, the jobless rate in Chambers County peaked at 19.7 percent, with 2,833 people out of work. It had been a tough couple of years for the county, which had long depended on textile industry operator West Point Pepperell for many of its jobs. During a bleak 2007, the company had closed seven facilities in Chambers County, eliminating 1,637 jobs. Another 350 jobs evaporated in May 2008 when it closed a distribution center in Valley.
“It was pretty devastating,” Gray said.
For much of this period, Chambers had the highest unemployment rate among Alabama’s counties. Conditions, though, have been improving. In August, thanks to the growth of its auto suppliers and some other projects, the county’s jobless rate had fallen to 7.5 percent.
The crumbling of the textile industry was particularly difficult on Chambers County, whose roots ran deep in Alabama’s traditional manufacturing industry. Valley, its biggest city with a population of 9,500, had been formed through the incorporation of four mill villages. The county seat of Lanett was named for two local textile mill developers – Lafayette Lanier and Theodore Bennett.
The textile industry’s long decline in the region, however, had prompted a strategic move by Gray and the Chambers County Development Authority. In 2001, the authority had begun assembling land for a new industrial park off Exit 70 on Interstate 85. At first, there were no takers.
“When we started doing it, everybody in town thought we were Looney Tunes,’” Gray said.
But authority officials believed the county could cash in on the auto industry’s move into the South, particularly into Alabama, which by 2005 had Mercedes, Honda and Hyundai plants in operation. Besides, Gray said, the county’s economic developers needed available land if an industrial prospect came along.
For five years, the 430 acres that became the Cussetta Industrial Park stood empty. Then in 2006, the park would become home to Great Lakes Metal Stamping LLC, a contract manufacturer of stamped metal parts. The $3.2 million, 50-job project represented Chambers County’s first auto supplier.
Larger projects followed. The biggest was A-Jin Industrial Co., which would stamp metal parts for the vehicles assembled at the new Kia plant just a few miles away in West Point, Ga. In 2008, A-Jin brought 450 jobs and nearly $89 million in capital investment. In 2010, it added 150 jobs and another $39 million in investment. The company says it will soon begin producing parts shipped directly to Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama in Montgomery.
Gray said the supplier companies, most of them serving Kia, have created around 1,700 jobs in Chambers County and invested more than $220 million on their operations. (Plus, many Chambers County residents work at the Kia assembly plant or at its Georgia suppliers, she said.)
Three of Chambers County’s auto suppliers have located in vacant textile facilities: Process Development Corp., an automotive inspection firm, landed in Shawmut Mill; Daeil USA, a maker of struts and other auto parts, occupied the Fairfax Distribution Center; and Glovis, a logistics provider to Kia, placed its operation in the former Carter Lanier facility.
Gray expects to see additional growth from the county’s auto supplier network, which also has ties to the Hyundai plant in Montgomery. “They are all running full bore and several are under expansion,” she said.
Of course, the closing of the textile operations in Chambers County had also meant a large number of workers would require retraining. Fortunately, resources were available. Gray said AIDT, Alabama’s top-ranked job-training agency, stepped in to help, reflecting the important role it has played in the growth of the state’s auto industry. So did Southern Union State Community College’s Valley campus, which has helped prepare Chambers residents for new careers in the automotive industry.
Gray said Southern Union established an automotive technical center at its Valley location, and the college set up training partnerships with several suppliers in the county.
Starting in fall 2009 and running into 2010, Southern Union, with the help of AIDT, set up two portable training units with machining equipment on the Valley campus, according to Dr. Darin Baldwin, dean of technical education and workforce development at the college. Southern Union offered a series of short-term, non-credit courses in machining technology, including computer numeric control (CNC) machining.
Once the new technology building was opened, Southern Union began to offer credit courses in the area of industrial maintenance utilizing part-time adjunct instructors on the Valley campus. Prior to this happening those courses were offered only in Opelika, according to Baldwin.
In 2012, a full-time manufacturing technology instructor was hired and the Manufacturing Technology program became a full-time program offering for the college on the Valley campus. That same year, thanks to industry support, the East Alabama Industrial Consortium was formed to train employees in industrial tasks and officially rolled out in July 2012. Supplier Daedong Hi-Lex in Chambers County is a consortium partner participating in the apprenticeship program, Baldwin said.
“Our suppliers have been very pleased with our workforce,” Gray said.