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Interstate 22 boosts economic development opportunities in northwest Alabama, developers say

JASPER, Alabama – Segments of Corridor X – the roadway that will become Alabama’s next interstate – are so new they don’t show up on some GPS devices. But economic developers like David Knight and David Thornell believe that ribbon of asphalt will make Northwest Alabama appealing for new development.

Corridor X, or Interstate 22, as it will be known, connects Birmingham and Memphis. It’s been under development for decades, and will be completed in 2014 when the Alabama Department of Transportation completes an intricate interchange that connects it to I-65 near Birmingham. The roadway will get the interstate designation at that time.

“The real story is not just I-22 in Jasper, or I-22 in Walker County, but what it means to all of Northwest Alabama. It is creating opportunity for us that we didn’t have before,” said Knight, executive director of Walker County Economic Development Authority in Jasper.

“Once it’s connected to I-65, it will be the newest interstate in the nation and will be a major artery that connects with all the major cities of the Southeast,” added Thornell, who heads the C3 of Northwest Alabama Economic Development Alliance. “It’s literally going to put us on the map. We have high hopes and high expectations.”

Interstate 22 cuts through the length of Walker and Marion counties, positioning them as prime beneficiaries of the new interstate in coming years. Economic developers, however, think that other nearby counties also will benefit once the interstate is officially christened.

“In surveys of site consultants, access to a major highway is always near or at the top of site location factors, and a location with access to an Interstate is considered prime,” said Steve Sewell, executive vice president of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama. “The completion of I-22 greatly enhances the competitive position of communities in Northwest Alabama, especially for projects where transportation and logistics are factors.”

Though their sections of Corridor X have been open for several years, Knight and Thornell have set out to raise the profile of the roadway and highlight the development opportunities along its path. To do this, they formed the I-22 Alliance, an organization that unites economic developers in Walker, Marion, Fayette, Cullman, Franklin and Winston counties.

The I-22 Alliance is a sponsor of the Southern Economic Development Council’s “Meet the Consultants” event at Atlanta’s Loews Hotel in April, and the group  plans to host a dinner there in an attempt to forge deeper relationships with the site consultants in attendance, Knight said.

“We are just trying to raise awareness of the I-22 corridor,” he said.

Jasper already has seen development along the route of Corridor X. The Bevill Industrial Park, just minutes off Exit 65 of the future Interstate 22, today is home to companies that employ 600 people. A decade ago, the park was vacant except for a small business incubator operated by Bevill State Community College.

HTNA, which makes carpet and interior trim systems for automakers, is undertaking a major expansion at the park. The Japanese firm arrived in 2010, supplying Toyota’s plant near Tupelo, Miss., from a 53,000-square-foot building in the Jasper park. It has since landed contracts from Honda in Lincoln and Nissan in Canton, Miss., Knight said.

HTNA, formerly known as Amtex, now is building a 145,000-square-foot manufacturing facility on 65 acres at the Bevill Park. Its workforce of around 75 will expand by 110 new hires, making it the most significant manufacturing project to land in Jasper for years, Knight said. Investment is pegged at $27 million.

Jasper’s location on the future Interstate 22 places it in a sweet spot for auto suppliers, Knight said. The city is ringed by auto plants within a relatively short driving distance, particularly the Toyota and Honda plants, as well as the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance.

The Bevill Park already is home to Nitto Denko, a Japanese firm with about 75 workers that supplies the Honda plant. HTNA’s location in Jasper prompted one of its suppliers, VisTech, to set up shop near the industrial park.

Thanks to the future interstate, Knight thinks the new, 400-acre Jasper Industrial Park holds great promise. Economic development agencies have spent about $1 million clearing and grading a 50-acre site in the park, which is near Bevill Park and just two miles from Interstate 22.

The Jasper Industrial Park has earned an Advantage Site designation, meaning it is prepared for development. The AdvantageSite program is jointly sponsored by the Alabama Department of Commerce, Alabama Gas Corp. (Alagasco), Alabama Power Co., the EDPA, the North Alabama Industrial Development Association and the PowerSouth Energy Cooperative.

“The interstate is definitely key to a lot of development we hope to see in the next few years,” Knight said.

Thornell said the C3 alliance counties – Marion, Lamar and Fayette – are primed for development related to the future interstate. He said the three-county area has five Advantage Sites, three adjacent to I-22. There are 1,500 acres of land prepared for development and 25 vacant industrial buildings, he added.

The interstate is a game-changer for the area, Thornell said. “We just have not had that key feature here. It’s definitely a plus, and we recognize it.”

Thornell said he believes the area is well-suited for auto suppliers since it is roughly one hour from Mercedes in Alabama and from Toyota near Tupelo. He also is targeting distribution operations such as truck terminals and warehouses, businesses involved in metal fabrication, and firms linked to equipment used in farming and coal mining.

Thornell said he is starting to see ripple effects from a major expansion at Mercedes and an increased level of interest from companies with projects in the works.

“We have had a busy January and February. It’s encouraging. It seems companies are more aggressively searching for sites,’ he said.

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