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Sunday Discussion: Why East Alabama Needs To Be A Promise Zone


This Sunday Discussion is going to talk about something that is needed in East Alabama.  Last Week, President Obama announced the creation of an US Promise Zone.  A Promise Zone is a way for the Federal Government to help areas in the United States that have fallen way behind in the economy.  In a Promise Zone, federal agencies will cut through red tape in an effort to give struggling residents a chance at better lives.  The first five zones will be in San Antonio, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Southeastern Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

This program will combat income inequality that is happening in poorer areas.  And yes, the start of this program came on the 50th anniversary of The War on Poverty.  Most of the help from the feds will come in the form of tax credits, grant money, and aid to the local communities in these Promise Zones.  Being named in a Promise Zone was not easy, the five communities had to each put forward a plan on how they will partner with local businesses and community leaders to make investments that reward hard work and expand opportunity.  In exchange, these designees will receive the resources and flexibility they need to achieve their goals.

The communities named will work with local schools to expand job training programs, make sure kids get the education they need to succeed as adults, promote job growth and investment, get coordinated help from federal agencies to tackle social problems ranging from violent crime to troubling high school dropout rates, and provide education and training to adults so they can read and hold down a good job.  The catch is, this must be approved by Congress.  If approved, the program would eventually expand to 20 areas across America and each approved area would be in the program for 10 years.  Yes, a child’s zip code should never determine his or her destiny.

So, I agree with the first five named areas because they were featured on many TV programs and websites about their poverty.  I am going to talk about why East Alabama needs to be named an US Promise Zone by the Federal Government.  Back in the 1980’s East Alabama was one of the most robust areas in America.  Russell Corporation and Avondale Mills hired many people, Fort McClellan was open and was a boom to the economy, Fort Payne was the sock capital of the world with many sock making jobs, and many people were able to provide for their families.  Boy have times changed!

Today, Russell Corporation and Avondale Mills have mostly left the area eliminating tens of thousands of jobs, Fort McClellan has closed and left many people unemployed and businesses closed, Fort Payne is no longer the sock capital of the world because those jobs are gone, and many people are unemployed and struggling, often relying on food stamps or disability to get by.  And I should know this, because I am on food stamps and applying to disability.  Many people have talked to me on the streets, by e-mail, or on social media on how they are struggling.  It’s that bad!

So why does need East Alabama need to be a Promise Zone?  Let’s go from the bottom and up.  Alexander City and Tallapoosa County used to be a job magnet.  Back in the 1980’s, anyone literally could get a job at Russell Corp.  And many kids out of school went straight to Russell or Avondale.  But in the early 1990’s, NAFTA was signed, and the jobs began to leave.  Today, Alex City is struggling with many people out of work, and for the lucky few that have jobs, most are low-paying.  Some people are willing to travel hours away for a job!  And there was that reality show on History Channel called Bamazon that featured unemployed workers mining for gold in the Central American jungle.

Up the road in Sylacauga and Talladega, many jobs from textile mills like Avondale also ruled the landscape.  But in the 1990’s, those jobs also began to leave.  Today, many industries are gone and for the few that are left, hundreds of people apply to them with only a lucky few being hired.  The situation is so bad, an article from and Yahoo! News named the Sylacauga/Talladega area the 5th poorest region in America.  The article bases its list on the annual American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.  Of course, the leaders of the communities are not happy with this article.  They would tell you that the Sylacauga and Talladega areas are full of opportunity, what opportunities?

Up the road in Anniston/Oxford, the area has struggled with the closing of Fort McClellan that took away thousands of jobs.  The Anniston Army Depot has also experienced job losses.  Things don’t get better with Anniston being polluted with PCB’s and many people experiencing poverty.  Sadly, according to the Milken Institute and the list of 179 small metro areas, the Anniston / Oxford area is the second worst performing small metro area in America for 2013.  Yep, I did not make that one up, with many jobs leaving and being replaced with low-paying retail and restaurant jobs, I believe this ranking is accurate.

Up the road in the Gadsden Metro, things have not been better.  There have been some times when the Goodyear plant almost closed down.  And several industries have closed down such as the Gadsden steel mills.  Most of the jobs replaced have been those low paying retail and restaurant jobs.  Sadly, a 24/7 Wall Street analysis has named Gadsden the fourth poorest city in the United States.  Poor Gadsden, way back in 1989,  A Rand McNally article in listed Gadsden as one of the Seven Worst Cities to Live in the United States.”  Could things get any better in East Alabama, nope, just look at Fort Payne.

Fort Payne was the sock capital in the world.  Back in the 1980’s, over 8,000 people were employed in the many sock mills in town. Today, most of those jobs are gone and many people are struggling.  Sure, some jobs have been replaced with other manufacturing jobs, but many people continue to struggle.  And up the road in Albertville, the local economy suffered after the harsh immigration bill was passed by the Alabama Legislature.  Today, some of the locals have come back after most of the bill was gutted.

After reading these sad stories, you can see why East Alabama needs to be a Promise Zone.  Many people are struggling and are on Food Stamps, Welfare, or Disability to get by.  Charities are struggling to meet the high demand of people who need help.  And without a good job outlook, thousands of people have left the East Alabama region behind to find work.  Even today, more people continue to move away just to find work.  If they stay in East Alabama, some people are willing to drive for hours to go to work.  That is how bad things have become in East Alabama.

So, what can East Alabama do to turn things around?  For one, the region needs tens of thousands of jobs to replace the jobs already lost.  Some industries like the Honda Plant have helped things, but there is a major problem.  Whenever there is a job fair for people, thousands of people will turn out for a chance to be hired.  There are so many people struggling here, it will take many new jobs and businesses locating here to turn things around.

To the leaders of every city and county in East Alabama.  Quit living in denial.  East Alabama is in really deep trouble.  You can not continue to have the people struggling because there are no jobs available.  Sure, there are several great non-profits who are helping some of the people who are struggling.  But they are having a hard time keeping up because there are a record amount of people wanting to get help.  There is truth to these articles that ranks East Alabama and its cities as one of the worst in America.  If the leaders would concentrate on working together and recruiting new jobs so people would not have to suffer, than these bad statistics would have never happened.

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