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Post from Jennifer Kornegay from Alabama NewsCenter
It was almost quitting time on a Friday, and Josie Russell Young was looking forward to her weekend when the phone at Russell Construction of Alabama’s Montgomery office rang. She saw it was a California phone number and almost didn’t answer.
“It was 4:45, and I really thought it was spam,” she said, “but I picked up anyway. What a surprise.”
A representative from RTR Media, a production company working with HGTV, was on the other end of the line asking questions about the construction company’s possible involvement in the new show “Home Town Takeover,” which would be filming in nearby Wetumpka. As a spinoff of the network’s popular home renovation show “Home Town,” which features Ben and Erin Napier renovating structures in Laurel, Mississippi, “Takeover” is also focused on renovations, but this time, the Napiers are revamping a city.
When it airs later this spring, “Home Town Takeover” will showcase 12 renovation and upgrade projects in and around Wetumpka’s downtown and historic district. Russell Construction’s team of contractors and subcontractors worked with the Napiers to give makeovers to six commercial structures, six homes and several public spaces. It was a big job, but Young said the company her father, Steve Russell, founded in 1983 was up to the task.
RELATED: Alabama town is ready for its HGTV ‘Home Town Takeover’ spotlight
“We’ve been doing residential and commercial work since it started,” she said. While she grew up around the business, she’s been working as marketing director with her dad at Russell Construction the past four years.
Getting the HGTV call was a marketer’s dream, but she tried not to get carried away. “I didn’t let myself get too excited,” Young said, “but it hit me the night before demolition Day One. The next morning, we were getting going, and I thought, ‘This is real.’”
Things got surreal when cameras began showing up. “To know our hard work was really going to be on TV for everyone to see was so awesome and so special. I believe it will boost our business, but it’s not just good for us. It’s such a win for everyone in Wetumpka,” she said.
The experience was special for the film crew, too. Producers, directors, camera operators, audio and lighting specialists and others spent six months in Wetumpka, not just working but living there from August 2020 through January. Months on-site is nothing new for them, but like Young’s shock at that initial phone call, many were surprised by what they found when they arrived in Wetumpka.
“You never know what to expect, but right when I got to town, it was so pretty,” said Carissa Sison, line producer for the show. “Our offices had the Coosa River right behind them, and it was such a tranquil setting. But the best thing was the people. They were so happy to meet us. I’ve never experienced that kind of friendliness in my life and definitely not in my career.”
She recalls the hospitality as a “breath of fresh air,” particularly compared to her hometown of Los Angeles. “I really love LA, but you just don’t get that level of friendly there,” she said.
Liz Kerrigan, the show’s executive producer, agrees, saying the residents’ convivial community spirit added an extra layer of charm to a city that had already impressed her.
“Looking at photos, I knew the town was adorable,” she said. “But a city can look one way and then feel different. Not here. The good vibes just make Wetumpka even cuter.”
Kerrigan was taken aback by leaders’ open arms and residents’ desire to pitch in. “I just didn’t expect people to be so grateful and so willing to help,” she said. “It was actually an emotional experience. Everyone was thrilled to work with us.”
That energy buoyed both the Russell Construction and filming teams, but there was still a lot of work to be done, and COVID-19 restrictions didn’t make things any easier. Despite the hurdles, Young is ready for the world to see what her company accomplished.
“The level and quality of craftsmanship required for this was so high. We had to be at our best, and the really tight timeline was a challenge,” she said. “There were many late, late nights and early mornings, but I’m very proud of what we did.”
RELATED: Wetumpka shines, despite the dark clouds of 2019, 2020
Doing it all on camera brought an additional dynamic to an already tough project and, at first, Young wasn’t sure how it would go. She said not knowing in the beginning was a blessing.
“None of us understood how the TV part was going to affect things, which is probably best because it kept us from getting too nervous,” she said. The Russell team stood still to get microphones attached, take direction and remain patient throughout the process. “They all rose to that part of the challenge with grace,” Young said, “and I’m so appreciative of that.”
So are the producers, and Kerrigan believes things went as smoothly as they did thanks to the bonds they built together, ties with their foundation in that first warm welcome. “We could not have done the work we did without the connections made and without the level of welcome we continually felt,” she said.
Sison stressed that the city’s reaction inspired her and the rest of the show’s team to get more invested than normal. “Their outpouring of love motivated us to really want to help this town,” she said. “We’re always passionate about our work, but this was different. I don’t think I speak for just myself when I say we felt like we were a part of Wetumpka.”
As shooting moved ahead, those feelings grew deeper and got more meaningful. “We ended up with real friendships,” Kerrigan said. “On our last day shooting, our director of photography looked over at me and had tears in his eyes. I had tears in mine. We don’t normally cry on the last day.”
Kerrigan and Sison hope the emotion evoked in the show’s creation comes through TV screens, and that viewers get a sense of the Wetumpka they came to know and that interest in the city keeps rising. “I loved seeing the uptick of visitors with my own eyes, seeing others discover this kinda sleepy little town,” Sison said, “and it’s going to be great when the show airs. I hope even more people fall in love with Wetumpka.”
This aspiration has dual motivations. It’s rooted in the relationships formed – both producers wish their new friends success. But it’s also part of the show’s wider vision, Kerrigan said.
“The entire intention behind this series was to create forward momentum for change, to be a catalyst for an even bigger transition,” she said. “The desire was that the city would take this ball and run with it. What’s so awesome, is after being there, we know that Wetumpka will do just that. They will build on this and take it 1 million steps farther. Seeing what we imagined fulfilled is really rewarding.”
And if watching Wetumpka’s journey on “Home Town Takeover” spurs other small towns to pursue their own progress, that’s the ultimate prize. “We’re showing how positive change in small towns everywhere is possible,” Kerrigan said. “We hope this causes a national movement for small towns across America to come together and do the same thing, even if it’s on a smaller scale.”
Young echoed Kerrigan on the message “Home Town Takeover” wants to spread, noting her belief that the show presents a model that other small towns can replicate.
But this spring, eyes will be focused on one specific small town, and while Wetumpka leaders and residents have made their enthusiasm obvious, the show’s team seems every bit as excited as the city.
“We just feel so lucky to be able to shine a light on the people and the places of Wetumpka,” Kerrigan said. “We want a huge spotlight on them.”
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