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Building Up Alabama

Aired May 15, 2010 - 15:00   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN HOST: And Atlantis is scheduled to dock with the International Space Station tomorrow. The shuttle program is scheduled to end later on this year, and Atlantis is on its final scheduled mission.

All right, straight ahead, viral video is coming up this hour. And then, Russell Crowe is the new Robin Hood in the 4:00 P.M. Eastern hour. We're going to the movies with Ben Mankiewicz, the movie critic. We'll see if he likes this new flick.

All right, right now, stay tuned for a "CNN SPECIAL PRESENTATION: BUILDING UP AMERICA". Today, Tom Foreman looks at Alabama and how people there are building their state despite the recession.

And I'll be back in half an hour with more news.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN HOST (voice-over): The national economy may be feeling faint, but the heart of Dixie is beating strong. From Birmingham to Mobile and all points in between, like they say in the Rocket City of Huntsville, which has fueled the U.S. space program for decades, even the sky is no limit.



FOREMAN: Welcome onboard the CNN Express.

I'm Tom Foreman and we're rolling through the great State of Alabama on our "BUILDING UP AMERICA" tour.

Largely agricultural, Alabama also has big interests in mining and hydroelectric power and tourism as well. But, like many states, they're trying to remake themselves, to get even more out of their people and their places, and their history. So it's appropriate we start here in the historic capital, Montgomery, where people believe they found a way forward.



FOREMAN (voice-over): When the weekend is rolling, Dreamland BBQ is rocking. MILLER: Hamburger, French fries, chicken fingers - we do it all here, man.

FOREMAN: And you'd never know a recession was in swing --

MILLER: All right, all right, all right. How y'all doing?

FOREMAN: -- with Bert Miller working the floor.

MILLER: Been good. We've been very blessed.

FOREMAN: Despite state-wide unemployment over 11 percent above the national rate, Montgomery's riverfront is building up even as the economy stays down, the result of a concerted effort to bring government, private industry and consumers together.

FOREMAN (on camera): The economy is such now that no town is an island.


FOREMAN: No state is, either.

BRIGHT: That's exactly right, Tom.

FOREMAN (voice-over): Congressman Bobby Bright was mayor when the city launched the plan, convinced that growth, even on the outskirts, would suffer if the city center continued to struggle.

BRIGHT: The suburbs tend to be driven by private developers.

FOREMAN (on camera): But if that center isn't solid -

BRIGHT: But if the center is not solid, then the services of that core, of that city, they weaken, they thin, and sometimes they thin to the point of being ineffective.

FOREMAN (voice-over): So, the local governments, the Chamber of Commerce and developers started building around a riverfront stadium and a popular minor league baseball team, refurbishing old warehouses, luring new businesses with opportunity and tax incentives.

For developers like Jerry Kyser, it was a breakthrough.

FOREMAN (on camera): How much has this area changed?

JERRY KYSER, JERRY KYSER BUILDER, INC.: Up until about two years ago, this was just two railroad tracks, dilapidated buildings, and nothing going on down here.

FOREMAN (voice-over): But now --

KYSER: This - this is going to be a restaurant.

FOREMAN: The spaces are filling in with meeting rooms, luxury apartments, restaurants, a Hank Williams museum, all drawing tourists, locals and dollars.

FOREMAN (on camera): The economy of this country is not good right now.

KYSER: That's correct.

I can't imagine if we had not had this downturn in the economy what we would have down here right now. We've got a great, great start. We've created a lot of jobs in here. So if we can make this happen now, then we're going to be on easy street, you know, when this thing's over.

FOREMAN (voice-over): And for a lucky few that already feels like their address.


FOREMAN: Everyone connected with the riverfront development project will tell you it's going to take an awful lot more work and effort to make this spread out beyond that area into the rest of downtown, especially the very hard-hit places, like historic Dexter Avenue down from the capitol.

But, many are convinced it can be done, and one of the reasons they believe that is because they've seen an example of how focused effort can really pay off, and it's right down the road.


FOREMAN (voice-over): Just south of Montgomery, at the gleaming new Hyundai plant, almost every minute another new car rolls off the line. And just about as often, you can find someone like Yolanda Williams singing the company's praises.

YOLANDA WILLIAMS, HYUNDAI TEAM MEMBER: I love it. I enjoy what I do everyday.

FOREMAN (on camera): Did you ever have any idea you would be making a living from the car industry in Southern Alabama?

WILIAMS: No. I never dreamed. But it's changed a lot of people's lives down here.

FOREMAN (voice-over): Winning this massive economic prize over other states that wanted it had local leaders scrambling at one point, making sure Hyundai knew how transportation services, power grids and most of all, the local community could and would meet all their needs.

RICK NEAL, VICE PRESIDENT, HYUNDAI: So this location was great.

FOREMAN (on camera): And they made sure that you had everything.

NEAL: Everything.

FOREMAN: The land, the communications, the transportations.

NEAL: Yes. Utilities.

FOREMAN: And it seems like it's working.

NEAL: It is working. It's working for them, it's working for us.

FOREMAN (voice-over): Last year, Hyundai was one of just three car companies to increase sales in America. The success for the community?

FOREMAN (on camera): So you're just looking to see if there's anything wrong with this piece.

FOREMAN (voice-over): Good jobs.

JASON THOMAS, HYUNDAI TEAM MEMBER: It means the world to me. And I know a lot of other people feel the same way.

FOREMAN (on camera): How secure do you feel in your job?

JAMES LENOIR, HYUNDAI TEAM MEMBER: I - I feel really secure. I really do.

FOREMAN: Enough to buy a house, enough to move forward?

LENOIR: I have.

FOREMAN: Hyundai doesn't make everything it needs, so that means that lots of suppliers have sprung up all throughout this region to make bumpers and sunroofs and dashboards, and that has created many more jobs.

FOREMAN (voice-over): About 800 have come from Mobis, another Korean company that followed Hyundai here.

FOREMAN (on camera): I'm guessing a lot of people are pretty happy about this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, we are. A matter of fact, I'm one of them.

FOREMAN (voice-over): In all, local officials estimate more than 20,000 jobs have rippled out from the Hyundai deal, building up South Alabama one job, one car, one minute at a time.


FOREMAN: What this really is is the story of a community's success in drawing in a big company and getting the value out of that in terms of jobs, quality of living and land values, all those things, and it's only going to expand.

Kia has now opened a plant just across the Georgia border, and many of the jobs there are expected to ripple out through Alabama.


FOREMAN (voice-over): When we come back, small business, big bang. FOREMAN (on camera): So this is the pilot house.


FOREMAN: How aggressively marketing an Alabama product overseas is keeping jobs afloat on the coast.

And think young.

KIM TRAFF, RSVP MONTGOMERY: I think a city would die without youth and excitement. And we're the future generation.

FOREMAN: Giving the 20- and 30-somethings good reason not to run off to the big cities.



FOREMAN: That is the USS Alabama, one of the great warships of World War II and now a great tourist attraction here in Mobile. It's also a fitting symbol for a struggle that's going on all around the globe right now, being waged by Alabama, a fight to get international business.

Now, every state tries that, but they've really stepped up their efforts here. If you want to see the results, you travel just a little bit further south.


FOREMAN: Bayou La Batre is about as far south as you can go in Alabama without getting your feet wet. But here in the Horizon Shipbuilding yard, they have discovered that the secret to building up is not stopping there, but going offshore to find new markets and new customers.

FOREMAN (voice-over): They build state-of-the-art work boats for pushing barges, servicing oil rigs, that sort of thing. And Horizon is relying much more on sales to places like Nigeria, Mexico, even Iraq.

Travis Short helped start this business almost a dozen years ago.

FOREMAN (on camera): How important has international trade been to this company?

TRAVIS SHORT, HORIZON SHIPBUILDING, INC.: It's been very important for us, in particular because of the downturn in domestic markets.

GUNTHER: Small boat yards are very competitive. A lot of small boat yards have closed down.

FOREMAN (voice-over): That's Ron Gunther, a vice president. And he says the days are simply gone for counting on the domestic marketplace as much as they used to, especially for $10 million marvels like these.

GUNTHER: This is the best part here. Wait until you see this, Tom.

FOREMAN (on camera): Oh, so this is the pilot house.

GUNTHER: Yes. This is where you drive the boat.


FOREMAN (voice-over): And he's not alone. State officials say Alabama firms have increased their exports by 36 percent in a half dozen years.

GUNTHER: Now, you've got to do what you got to do. Whether it's here or overseas or where it is, you've got to go out there and find it.

FOREMAN (on camera): They've certainly been affected by the recession here. They've lost more than 100 jobs. But, the point is they still have more than 200 jobs, and they're still in business and in this industry, that is saying something.

FOREMAN (voice-over): It is saying the global marketplace is here to stay.

FOREMAN (on camera): Do you think that any business out there can really afford to not be thinking globally at this point?

SHORT: I - I think not, particularly in our type of business, in the hard manufacturing business.

FOREMAN (voice-over): Because business these days is hard, and finding success can mean searching the seven seas.


FOREMAN: The State of Alabama is very hot on this idea. In recent years, they've launched more than 20 overseas industry hunting trips to try to bring better ties with foreign firms in places like India and Russia and China. And more importantly, those trips are working, rewarding the state with millions of dollars worth of contracts for future work and future benefits.


FOREMAN (voice-over): Coming up, one big attraction for outside business folks is golf. No kidding. We'll meet the investment wizard who teed up that part of Alabama's equation and brought billions of dollars to his state.

And how are you going to keep them down on the farm once they've seen the big city?

TRAFF: I just wanted to make sure that we could create new ideas and new things for everybody to do.

FOREMAN: It's not easy. But in Alabama, the kids are all right. (END VIDEO CLIP)



FOREMAN (voice-over): Alabama is home to about 4.7 million people. The cost of housing is generally lower than it is in the rest of the nation, but then, so are the wages. The state bird, the Yellow Hammer; state flower, the Magnolia; state fossil, the Basilosaurus. That's an extinct whale.

American Indian tribes built up the area for centuries before the French, the Spanish and the British came. And that was before Alabama joined the United States in 1819.

The people of Alabama have an enormous respect for the history of their state. For example, at one end of Montgomery's historic Dexter Avenue sits the State House, where Jefferson Davis took the oath as the president of the Confederacy at the start of the Civil War.


FOREMAN: And down here at the other end, one day a bus pulled in. A woman named Rosa Parks got on board and the Civil Rights Movement was born.

But, for all of that, one of the real focuses now as this state tries to build itself back up is on young people and on the future.


FOREMAN (voice-over): On a highway north of Montgomery, in a building you would hardly notice, Jerry Monroe is growing a heck of a business.

JERRY MONROE, ONLINE COMMERCE GROUP: And everyday you've got to make something happen. We see opportunities and because, you know, we develop everything ourselves, we just, you know, we start hammering on those ideas.

FOREMAN (on camera): How important do you think that is in a difficult time in the economy?

MONROE: Oh, it's critical.

FOREMAN (voice-over): His company, the Online Commerce Group, specializes in internet sales of custom-made cushion covers, drapes, pillows. But what it's really doing is fulfilling a dream Jerry has had since college of succeeding in his home state of Alabama.

FOREMAN (on camera): Is this good business?

MONROE: It is an absolute blast.

FOREMAN (voice-over): Keeping young talent from running away to the bigger cities is a serious matter, especially in hard times. Alabama sits within a few hours of several larger places which have proven attractive - Atlanta, Orlando, Tampa, New Orleans, and Nashville, just to name a few. In addition, a Pugh Center Study from 2009 found that adults under the age of 35 are much more likely than older adults to see big cities as the place to live and work.

Places like Montgomery are left swimming against a human tide of young people flowing away. So the Chamber of Commerce formed this group called "Emerge" to foster leadership, success and community among young professionals, whom they know have different needs and wants than older workers.

HANNAH CHADEE, EMERGE MONTGOMERY: Well, I think excitement, activities, nightlife - especially nightlife.

JASON GOODSON, EMERGE MONTGOMERY: Another issue that a lot of people don't really normally think about is education and things for kids.

ASHLEY BRANDLE, EMERGE MONTGOMERY: I want to be able to just really know that I - my voice is heard.

FOREMAN: So the city is expanding its entertainment venues, offering more activities, improving schools, and Mayor Todd Strange said it's all to keep young talent around.

MAYOR TODD STRANGE (R), MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA: All of those things taken together really do offer the opportunities. But we have just begun the fight.

FOREMAN: That fight is being waged through both public and private efforts. And no one knows that better than Kim Traff, who tonight is hard at work preparing a sports-themed event at a local restaurant for young professionals.

TRAFF: I love Montgomery. I'm proud of being in Montgomery and I was tired of people in our younger age demographic complaining about nothing to do in Montgomery.

FOREMAN (on camera): And leaving?

TRAFF: Yes. And I just wanted to make sure that we could grasp, you know, all there was in our city and create new ideas and new things for everybody to do.

FOREMAN (voice-over): Although Kim had precious little business experience, some time back she set out to help, organizing a pub crawl for the downtown business crowd. She expected a reasonable turnout, but it worked a bit better than that.

TRAFF: Yes, it did. We expected about 500 people and we were running to the coffee shop to make more copies of our schedules.

FOREMAN (on camera): Because you got like what - 2,000?

TRAFF: About 2,000 in the first pub crawl. People were anxious. They - it was a beautiful night and people wanted to see what downtown was all about. And it just made downtown come alive.

FOREMAN (voice-over): From there, she expanded, starting up a successful local magazine for young people here, showcasing special events and standout personalities in something she calls "The List."

TRAFF: "The List" is a feature that we do on young professionals, people giving new - Montgomery's new lifeblood a voice. Movers and shakers who are taking a risk to start their own business in an economy like it is.

FOREMAN (on camera): And people look forward to this.

TRAFF: Yes, they do.

FOREMAN: How important do you think it is for this town to keep its young people?

TRAFF: I think the - a city will die without young lifeblood and youth and excitement. I mean, we're the future generation. I mean, you know, our children are growing up in this town and we want them excited about it. And we want people to talk about Montgomery and bring other people in it.


FOREMAN: All of this is still in the early stages, but if you talk to enough young people around here, you can sense a real excitement, a real belief that this can work. And if you talk to the older folks, they say it must, because if they can't hold on to the younger people, they cannot hold on to the opportunities they'll need to keep building up.


FOREMAN (voice-over): Next stop, why is this man smiling?

DR. DAVID BRONNER, RETIREMENT SYSTEMS OF ALABAMA: Because I tell the people of Alabama you have to take risk.

FOREMAN: Maybe it's because he's figured out how to golf his way to prosperity, even in a recession.




FOREMAN (voice-over): Stars have not only fallen on Alabama, but they have risen from this state for many years - Jimmy Buffett, Hank Aaron, Nat King Cole, Taylor Hicks, Charles Barkley, Courtney Cox-Arquette, Lionel Richie, Robert Gibbs and Condoleezza Rice, just to name a few.

Others, however, have come from afar to make Alabama home and build it up. For example, a young man from Minnesota who arrived a few decades back and took over the State Employees Retirement Fund, and nothing has been the same since.

Back in the late '80s, when the pension fund for Alabama's State Employees was small and struggling, the head of the retirement systems teed up an idea about golf. And this is where he works today, in one of the most stunning state office buildings you'll ever see, where David Bronner sits on an empire of pension money.

BRONNER: Well, you got to keep in mind that if you're near the bottom, you're not going to get out of the bottom unless do you something different, or, as I tell the people of Alabama, you have to take risks.

And my philosophy is very simple. Alabama was extremely poor, and the stronger I could make the state, the stronger I can the make pension system.

FOREMAN: Here's how it happened. Frustrated by tourists just passing through on the way to Florida, Bronner commissioned famed golf course architect Robert Trent Jones to design more than 20 courses all over Alabama to attract tourists and business people.

BRONNER: And my theory there was can I divert you? Can I stop you? Can I hold you over?

FOREMAN (on camera): And you knew if you could hold those people over they would leave money in Alabama.

BRONNER: Absolutely. Big money.

FOREMAN (voice-over): It worked. Before the golf trail, annual tourism was under $2 billion. Now, it is pushing $10 billion.

FOREMAN (on camera): So you've paid for the fairways.

BRONNER: We - we've paid for the fairways and we - we've put in a couple other little things along the way.

FOREMAN (voice-over): And Bronner has remade Montgomery's skyline. That new construction and all those buildings with green tops, all built with retirement systems cash.

BRONNER: Some people think it was is the color of money, but it has nothing to do with that.

FOREMAN: He has invested Alabama's retirement funds in world class hotels, spas, media, even a landmark office building in New York City.

BRONNER: And I guess what I was trying to do was to pick things that they could be proud of, because they're wonderful people in Alabama. They're hard-working.

FOREMAN (on camera): Your idea being that if you pick things they could be proud of, they would get behind it?

BRONNER: And motivated and excited about it, because I knew that they have the skills to do anything they wanted to. The attitude of the state principally was I don't know if this is going to work, but if it fails, you know, we just shoot them and you go on.

FOREMAN (voice-over): And the pension fund success has helped draw more businesses and investors willing to consider Alabama as a home.

BRONNER: What we have tried to do was have something that would take the potential of a state, instead of talking about potential have turned it into reality.

FOREMAN: And that has really put Alabama on the map.


And with that, we wrap it up from "Sweet Home, Alabama." We hope you've seen some ideas in this show that might help you build up your part of America in your own way. We certainly wish you the very best in that process. I'm Tom Forman. For all of us on the CNN Express and at CNN, see you down the road.