The television cameras were in action and the local politicians were all smiling at the recent announcement of a huge new distribution center in Bessemer for Amazon, the online retail behemoth. It’s a project that will bring an estimated 1,500 jobs, and it makes for a great picture of a down-on-its-heels part of Alabama that is remaking itself for the digital age.
But in fact, the Bessemer Cut-Off area — the traditional name for the separate division of Jefferson County that has its own courthouse and other separate government functions — has been in transformation from steelmaking, mining and heavy manufacturing for the past decade or so. Unless you’re involved in recruiting businesses to locate in an area – or you glimpse a part of Bessemer when you travel to the legendary Bright Star Restaurant – that transformation may have slipped under your radar.
Jimmie Stephens has seen the area’s heyday, the downturns and its recent rebirth. The president of the Jefferson County Commission, as a lifelong Bessemer resident, remembers when the nickname “Marvel City” came to be, because of explosive growth in the first half of the 20th Century, when the economy rivaled that of Birmingham itself. In his current position, he’s trying to restore the Cut-Off to better days.
“As a youngster growing up here in Bessemer, it was a vibrant mining and steel town,” Stephens said. “Bessemer was a hub of commerce and employment. But the mines shut down in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and the Pullman Standard (rail car manufacturing) plant closed in the ‘80s. Things just dried up, with 30 percent unemployment. But during that time, the economy began to diversify.”
3,000+ Employees at Industrial Parks
Western Jefferson County’s economy has become much more diverse, thanks in large part to a pair of industrial parks built by the Jefferson County Economic and Industrial Development Authority. Jefferson Metropolitan Park has locations in rural McCalla, to the southwest of Bessemer, as well as along the Lakeshore Parkway extension south of the city.
The McCalla park came first in the late ‘90s and is in a relatively wide valley between Interstate 20/59 and Eastern Valley Road. “It was flat, easy to develop and had rail access, with wonderful ingress and egress to the interstates,” Stephens said.
Those characteristics made the site ideal for attracting industries, according to Ted vonCannon, executive director of the JCEIDA, which runs both JeffMet parks.
“There’s not a lot of flat land suitable for development,” vonCannon said. “We’re typical Appalachian ridges and valleys. The city of Birmingham had been very successful in developing three industrial parks … and they all filled up. I was at the Metropolitan Development Board then, and we were having to take people over to Shelby or St. Clair County. I told the commissioners then, ‘You guys need to get in on this. You need to have product to show these people.’”
The McCalla park was an immediate success, vonCannon said.
Each development has distinctly different missions. JeffMet McCalla is home to several larger distribution and light manufacturing facilities, including Publix and Home Depot. Plastipak makes bottles for water. Spain-based Gestamp makes parts for automobile manufacturers in an existing plant; the nearby Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance is a customer. Gestamp now is ramping up a second plant in McCalla, and vonCannon said the two facilities eventually will employ more than 900 workers.
Tech Operations Drawn to Lakeshore
JeffMet Lakeshore is somewhat smaller and caters more to technology. It’s home to several data centers, plus a manufacturer of generic pharmaceuticals. The McCalla park has many more employees, but the jobs in the Lakeshore development typically pay much more. JeffMet Lakeshore also has access to large fiber-optic trunk lines for data and internet and is certified by AT&T.
The McCalla facility is easily seen by the public along Old Tuscaloosa Highway and McAshan Drive, but the Lakeshore park is almost invisible to motorists on the parkway. Only a large stone sign marks the entrance.
JeffMet Lakeshore came about when the former SouthTrust Bank – and its later owner Wachovia Bank, which since has merged into Wells Fargo – needed to build a data center and initially was looking to build in San Antonio, Texas, but local officials wanted to give SouthTrust a reason to stay closer to home.
“That’s how Lakeshore became a more business-oriented park,” vonCannon said.
The two parks combined employ more than 3,000 workers, “perhaps even more with some significant growth by some of the companies,” vonCannon said.
Several of the companies at the JeffMet parks have received various incentives over the years from Jefferson County government. Those incentives depend largely on the number of jobs provided and how well they pay, vonCannon said. Most incentive packages involve rebates on taxes and expire after a certain number of years, often no more than five, he said.
Beyond Parks, Hub for Distribution
Next door to JeffMet McCalla is the Norfolk Southern Railway intermodal facility, which loads and unloads shipping containers between trains and trucks. A steady stream of trucks brings in the metal containers, which are then picked up by cranes and loaded onto what used to be called piggyback cars. The central location near I-20/59 and I-459, plus the availability of a long stretch of relatively flat land along the NS main line to Tuscaloosa and New Orleans, makes the location handy for all sorts of shippers. Ford uses the facility to offload automobiles from rail cars to highway transport.
“That facility just validated what we believed, which was that this would become a hub of distribution,” Stephens said.
Rival railroad CSX also has built a new intermodal center, on the grounds of the former Pullman Standard plant. There had been attempts at redevelopment after Pullman-Standard shuttered the factory in the 1990s, but none were particularly successful until CSX took advantage of access to its rail lines. CSX also has constructed a separate yard on Bessemer’s west side, designed for coal trains coming off a branch line that serves mines near Brookwood.
There are other new large businesses outside the JeffMet parks, notable among them a large distribution center for Dollar General on Lakeshore Parkway not far from JeffMet. The center employs about 750 workers.
Of the Cut-Off’s big three industrial employers, Pullman-Standard shut down in the ‘80s, and U.S. Steel permanently closed the blast furnace at the Fairfield Works in 2015. U.S. Pipe, however, is very much alive, expanding in 2006.
The city of Bessemer has struggled with blight, as have adjacent areas such as Lipscomb and Brighton. The effort to lure tourists with the VisionLand theme park, Alabama Splash Adventure, has had its ups and downs over the years.
But to the south and west, the new industries also have brought more and more residential developments as well, particularly in McCalla and the nearby rural areas leading to Tannehill State Park. The Ross Bridge housing and golfing complex also is part of the Cut-Off, even though most people probably associate it with Hoover instead.
The JeffMet parks don’t have a lot of available space left, with both parks more than 80 percent full, vonCannon said. That means he has an eye toward developing additional sites.
“We’re always looking for opportunities, particularly in other parts of the county, but you have to look at where the land is developable,” he said.
Read more about economic development in the western area: