Category: Economy

Jefferson County Commission Approves Workforce Development Funds for Lawson

Sheila Tyson called a pair of rental assistance agreements “a Band-Aid on a bad wound” as the newly installed Jefferson County Commission met for the first time on Monday.

Tyson and her fellow commissioners had heard two items during their committee meeting that allotted money to pay the rent for a couple of Jefferson County households to keep each from becoming homeless.

Tyson, who chairs the commission’s Community Services and Workforce Development Committee, said poor persons in the county need training so they can provide for themselves.

During their meeting, commissioners also approved $75,000 from the general fund for Lawson State Community College for workforce development and job training programs. Read more.

In Soap-Making and Landscaping, ‘Creative’ Entrepreneurs Get Help Building Business Skills from Co.Starters

A designer, a scuba diver, an art curator, a furniture maker. They all share something in common – seeking and receiving help with the business side of their creative work from the Co.Starters program of Create Birmingham.

The Co.Starters program – prompted by research and aimed at unlocking economic potential – has 200 graduates and a new class of 15 people following their dreams to turn their passions into sustainable and thriving small businesses.

With graduates pursuing the business side of everything from massage therapy to landscaping, Co.Starters is a 10-week business training program designed to equip aspiring entrepreneurs with insights, relationships and tools to turn their business ideas into action, said Buddy Palmer, CEO of Create Birmingham, the nonprofit that administers the program. The organization is dedicated to the development of Birmingham’s creative industries that contribute to economic growth as well as enhance quality of life.

The 15 students, who meet on Monday nights, represent the 17th Co.Starters class since the program began in 2014 after a comprehensive study of the area’s creative industries and occupations.

Gathered around a U-shaped table at Woodlawn’s Social Venture building, members of Co.Starters’ fall 2018 class take turns telling about their week’s highs and lows and the number of customer conversations they logged for the week.

“My high for this week is this,” says Co.Starters student Joy Smith. She shows a glossy page of Birmingham Magazine’s food issue, in which a tempting slice of cheesecake from Smith’s Sorelle catering business is pictured as one of the 40 best treats in Birmingham. Her classmates applaud, then tell about their week’s progress, contacts made and business plans drafted. Read more.

Co.Starters Graduate Kim Lee Realizes Dream of Coworking Venue

Long before she enrolled in Birmingham’s Co.Starters program, Kim Lee had the dream and business plan for what eventually became The Forge, a downtown professional coworking space on the mezzanine level of the historic Pizitz Building. Read more.

President’s Proposed Budget Cut: Eliminate Help to Keep Power On for Poor Families

Erica Dunning is proud of her tidy house, built by Habitat for Humanity in a quiet Chalkville neighborhood, and her job working for Jefferson County. But she’s not too proud to admit that, once upon a time, she needed help to make ends meet.

That help particularly made it possible for Dunning to pay her electric bills, which could become out of reach at certain times a year. And that’s where the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program – known by the acronym LIHEAP – came in.

August, which is typically expected in Alabama to be the hottest month of any year, was LIHEAP Awareness month, the month set aside to demonstrate the value of the program. But you don’t have to convince Dunning, who used the program when she was down on her luck and not working, she said.

“It just helps you get over that slump,” she said. “Now I am employed by Jefferson County… but I have used the program to get over that slump. And it’s just good to know you’ve got help.”

Dunning, who has two children, also has a house that uses electricity for both heating and cooling, as opposed to using natural gas in the winter, as many do.

“Without power, how do you get your kids ready for school?” she said.

While shortfalls can happen any time of the year, Dunning said it was particularly hard around Christmas. “You don’t want to disappoint your kids at the time, so you just try and be balanced and make sure they have at least something for Christmas.”
LIHEAP helped make that possible, she said.

This year’s awareness month arrived with the program under threat from the Trump administration, which has proposed eliminating what many low-income residents have come to depend on to keep their air conditioning going in the summer and heat on during the winter.

Thousands of people in Jefferson County depend on LIHEAP, which is administered by the Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity. Some 5,000 families are served each summer and another 5,000 each winter, said Dorothy Crosby, who works in the Energy Assistance arm of JCCEO.

But where those residents see a lifeline, the Trump administration sees a drain on federal resources subject to fraud.
“The Budget proposes to eliminate the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) in order to reduce the size and scope of the Federal Government, and better target resources within the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families,” the Trump administration wrote in its budget proposal for 2019. “LIHEAP is a Federal program that has been known to have sizeable fraud and abuse, leading to program integrity concerns.” Read more.

Opportunity Zones Pull Investors Into Low-Income Areas

Alex Flachsbart’s business cards were hot properties at the Jefferson County Courthouse Tuesday after his presentation to the County Commission about opportunity zones in the area.

The founder and CEO of the nonprofit Opportunity Alabama briefed the commission on his group’s work with Opportunity Zones, which encourage investment in low-income areas.

“Our goal is to rally the ecosystem here in the state of Alabama around opportunism,” he said.

Flachsbart, a former tax attorney, said the zones were created with the passage of the tax bill in December. The idea is to give tax breaks to investors who put their money into a fund that then invests in businesses and real estate projects in low-income areas. The incentives grow the longer the money stays invested, he said.

“(It goes) all the way to the point where if you’re an investor who keeps their money in a fund that’s invested in the local community for 10 years or longer, you don’t pay any tax at all on the appreciation of your investment,” he said. “If I make a good bet on a place like Ensley, or a place like East Lake or a place like Fultondale, the good news (is) that, if my investment substantially improves, I get to walk away tax-free after 10 years.” Read more.

Sports Tourism Is Big Business in Birmingham, but Not Big Enough, Study Says

Even with more athletic fields at the Hoover Met Complex, greater Birmingham needs additional sports facilities to compete with cities such as Westfield, Indiana and Elizabethtown, Kentucky.

Never heard of those cities? If you have a child who competes on a “travel ball” team, you probably have. A study commissioned by the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau says that those two cities are Birmingham’s primary competitors for large sports tournaments.

The bureau released the study’s findings Sept. 27. It was conducted by Phoenix-based Huddle Up Sports and is based on a survey of available sports venues in metro Birmingham. The company also conducted interviews with various stakeholders in the sports tourism industry, a segment of the local economy that caters not just to college and professional sports organizers and fans but also to followers of youth and amateur sports tournaments that bring in hundreds of teams, competitors, families and officials.
Although metro Birmingham has made a big push in sports tourism, it still is falling behind other cities, some of which are much smaller in population but which have gone all-in on the burgeoning sports tourism sector. Read more.

Officials Dub Tuesday ‘Great Day’ as Ground is Broken for Amazon Center

Amazon held the official groundbreaking Tuesday for its first large-scale fulfillment center in Alabama, on a site just off Powder Plant Road in Bessemer.

Dozens of state and local officials, including Gov. Kay Ivey, came to put shovels into a long mound and fling red dirt into the air.
“This is a great day for Bessemer, a great day for Amazon and a great day for the state of Alabama,” Ivey said. “Momentum is on our side and that’s made possible when companies like Amazon choose to locate and do business in our great state.”

When complete, the $325 million facility – which will have the footprint of nearly 15 football fields – will employ 1,500 people with a starting minimum wage of $15 and company benefits that start on Day 1. Read more.

Serious Play: Hoover Met, Birmingham Crossplex Score Economic Wins with ‘Sports Tourism’

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On a Saturday morning in Hoover, high school girls jumped and spiked, as coaches and parents cheered in an assortment of volleyball games in the annual Juanita Boddie Tournament, an event that draws teams not just from metro Birmingham, but from surrounding states.

The tournament used to be a fixture at Homewood High School but now calls the Finley Center its home. And what a home it is — a dozen or more courts in action at any given moment, more available for warm-ups, plus a snack bar, trainers’ facilities and much more.

Just steps away, you’ll find a new group of ball fields with high-tech lighting, artificial turf fields and the capability to hold up to a dozen games at once. There’s another baseball diamond with natural grass, built to the same field size as the original facility in the complex, Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. The Met is the former home of the minor league Birmingham Barons, twice host to the NCAA Men’s College Cup soccer championships and still home to the Southeastern Conference Baseball Tournament and Hoover High School’s nationally famous football team.

Still under construction nearby are five more fields for football, soccer, lacrosse, or rugby — basically any sport using a rectangular field — and 16 tennis courts. The complex has all of that plus an RV park in the middle, an original part of the complex.

Hoover Buys in to Burgeoning Industry

The Hoover Met Complex expansion marks the city’s major buy-in to a burgeoning industry that’s generally known as sports tourism. It’s sometimes referred to as “tourno-cation,” which is a combination of “tournament” and “vacation.” That’s generally applied more to mega-complexes located in areas already known as tourist hotspots, such as Gatlinburg, Myrtle Beach or Orlando. The idea is to draw large tournaments with dozens, even hundreds, of teams.

John Sparks moved to Hoover a couple of months ago to manage the new complex, after a stint as a manager with the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. He says the complex is already one of the top two or three of its kind in the Southeast, based on the size, the types of fields, and the ability to deal with wet weather thanks to artificial turf. Read more.

Despite Immigration Law, 40 Percent of New Hires Are Not Checked Through E-Verify

Many Alabama employees aren’t being screened to confirm their legal status to work in the United States, despite a 2011 state law requiring businesses to use the federal E-Verity system.

A recent report in the publication Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, said only 60 percent of new Alabama hires were screened with E-Verify in the year ending in June 2017. That’s up from 14 percent in 2011, before the state’s anti-illegal immigration law went into effect.

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Now, state Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, proposes requiring employers to prove their E-Verify usage before obtaining business licenses. He has a bill ready for the 2019 legislative session that mirrors a law in Georgia, where 94 percent of employees were screened through E-Verify, according to Pew.

Orr recently said there will always be bad actors who don’t follow the law, but he thinks some businesses are simply ignorant about it.
“They don’t know about the law or don’t think it applies to them,” Orr said. “Until someone is telling them or reminding them, they’ll continue to be ignorant.”
Read more.