Sunday, January 31, 2010

How do you spend an extra $21 million?

Orr seeks input on TVA revenue; advanced learning center popular
By Eric Fleischauer, Staff Writer, The Decatur Daily

What should a community do when it finds $21 million in the pocket of its trousers?

An expected change in the distribution of Tennessee Valley Authority in-lieu-of-tax proceeds may leave Morgan County with that question.

State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, wants the money to make a lasting difference.

A bill that has passed the House and that has strong support in the Senate would end the practice of distributing a portion of the TVA revenue to dry cities and counties not served by TVA. For Morgan County, the change would increase TVA proceeds by about $1.2 million in the first year, growing by about 5 percent per year after that.

The new money is enough to service a bond of about $21 million.

The bill provides that a local law would govern the allocation of the new money, which means the local legislative delegation gets to make the call.

“I think it’s an historic opportunity to do something that would enhance Morgan County for the people who live here,” Orr said.

His vision is to embrace a project that would benefit the entire county. What project?

“I’m not pushing one project or another,” Orr said. “Maybe it would be a basketball arena for tournaments. Maybe a state-of-the-art baseball facility. Maybe a collaborative effort among our three school systems to formulate a school of technology or robotics or engineering. Maybe a jobs training facility that will help bring new jobs in.”

Orr said he wants Morgan County residents to contact their legislators with ideas.

“If we don’t work together as a county, the money likely will be disseminated among the budgets of school systems, cities and the county,” Orr said. “It would be divided up so we could not have a large, visionary enhancement to the county. We’d end up with a new backhoe for a County Commission district. What do the citizens want?”

One of Orr’s ideas is a technology center providing specialized instruction for high school students anywhere in the county. Students would remain at their local schools, attending the new facility for a block of classes on certain days.

“I’m imagining a 21st Century technology institute that all the systems can participate in and have some real enhancements, so Danville High can send students to the Wallace Center (site) a few hours a week to participate.

‘Gold standard’

“It could be a gold-standard program on ‘X’, whether ‘X’ is robotics or technology or engineering or whatever, that sets us apart,” Orr said.

“But that’s just one idea. Maybe something entirely different.”

Orr said locating something at the vacant Lurleen B. Wallace Center, a 160-acre site between Decatur and Hartselle on U.S. 31, might make sense. The state owns the land.

“A government entity can get a good price on that facility,” Orr said, “and it’s centrally located between the main population centers of Decatur and Hartselle.”

He said students could attend the center one or two days a week, while taking core classes at their home high schools. The center might, he said, feed some students to Calhoun Community College and to the robotics training center under construction there.

Tourist attractions

Tami Reist, director of the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said there are plenty of tourist-type attractions that would benefit the county — including completion of Ingalls Harbor — but she thinks an advanced learning center focusing on robotics would be best for the county.

“I have my passion for enhancing Ingalls, but I think something like this with robotics is going to give the technical training. It’s going to bring education into play,” Reist said. “Hopefully, from there we create a spinoff of companies that want to come to our city and locate here, which again brings more visitors in.”

Despite success with sports tournaments, Reist said, the events account for a small portion of visitors to Morgan County.

“When you look at tourism and you look at where all these people come from, industry is a majority of it.”

There is no better way to attract industry, said Morgan County Economic Development Association President Jeremy Nails, than increasing the engineering and technological skills of high school graduates.

“Anything that would give our students an edge on skills in robotics or engineering would be beneficial for the county as a whole when it comes to trying to recruit businesses,” Nails said. “One of the first things they look for is the education of the workforce that’s coming out of our high schools.”

To successfully recruit industry, a community must be able to distinguish itself.

“That’s what economic development is all about: trying to find your niche and set yourself apart. You can’t be Huntsville or Birmingham or Mobile, so how can you distinguish yourself, not only from the rest of the state but the rest of the world?”

Combined with the robotics training center under construction at Calhoun Community College and successful high school robotics programs in Decatur and Priceville, Nails said, an advanced learning center would give Morgan County a dramatic advantage in competing for the many industries that rely on robotics.

The beauty of an advanced learning center, said Sheila Davis, chairman of the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce, would be its flexibility. Robotics is the hot industrial recruitment tool of the day, but the curriculum could fluctuate as student interests and economic opportunities change.

Davis, who has coordinated high school students and industries on workforce development issues for a decade, said she finds pockets of interest from students that no single high school can accommodate.

“For example, I get lots of questions about culinary skills,” Davis said. “With an advanced learning center that would be possible.”

Orr’s idea of an advanced learning center at the Wallace Center received a lukewarm reception from superintendents of the three school systems in Morgan County.

Proration problems

Sam Houston, superintendent of Decatur City Schools, said the most pressing need is to increase funding for a proration-strained budget.

“I appreciate Sen. Orr’s vision in trying to come up with a project that benefits the entire county,” Houston said. He said Decatur City Schools already does an excellent job educating high school students in pre-engineering and robotics fields.

Along with the superintendents of Hartselle City Schools and Morgan County Schools, he sent an e-mail to Orr suggesting the money — none of which has to go to the schools — would be more useful to fund a program reducing dropout rates in the three systems.

“I’m not closing the door on (an advanced learning center) concept,” said Hartselle City Schools Superintendent William Michael Reed.

“We’re just taking another approach to it. We’re not closing the door on Sen. Orr’s original concept, we’d just like this other thing to be looked at, too.”

Davis said her experiences, both in workforce development and as a parent, suggest an advanced learning center would confront the dropout problem at the same time it gave the county’s most talented students opportunities to advance their skills.

Orr said he likes the idea of an advanced learning center, but his main concern is that the new revenue go to a project that Morgan County residents want.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Women's BASS event canceled

By Paul Huggins, Staff Writer, The Decatur Daily

The Bass Anglers Sportsman Society has canceled its women’s tournament series, which eliminated one of the events set for Ingalls Harbor this year.

BASS had scheduled its Women’s Bass Tour to fish here in March as part of its partnership with Academy Sports and Outdoors. The tourney would have featured 100 female anglers.

BASS officials informed the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau it shut down the 5-year-old series because of declining participation.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Reist represents state on federal economic board

By Paul Huggins, Staff Writer, The Decatur Daily

Tami Reist has been named to represent Alabama on the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal agency responsible for spending millions to improve economic conditions in the 13-state region.

Reist, president of the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau, will be one of 14 commissioners who serve with governors of the 13 states and a federal co-chairman appointed by the president.

Each year, ARC provides funding for hundreds of projects in the Appalachian Region, in areas such as business development, education and job training, telecommunications, infrastructure, community development, housing and transportation.

The commission allocated more than $5 million in economic development projects through the Appa­lachian region of Alabama in 2009. It provided $54,000 to the North-central Alabama Regional Council of Governments for planning and administration, $200,000 for the Athens Industrial Rail Spur and $100,000 for the Limestone County Voice Over Internet Protocol Network.

Reist said it is an honor to be asked to serve on the commission, which usually meets twice a year in Washington, D.C.

She said one advantage of serving on the commission is having more opportunities to meet with senators and representatives to promote local and regional projects.

Reist replaces Dana Lee Jennings, executive director of the Alabama Mountain Lakes Association. She served on the commission for seven years and recommended Reist as her replacement.

Jennings said ARC is fully on board with tour­ism as an economic development engine, so Reist should find opportunities to share her experience.

“She has one of the brightest tourism minds around,” Jennings said. “She’s one of the hardest-working CVB directors that we have.”

The Appalachian region extends more than 1,000 miles, from southern New York to northeastern Mississippi, and is home to 24.8 million people. In 1965, one in three Appalachians lived in poverty. In 2000, the region’s po­verty rate was 13.6 percent.

Tourism officials forced to make cuts

By Paul Huggins, Staff Writer, The Decatur Daily

A 30-percent drop in revenue during the first quarter has forced the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau to cut about $36,000 from its budget.

“It’s not a pretty picture,” said Wade Weaver, treasurer for the bureau’s board of directors. “Our expenses are not out of line, but the revenue’s not there.”

The bureau last May had budgeted to receive about $70,000 monthly in revenue but is pulling in $46,000 to $49,000. The first quarter ended with a net loss of $40,000.

The bureau is entirely funded by lodging taxes collected by the city. The city gives 75 percent to the bureau. It has received $135,978 for the first quarter of fiscal 2010 compared to $195,136 for the same period last year.

Occupancy fee

The drop in lodging tax revenue naturally mirrored the drop in revenue raised by the $2-per-night room occupancy fee that pays for tourism projects, such as Ingalls Harbor.

The fee generated $34,000 less revenue in the first quarter compared to last year.

Dana Lee Jennings, executive director of the Alabama Mountain Lakes Association, said because of the country’s economic troubles, tourism revenue is down not only across North Alabama, but at nearly every tourism destination nationwide.

Tami Reist, bureau president, said there were a variety of first quarter expenses, such as host fees for sporting events, that won’t be a revenue burden for the remaining nine months of fiscal 2010, and noted November revenue was up 4 percent.

The biggest budget cut the bureau made was renegotiating the contract with the FLW fishing tournament in November.

TV coverage

Scheduled television coverage was canceled, Reist said, so the bureau was able to lower the host fee by $30,000.

Other cuts included reducing the hours of the weekend greeter at the bureau office, eliminating travel to trade shows, reducing some advertising with Charter Cable and Southern Living magazine and cutting membership fees to sports associations.

USA TODAY: pies from Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q among top ten in nation

Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur is featured in USA TODAY as one of the ten great places in the nation to enjoy fresh baked pie. Other restaurants featured along with Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q include Square Meal in New York, Du-par’s in Los Angeles, Hoosier Mama Pie Company in Chicago, Dahlia Bakery in Seattle, and Eileen Blake’s Pies & Otherwise in Martha’s Vineyard.

From the article “10 great places to have a slice of National Pie Day” by Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY:

When it's time for dessert on Saturday, make sure to order pie. It's National Pie Day - as if the American Pie Council really needed to give us an excuse to have a slice. Whether sweet or tart, flaky or crusty, pie is an American tradition, says Ed Levine, founder of, a website devoted to the pleasure, culture and business of food. Levine has sampled slices across the nation. He shares his favorite pie purveyors with Larry Bleibergfor USA TODAY.

Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q
Decatur, Ala.
This Dixie restaurant doesn't skimp on dessert - it bakes pies fresh daily. "They make those classic mile-high Southern pies," Levine says. "They tower and can fall if they're placed on your table at the wrong angle." His favorite here: coconut cream. But chocolate meringue and lemon icebox have devoted followings, too. 256-350-6969;

For the complete article please see

Friday, January 22, 2010

River Promotion

The Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau knows promoting the Tennessee River is beneficial to the economy. President Tami Reist explained how the bureau is promoting the river and its future plans.

Holding and promoting various fishing tournaments, including having a least one televised competition, such as the Bassmaster Elite on ESPN or FLW tournament aired on VERSUS.

The bureau is working with the Alabama High School Athletic Association to make competition bass fishing a championship sport in high schools.

Working with The University of Alabama at Huntsville Rowing Team on the possibilities of bringing rowing events to Wheeler Lake.

Holding Splash N’ Dash promotional campaigns for travel writers and media to promote Wheeler Lake and the Alabama Jubilee Hot Air Balloon Classic by giving writers air balloon rides along the lake.

Working with the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce to attract new waterfront restaurants.

Publicizing the Boat Parade of Lights at Christmas and temporary attractions, such as the recent Belle of Cincinnati river cruise.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Corinne Trang- Visits Decatur, Alabama

Destination: Florence and Decatur, Alabama
Exploring world-famous Muscle Shoals, Tennessee River, and Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q . . . Life is definitely good!
By Corinne Trang at

Picking up where I left off in Birmingham, I head toward the northwest corner of Alabama to sample Southern comfort food. But my plans changed, which often happens to me—and generally for the better. So in three days, not only did I get to eat all the stick-to-your-ribs food one can possibly handle (wear loose clothes, if you plan to follow suit!), but had a blast fishing, enjoyed a massage, grooved to Muscle Shoals' R&B on 92.3 FM, and got the chance to reclaim my luggage that American Airlines lost over 15 years ago—a long shot, I know.

There is no direct flight to Florence or Decatur. The closest airports are either Birmingham or Huntsville, the latter being about a half hour from either destination. While at the airport be sure to pick up a rental car, because public transportation may be challenging.


BIG BOB GIBSON BAR-B-Q: As you enter this no-frills place, you'll notice numerous BBQ competition trophies won by co-owner and celebrity champion pitmaster Chris Lilly, author of the acclaimed Big Bob Gibson BBQ Book. Of all the restaurants I list here, this is THE ONE PLACE NOT TO MISS. In fact, "they" say that one hasn't been to Alabama unless one has experienced a pulled pork sandwich, brisket, turkey, ribs, and of course the chicken with original white sauce from this world-famous joint. The saying "melt in your mouth" was coined here. Well, not really, but it should have been. The menu hasn't changed since 1925, with sides including kettle-baked beans, coleslaw, and potato salad, and featured desserts of scrumptious coconut, chocolate, and lemon ice box meringue pies. Sedated, having sampled all meats, sides, and sweets in a single sitting, I walk away all pumped up to judge the 2009 Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue in Lynchburg, TN, the next day, but that's another story for another time. (Bob Gibson's BBQ; casual, lunch and dinner, $-$$).

MORGAN PRICE CANDY COMPANY: This candy shop has everything from English toffee, to dark and milk chocolates and seasonal candies, to pralines, which is what they're known for. No order is too small (gift boxes start at $5) and they'll ship all over the world. ($) Morgan Price Candy

To Read a complete copy of the article please visit:

River City renaissance

River City renaissance
Downtown redevelopment effort kicks off with $1.6 million; Athens State commits to fine arts campus
By Eric Fleischauer
Staff Writer
The Decatur Daily

The kickoff event for a downtown Decatur redevelopment drive Wednesday included the announcement that even during a recession the campaign has secured $1.6 million in commitments toward its $2.5 million goal.

Additionally, Athens State University President Robert Glenn committed $3.2 million from the institution toward a downtown fine arts school, to be developed in coordination with Calhoun Community College.

Partnership for Progress is raising the $2.5 million in seed money from area leaders as the first step in an ambitious plan to transform the Bank Street and Second Avenue areas into a cohesive and attractive city center.

Downtown goals

The goals set forth by the Partnership for Progress track those included in Envision Decatur, a 2002 study receiving communitywide input.

Using a combination of campaign funds, private investment and government grants, the Partnership for Progress expects to:

•Create Decatur Commons, a technology-oriented business park that would run along Dry Creek from the Tennessee River to Gordon Drive.

•Extend streetscape plans to connect Bank Street and Second Avenue.

•Locate a downtown fine arts campus and an art district near the Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts.

•Build a pedestrian flyover linking the river to the downtown area.

•Begin a revolving fund through which vacant downtown property could be purchased, improved and re-sold to private developers.
Glenn’s announcement adds impetus to the concept of a fine arts campus that would include residences for its students.

“It’s going to do more than just revitalize downtown Decatur,” Glenn said. “It’s also going to revitalize our education and the way we award baccalaureate degrees. We’re going to be on the cutting edge.”

The combined benefits to Athens State, Calhoun and Decatur convinced Glenn to support the project.

He said the campus would begin with an art school, then add drama, music and dance instruction.

“I am excited enough about this project to make commitments to it,” Glenn said. “As president of Athens State University, I have made a commitment for our institution to spend up to $3.2 million on the first phase of this project.”

The commitment, he said, is consistent with his university’s goals.

“We have made this commitment without hesitation because we believe it’s the right thing for Athens State, it’s the right thing for Calhoun, it’s the right thing for Morgan County and Decatur,” Glenn said. “And more importantly, it’s the right thing for our students.”

“The generosity of the people in this town never ceases to amaze me,” said Partnership for Progress Campaign Chairman Wally Terry.

About 80 people attended a breakfast meeting at Turner-Surles Recreation Center, next to a vacant railroad depot that, if the plan is successful, will be renovated as a museum.

The early success in the campaign surprised many given the economic slowdown.

David Breland, co-chairman of the leadership council and a retired district judge, said Decatur’s history is riddled with surprising perseverance.

The Civil War left Decatur with three buildings standing. In the 1880s, a Yellow Fever epidemic almost wiped out the city. In the Great Depression, the Louisville & Nashville Railroad shops closed, eliminating more than half the city’s jobs.

After each disaster, Decatur came back.

“We are a city that not only dreams things, we accomplish things,” Breland said. “Downtown redevelopment is going to be the next step in doing that.”

The city already has accomplished some of the goals, including development of Ingalls Harbor, refurbishment of Delano Park, creation of a pocket park on Second Avenue Southeast and staffing of the Decatur Downtown Redevelopment Authority.

The authority, led by Executive Director Rick Paler, erected way-finding signs and has obtained grants for a streetscape and for the old railroad depot.

Terry closed the meeting by describing successful downtown redevelopment efforts in other cities, especially Greenville, S.C.

“Why not Decatur?” he asked, slapping a sticker on his lapel that asked the same question.

Downtown contributors

The kickoff of Partnership for Progress, a campaign to raise $2.5 million for downtown redevelopment, included thanks to contributors whose combined commitments total $1.6 million.

Among the contributors are:

•Allegra Print & Imaging

•Bank Independent

•Bank Street Antique Mall

•Dr. Bill Sims

•City of Decatur

•Cook’s Pest Control

•David Breland

•Decatur/Morgan County Convention & Visitors Bureau

•Del Monte Foods

•Eyster, Key, Tubb, Roth, Middleton & Adams LLP

•Fite Building Co. Inc.

•Gateway Commercial Brokerage

•Hargrove & Associates

•Holiday Inn Decatur

•Hyosung USA Inc.

•John Thornton

•McWhorter Communications

•Morgan County Commission

•Murphy Brown

•Parkway Medical Center

•Petroleum Sales Inc.

•Peebles Oil Company Inc.

•Peoples Bank of Alabama

•Pepsi Cola Decatur LLC

•RBC Bank

•Red Sage Communications

•Regions Bank

•Renasant Bank

•Rick Paler

•S.S. Nesbit Co.

•The Decatur Daily

•Temple Inc.

•Terry Roche

•Underwood & Associates

•United Launch Alliance

•Willo Products Company

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Attractive to athletes equals tourism dollars

By Catherine Godbey, Staff Writer, The Decatur Daily

A merry-go-round of collegiate softball players, soccer teams and professional anglers will stream through Decatur in 2010 as the city seeks to cement its place as a premier recreation site in the Southeast.
“We are always examining issues on how we can improve the service we provide to the visiting teams. That keeps us on top,” said Tami Reist, president of the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Returning to Decatur in 2010 are Alabama Youth Soccer Association tournaments, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics softball championship and Bassmaster events.
With a growing reputation, the city also lured in new events, including the Women’s Bassmaster tournament, the Crappie USA tournament, the AYSA Mickey Holmes Cup and the Southern Collegiate bass tournament, a televised event.
Seeking more events
While welcoming returning and new tournaments, the tourism bureau and Decatur Parks and Recreation are working to secure more notable events.
“We are preparing for the 2011 President’s Cup soccer, placing a bid for 2010 Amateur Athletic Union soccer and looking into some more soccer events,” Reist said.
To stay ahead of sites vying for tournaments currently hosted in Decatur, the city must continue to maintain and improve the facilities, Reist said.
Hosting duties up for grabs include the 2011 NAIA softball championship, which is marking its 12th consecutive year at Wilson Morgan Park, and the AYSA State and Governor’s cups, which completed their final year of a three-year contract with Decatur in November.
With the recently installed press box at the Jack Allen Soccer Complex, the quality of the parks and the city’s hospitality, officials hope to bring the tournaments back.
While the Southwest Decatur soccer complex, Ingalls Harbor and the Wilson Morgan softball fields thrive, the Point Mallard ice rink is emerging.
In January and February, the Mississippi State University hockey club will load its pads, helmets and skates and travel to Decatur. Although the Bulldogs previously used the rink for practices, the games against Life University and Louisiana State University will be the first collegiate matches Point Mallard will host.
The 160-mile one-way trip from Starkville, Miss., indicates the demand for and lack of indoor ice rinks in the South.
As the only indoor sheet of ice between Huntsville and Birmingham, Point Mallard attracts teams from Mississippi to Tennessee, according to James Brannon, assistant director of the ice complex.
While Decatur’s sports travel is a reliable source for generating traffic, corporate travel, the meat of the tourism industry, is not. Corporate travel, Reist said, defines the success of a city’s tourism.
Recession challenge
With the recent recession, business travel slowed, creating a challenge for the visitors bureau, Reist said.
Unsteady hotel traffic hinders the economy. Unfilled hotel rooms translate to fewer funds generated through the room occupancy tax. With the tax, the convention and visitors bureau collects $2 a night for each hotel room booked.
Reist said through the first three months of fiscal 2010, the lodging taxes are down 30 percent compared to the previous year.
“All indications from our industries is that travel will get back up to where it was two years ago, but there is no way to pull ourselves out of the hole,” Reist said. “We may be able to end the year down 18 percent.”
The bureau uses the funds for improvements to city parks and attractions. In November, the tax financed the $150,000 press box at Jack Allen.