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Gray talks Chambers County’s progress, recent CCDA office relocation

LANETT — Valerie Gray has two words to describe the year 2020: Chambers strong.

The executive director of the Chambers County Development Authority (CCDA), Gray was the guest speaker at Thursday’s noon hour meeting of the West Point Rotary Club, held at the Jane Farrar Event Center in downtown Lanett.

“There’s been a lot of bad things to happen this year,” she said. “We all lost loved ones.”

Among those who passed were the CCDA’s board chairman, Bobby Williams; a Lanett city council member, Shirley Motley, and one of LaFayette’s leading citizens, Sammy Seroyer, among many more. Some were lost to Covid-19 and others to normal causes of death.

“We survive because we are Chambers strong,” Gray said. “Bad things happened this year, but we remain strongly optimistic about our future.”

On Monday of this week, the CCDA staff moved into their new offices in the Lanett airport terminal. Gray said the $1 million, 5,400-square-foot building will be a great place to host all kinds of meetings, among them future gatherings of local civic clubs. It’s a public building owned by the City of Lanett and should see lots of air travelers in future years. Work continues to lengthen the runway from 4,400 to 5,400 feet.

The airport is on schedule open in December 2021. The current $8.1 million project is in the process of making the Lanett airport one of the longest runways in east Alabama. Since it will be longer than the runway in Auburn, the Lanett runway may serve as a backup landing area for Auburn University and could have a future as a regional airport.

“That would be a big deal,” Gray said.

One company that will likely be using the airport a great deal is John Soules Foods. They are flying in an average of once per week from Tyler, Texas to monitor progress on the work underway at their new plant off Towel Avenue in Valley. They have been landing at the Auburn airport and are most interested in being able to land in Lanett, which will be much closer to the plant. They have already purchased a new car from a local dealer in anticipation of driving from the airport to Towel Avenue.

Gray said that she and her staff have been visiting airports all across Alabama to get an idea of what works and what doesn’t in the operation of an airport. There’s no question there will be a demand for more hangar space.

“There’s a lot of interest in that,” Gray said. “We are already getting inquiries from people who want to keep planes here. We need to make sure we have an adequate amount of hangars. This is going to be a first-class airport, and we need to have first-class hangars to ensure a first-class customer experience for those who will be coming here.”

Gray said the Valley area and Chambers County are being targeted by developers because of their proximity to I-85 and abundant water resources. To maximize this opportunity, there will need to be withdrawal permits on the Chattahoochee River and the infrastructure capabilities in terms of water and sewer to meet future demands. She commended local city and county leaders in investing in this. Over the past three years, local city and county government has invested just under $35 million in needed road, water and sewer improvements.

“Economic development is the way to pay for things you need in your city and county,” Gray said.

A recent announcement by Holland Homes LLC of Auburn, that a 330-home subdivision is planned for development in 12 stages, addresses one of the local area’s biggest needs: new, affordable housing. The Holland Homes development will be on one side of Combs Road, and planned development by Chris Clark and Patrick Bolt will be on the opposite side.

“We need people to come here,” Gray said. “We need for them to live here, spend their money here and send their children to school here. This increases your local tax digest.”

Something that encourages this is the presence of broad bandwidth.

“With Charter and WOW!, we have 10 gigs of up and down bandwidth,” Gray said.

This is a factor in Holland Homes plans for a smart village off Combs Road. It’s a joint venture on the part of Holland Homes and Alabama Power.

“Everything in the home can be controlled remotely by the homeowner’s smartphone,” Gray said. “This can really help you with your energy bills.”

Gray said there’s an amazing pace of work going on right now at the John Soules Foods site. She believes they are running ahead of schedule on an opening date and could be in production by this spring. She likes the way they get things done and says that they will pay their employees well.

“We want people who will pay at least $15 an hour,” she said.

She said that she and the CCDA staff had taken part in a poverty simulation that had been eye-opening. The task was to see how a family of four can make ends meet on a salary of $9.50 an hour. There’s a simple answer: you can’t.

“If we miss out on a project that pays that they may be a better fit somewhere else,” she said.

The CCDA’s end of year report will be out in early January. Chambers County has been on an amazing growth trend over the past 10 years or so. Following the shutdowns of the WestPoint Home plants in 2008, Chambers County’s unemployment rate soared to more than 20 percent in February 2009.

Thanks to Kia suppliers in the Chambers County Industrial Park off I-85 and ramping up production at Norbord, Knauf and WestRock, Chambers now has one of the state’s lowest unemployment rates.