Barrett Shelton, Sr., publisher of the Decatur Daily, and Karl Woltersdorf, manager of Huntsville Utilities, had the vision of industrializing the entirety of North Alabama. The two men were concerned about the many young people who were moving away from North Alabama to find work.
The purpose of the North Alabama Associates was to promote the sale of electric energy. Expanding existing industries and developing new businesses in the area helped to bring the mission of the North Alabama Associates to fruition. The initiative provided work opportunities for the young people of the area and, as a result, increased sales of electricity and sparked newfound prosperity for the region.
At the time, North Alabama was fundamentally an agricultural area. Its soil was among the most fertile in the South. In 1945, 51% of the population lived on a farm. In seven out of thirteen counties in North Alabama, the farm population was in excess of 60% of the total county population. Only Colbert, Madison and Morgan Counties had any industrial work opportunities.
Most of the first 11 months of the North Alabama Associates’ operation was devoted to enticing the Air Force to establish its Air Engineering Development Center (wind tunnel) on the Huntsville Redstone Arsenal. North Alabama lost this project to Tullahoma, Tennessee. Instead, as a consolation prize, the Army decided to make Huntsville the guided missile center of the United States. As a result, Wernher Von Braun and a team of German rocket scientists relocated to North Alabama. By 1951, more than 2,000 people were employed at Redstone Arsenal. This “consolation prize” has since grown into NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the Army Missile Command, which continues to impact the entire region. Today, over 38,000 people are employed at the Arsenal.
In 1963, the North Alabama Associates was re-organized to become the North Alabama Industrial Development Association. The organization still had the same purpose, but, instead, represented the entire North Alabama area. It continued to receive support from the TVA electric power distributors and indirectly from TVA.
The fledgling vision of the founders has now become a reality. North Alabama is a thriving region providing jobs for its young people who are employed in the chemical, plastic, metalworking, aerospace, and automotive industries, in addition to the many other businesses now located throughout the area.
Some might ask how this success was achieved. The answer can be found in visionary leaders and long-term commitments made to the industrial development effort. In 1950, Thomas Johnson, the first executive director of NAIDA, made the following statement: “The expansion of industry into new plants and new locations is a slow process. There is keen competition from all over the U.S. It is going to take a lot of hard digging, research, patience and understanding to accomplish the job ahead. It is a tough job. It requires the close cooperation of all agencies.”
This philosophy has not changed in the past 67 years. The North Alabama Industrial Development Association continues to work with the local economic development agencies throughout the area, the Alabama Department of Commerce, the TVA and many other organizations to recruit industry for North Alabama.
Looking around the region, one has to wonder if even our visionary founders would be astonished at the North Alabama they helped create. In 2015, the New and Expanded Industry Report from the Alabama Department of Commerce highlighted that North Alabama (16% of the geographic area of the state) received 35% of the new and expanding manufacturing projects, 37% of all new manufacturing jobs created, and 28% of the capital investment in the state. The 34-year commerce average (from 1982 to 2015) revealed that North Alabama had received 38% of the new manufacturing employment opportunities and 25% of the capital investment in Alabama.
As we celebrate these past accomplishments, we cannot be content to stop here. We must continue on the course forged by our leaders as we continue to strive in our aim to improve the employment opportunities for our young people and, in doing so, advance the quality of life for the residents of North Alabama.