FLORENCE --There's a new state-of-the-art agricultural center on the drawing board that could come to fruition within two years, state officials say.
And plans for a new career technical center for Lauderdale County students wouldn't be far behind.
The Agri-Center/Arena is the result of more than a year of planning, and could be the conduit for much-needed economic gains in the Shoals, legislators said.
State Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, is leading the charge on the proposal for a 10,000-seat arena that would be on 167 acres off U.S. 72 east, behind the Florence Fire Station.
Preliminary estimates are in the $30 million range. It would be built without new taxes. Grant matches are also in the works.
Melson, along with state Reps. Phillip Pettus and Lynn Greer, met with Lauderdale County school board members, some Lauderdale County commissioners, and officials from Northwest-Shoals Community College on Friday to discuss the status of the plan.
It was the first time the plan has been publicized. Legislation must be passed before the project can move forward.
Greer, who has been working with the local legislative delegation on those details, said the project requires action on a general law and possibly three or four local bills, including the creation of a Lauderdale Agricultural/Business Authority and a funding stream.
Legislators in attendance said all six members of the local delegation are in agreement on the plan.
Neither state Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, nor state Reps. Johnny Mack Morrow, D-Red Bay, or Marcel Black, D-Muscle Shoals, were in attendance.
Melson, who said the project has been "a long time coming," stressed the time to move forward is now with assurances of a low-interest USDA loan and property costs.
The most recent appraisal Melson has is from nearly a decade ago when it was in the $1.6 million to $1.8 million range.
Career tech center
Lauderdale school officials are in the beginnings of planning for a new career technical center on the same property.
Northwest-Shoals would collaborate on dual-enrollment options, and a three-way partnership would exist between the school system, Northwest-Shoals Community College, and the Lauderdale Agricultural Authority. The authority would be responsible for 126 acres, while the school system and college would each realize the cost of 20 acres.
While the agri-center would serve as a multipurpose venue with up to 800 horse stalls on the backside and several hundred recreational vehicle hookups, it would also provide business and educational space specializing in workforce development with the capability of hosting trade shows and comparable events. It would also accommodate banquets.
Melson said the facility would serve as a much-needed music venue, large enough to host big-name concerts and events.
"It's truly like nothing else in this state," Melson said. "And why shouldn't we have it right here?"
The primary goal for the new career technical center, according to school board President Ronnie Owens, is to offer students the most up-to-date course options that will make them college and workforce ready.
"We've got to get rid of this old vocational/trade school image and stereotype," Owens said. "It is absolutely not true that everybody needs a four-year degree."
Board members will visit centers around the state and nation to gather ideas. As for course offerings, Owens said the board won't be hasty in making those determinations, but choices will be based on the most needed job skills for students.
The board has recently obtained a needs assessment for the new Lauderdale County center, a significant starting point, he said.
"I can't get past the fact that 65 percent of available jobs in the area don't require a four-year degree, but certifications or a two-year associate's degree."
Lauderdale Superintendent John Hatton said the new center will be flexible, adding courses and credentialing when necessary and revisiting programs that may no longer be relevant.
"It's truly a matter of offering what's needed," Hatton said.
Northwest-Shoals President Humphrey Lee said the extended partnership with the school system is "a win-win for the whole area."
"We're excited about a new career technical center as dual enrollment options will expand and the multiple needs served by the new agricultural center will serve us and countless other aspects of the community," Lee said. "Right now, Northwest-Shoals doesn't even have a place big enough for graduation. It's just all good for our area and even beyond."