FLORENCE — Officials from governmental entities in Lauderdale County agreed Wednesday to draft proposed changes to the Shoals Economic Development Authority that could include expanding the reach of the Shoals Economic Development Fund.
The decision was reached after a meeting attended by members of the Lauderdale County Commission, Florence City Council, Florence Mayor Steve Holt and mayors from several municipalities in the county.
The meeting concluded with those in attendance agreeing to have Lauderdale Commissioner Brad Holmes write a proposal that the county commission and city councils in Lauderdale County would review. The ultimate goal would be to present it to the local legislative delegation and hope it would be considered during this year's legislative session.
Commissioner Roger Garner said it is important that changes be made during this year's session because the Mazda Toyota Manufacturing plant being built in Huntsville is expected to create spin-off industries, and he does not want the Shoals to miss out on that opportunity.
"If this session ends without a resolution, then the largely overwhelming majority of job opportunities will be gone," Garner said.
Major alterations would include a smaller SEDA board, possible changes in management, and eliminating the board's Executive Committee.
It also would propose asking legislators to look into changing the scope of the fund so that its uses could be expanded.
"Something's got to give," Holt said. "It's got to change."
This comes as Colbert County officials also are interested in changes to the composition of SEDA and the fund. On Tuesday, Colbert County Commission Chairman Tommy Barnes said he wants to set a date to meet with Lauderdale commissioners and discuss redefining economic development and expanded uses of the fund.
At the conclusion of Wednesday's 90-minute meeting, Holmes said the message he's hearing from those in attendance is there are two options. The first is to alter the makeup of SEDA and the fund.
The other option would be to consider cutting ties with SEDA and forming a Lauderdale County economic development authority.
After the meeting, Holmes said the group would try the first option before they consider resorting to the other one. The meeting carried an air of unity between Florence, the county and towns in the county.
"If this meeting didn't do anything else, it provided the opportunity for the county and cities to come together under the common banner of doing what's best for the constituents of this county," Holmes said. "We heard a lot of concerns from our rural representation."
He said the current legislative session initially was going to end June 16, but since Gov. Kay Ivey called a special session to start this year's session, that might push the deadline to get a bill passed to late June or early July.
Wednesday's meeting included some grumblings from officials over the fact the SIDC fund has helped Colbert County get many industries while 63 percent of the money that goes into the fund comes from Lauderdale County.
Money for the fund comes from a half-cent sales tax in Lauderdale and Colbert counties. The fund currently has some $32 million that is not dedicated to any project.
"We deserve better than what we're getting," Rogersville Mayor Richard Herston said.
Rogersville particularly could benefit from the Mazda Toyota plant because it is closest to it.
"Right now is the greatest opportunity we have in northwest Alabama to attract industry," Herston said.
Florence Councilman Andy Betterton pointed out there are Lauderdale County residents among those who work at those Colbert County jobs.
Commissioner Joe Hackworth responded that it's not only about jobs. It's about the investments in property, as well.
Bud Ward, a former member of the SEDA Board, attended the meeting, saying he repeatedly was frustrated while on the board. He listed resistance to fund the Shoals Scholar Dollars program among examples of those frustrations.
Ward said the executive board should be eliminated, board size reduced and SEDA President Forrest Wright replaced.
Holmes said the Shoals needs to update its definition of economic development.
"We've got to get a 21st-century mindset into 21st-century recruiting," he said.