Birmingham-area shoppers boost spending for holiday season

Although sales tax revenue figures won’t be available for weeks, centers around the area handled heavy traffic early in the season and again at the last minute.

At The Summit shopping center in Birmingham, a number of retailers reported increased sales over last year, said Elisa Nelson, marketing manager for the shopping center’s developer and manager, Bayer Properties.

Meanwhile, post-holiday shopping kicked off strong, too.

On Monday, Nelson said, “the shopping center was packed — probably one of the biggest traffic days of the season.”

At Colonial Brookwood Village, results will likely be in line with national year-over-year sales increase projections of 3 to 4 percent, said Jim Spahn, spokesman for mall owner Colonial Properties Trust.

“When you look at the season, it finished like it started,” he said. “In the final few days before Christmas, we saw a surge in traffic in the stores and gift cards were extremely popular.”

Heavy traffic also was reported at Hoover’s shopping venues, including the Riverchase Galleria.

Across the country, retailers experienced a record-breaking Black Friday, the day-after-Thanksgiving shopping bonanza that is the traditional kickoff to the holiday season. The crowds at Birmingham area malls were larger than recent years on that day as well.

But the post-Black Friday lull was deeper than usual this year. The two weeks after Thanksgiving weekend showed the biggest percentage sales decline since 2000.

Then, during the final two weeks before Christmas, sales surged again, by the highest rate since 2005, said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers.

“The holiday season was good but uneven,” Niemira said. “The downs and ups were much more accentuated. It just shows how cautious the consumer is. Consumers are bargain hunters more today than ever before.”

Although they generate a lot of traffic, big focused discount days such as Black Friday aren’t necessarily an additive for the holiday shopping season, because they pull sales from other days, said Brad Wilson, founder of the coupon website

“It’s essentially at the expense of the rest of the season,” he said.

For Dec. 1-24, spending rose 4.7 percent compared with the same period last year, according to research firm ShopperTrak. In November, it rose 4.1 percent. A 4 percent increase is considered a successful season. A combined figure for the whole season won’t be available until after Dec. 31.

As proof that consumers are timing their spending to when they know they’ll get the best bargains, Black Friday was the biggest sales day, as expected, generating sales of $11.4 billion, up 6.6 percent from a year ago, according to ShopperTrak.

But based on preliminary data, Christmas Eve and Dec. 26 were the second- and third-heaviest spending days of the season, according to ShopperTrak founder Bill Martin.

He had originally expected Saturday, Dec. 17, to be the second-largest. Christmas Eve wasn’t even forecast to be among the top 10 days.

“Shoppers are willing to spend when they know the biggest discounts are available,” Martin said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Bibb County says it’s ready for an economic turnaround

Metro Economy Climbing to Recovery logo.JPGSince the financial recovery began, each county in the Birmingham area has had its economic challenges to overcome. This series looks at how each county in the Metro Birmingham area footprint fares:

Sunday: Metro Birmingham economy rebounds poorly toward recovery

Sunday: Bankruptcy, slow area job growth among challenges to Jefferson County’s economic health

Wednesday: Recession takes bloom off St. Clair County’s economic boom but its leaders sense a rebound

Thursday: Blount County economic recovery assessment: Some good, some bad

Friday: Walker County’s economic recovery vision adds manufacturing to its forestry and mining base

Today: Bibb County

Jan. 1: Shelby County

Jan. 3: Chilton County

CENTREVILLE — Judging by its unemployment rate, Bibb County seems to have turned a corner and could be on track to rebound from the longest economic downturn in recent memory. The jobless rate in the mostly rural county fell to 8.7 percent last month, its lowest in about three years.

But that improvement has yet to be reflected in the mood of the county’s residents, who say they’re still hanging on and trying to ride out hard times.

“It’s still pretty bad,” said Crystal McMeekin, whose family owns GH Building Supply in Centreville, the county seat.

The store, which has sold lumber, hardware and appliances since 1985, saw its revenue drop 5 percent in 2010, then fall another 10 percent this year, the fourth year of the economic slump, McMeekin said. She and her brother Tommy Hartley, who was working the register Thursday, said that longevity is what sets this downturn apart and has made its impact resonate.

1231 BIBB ECON.jpg[Click here to download a PDF of this chart.]

Like many business owners they’ve adjusted the size of their work force and inventory, and watched as customers and other area businesses have gone under. They’ve also seen their core business shift from supplies for new home construction to materials for remodeling — a common occurrence for the building trades during hard times — and they’ve seen cash-short suppliers insist on quick payment instead of running months-long tabs.

But as bad as it’s been, McMeekin said, they’ve not lost hope.

“We’ve been here a long time and we’ve weathered a lot of ups and downs,” she said. “We’re still going to be here.”

Ricky Hubbard, chairman of the Bibb County Commission, also is well acquainted with the toll of the slump. He’s an electrician, and like many in the building trades he expected to benefit from residential construction that was accelerating in the northern part of the county prior to the recession.

Nearly three-quarters of Bibb County residents commute outside the county to their jobs, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. And with the Mercedes-Benz plant just to the west in Tuscaloosa County and fast-growing Shelby County to the east, northern Bibb County was becoming even more of bedroom community.

“But when the economy went south, that all got put on hold,” Hubbard said.

The end of residential construction hit more than just the building trades. It rippled through service industries across the county, taking revenue away from restaurants, gas stations and other businesses.

At Woodstock Tobacco, a smokers’ shop off U.S. 11, revenue this year is down 12 to 14 percent, said owner Jim Thigpen.

“I don’t have many construction people any more,” Thigpen said. “It’s completely dried up.”

Targeting industry

While Bibb County has to ride out the slump like every other county in the state, it has tried to position itself to bounce back quickly when the economy turns, said Hubbard and County Administrator Mark Tyner.

Bibb-County-Crystal-McMeekin-Tommy-Hartley-1231-11.jpgCrystal McMeekin and her brother, Tommy Hartley, pose at GH Building Supply in Centreville on Dec. 29, 2011. The family-operated business has been a fixture in the business district for more than 25 years. (The Birmingham News/Mark Almond)

The brand new Scott G. Davis Industrial Park — named after chip mill owner Scott Davis, who died just before Christmas — sits off Alabama 5 near the Bibb County Industrial Park. So new that the soil around the gate is still freshly turned, the privately owned park exceeds 500 acres and was built with the cooperation of the county, which is improving the highway and installing water and sewer services. The county also is prepared to offer prospective tenants economic incentives.

Hubbard and Tyner said they believe the park eventually will be home to spin-off businesses associated with the Mercedes plant and a $97.5 million Norfolk Southern railroad facility under construction in McCalla in Jefferson County.

1231BIBBEMPLOY.jpg[Click here to download a PDF of this chart.]

“We would be ready if a company told us today they wanted to go there,” Hubbard said. “We’ve put in place the things we need to make the economy grow.”

That growth will be part of a conscious effort to diversify, they said. Many of the jobs in the county are related to the timber industry. The late Mr. Davis’ Scott Davis Chip Co. in Brent is among its biggest employers.

State Sen. Cam Ward, a Republican from Alabaster who represented Bibb County when he was in the House, conceded that the county remains stuck in an economic ditch. “I think it’s still in recession,” he said.

But Mercedes has plans to add a third shift and boost capacity by nearly a third next year, according to trade journal reports. And Norfolk Southern’s new hub in McCalla is expected to employ 230 people and indirectly create thousands of jobs. Both of those developments will drive new residential construction, especially around Woodstock and West Blocton, Ward said.

Local leaders have done all the right things to prepare the county to take advantage of that, he said.

“They’ve been very proactive,” he said. And what they’ve done “will drive residential construction.”

In the meantime, residents said, Bibb County will just hold on.

“In the last few months it seems like things have slowed down even more,” Thigpen said. “But we’ll see a turnaround. We’ll definitely see a turnaround.”

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Report says all occupational tax refunds have been sent

The court-appointed administrator over refunds from Jefferson County‘s replacement occupational tax has distributed more than $19 million in back taxes, according to court records.

The judge in the case also approved the administrator’s request for $416,000 to be paid in legal and accounting fees, court records show.

The report filed this week by the administrator, Simeon Penton, is the first public accounting of the estimated $25 million in taxpayer money that Circuit Judge Charles Price on March 30 ordered to be refunded “as promptly as possible.”

occupational tax refund icon.jpg(NEWS ILLUSTRATION/NAPO MONASTERIO)

Price struck down the replacement occupational tax on Dec. 1, 2010, ruling that the law authorizing it had been improperly advertised.

That tax was passed in August 2009 in response to a different judge striking down the county’s decades-old, original occupational tax.

The refund period addressed in Penton’s report covered wages withheld between Dec. 1, 2010, and March 16, 2011, from people with jobs in Jefferson County. The Alabama Supreme Court allowed collections to continue during the county’s unsuccessful appeal.

Since his appointment, Penton has controlled a $19.3 million escrow fund holding tax collections for most of the refund period.

The administrator also was ordered to return an estimated $5 million in uncashed checks representing the last occupational tax withholdings that employers had sent to the county.

The report Penton filed with the court this week said he had returned all uncashed checks and “directed all distributions of refunded taxes.” It did not say when those refunds were made, and efforts Friday afternoon to reach Penton for more detail were unsuccessful.

On April 5, Price awarded $6.4 million in fees and expenses to the three lawyers who filed the suit in 2009, Wilson Green, Clay Lowe Jr. and Donald Jones Jr. The judge also awarded the two named plaintiffs in the case, Jeffrey Weissman and Keith Shannon, $7,500 each.

Those payments were deducted from the refund money, leaving $12.8 million to complete the taxpayer refunds, according to Penton’s report.

Price issued an order Wednesday approving a $386,185 payment to the Montgomery law firm where Penton works, Gilpin Givhan, and another $30,000 to the Montgomery accounting firm Wilson, Price, Barranco, Blankenship Billingsley, records show.

Penton’s report said the administrative fees Price approved this week cover all work through January 2012. After estimating that all expenses would total $525,000, Penton said in his report that he would seek court approval before making any other expenditures.

The taxpayers’ lawyers have an appeal pending before the Alabama Supreme Court seeking another $106.4 million in refunds of all occupational taxes collected from the law’s effective date on Aug. 14, 2009, through Price’s Dec. 1, 2010, order striking it down.

Price declined to award that money, citing the county’s dire economic situation.

Loss of the estimated $66 million per year from the occupational tax led to massive layoffs and service reductions by the county and was a factor in commissioners’ decision in November to file the largest government bankruptcy in U.S. history.

The appeal in the occupational tax case was automatically put on hold due to the county’s bankruptcy filing.

People who worked in Jefferson County in 2009 also are getting separate refunds from the original occupational tax, which Circuit Judge David Rains struck down in 2009.

The court-appointed special master in that case, Ed Gentle, has filed several reports detailing the refunds of about $38 million in tax collections during the county’s unsuccessful appeal of Rains’ ruling, records show.

Rains ordered the county to pay $1.1 million to cover Gentle’s fee and refund costs.

Penton’s fee for providing refunds from the replacement occupational tax will come from the tax collections held in escrow.

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Boeing wins $3.48 billion Missile Defense Agency contract for development, sustainment of GMD system

Boeing].jpgHUNTSVILLE, Alabama – The Missile Defense Agency today awarded a team led by Boeing and its strategic partner Northrop Grumman a $3.48 billion, 7-year contract for the continued development and sustainment of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system.

The size of the contract aside, it’s an important win for Boeing, which since 2001 has been prime contractor for GMD – the nation’s only operational defense against long-range or intercontinental ballistic missiles. The system is designed specifically to protect against attacks by rogue states, such as North Korea or Iran.

The announcement is a major disappointment for Lockheed Martin, the only other competitor for the GMD Development and Sustainment Contract. The company formed a strategic partnership with Raytheon and developed teams of support contractors and proposals in the competition.

In a statement, Lockheed Martin did not address whether it might seek a review of the MDA decision, but said it was honored to compete “and to have worked with an outstanding industry team to formulate a proposal that leveraged our strengths in missile defense, strategic weapon systems and performance-based logistics.”

Boeing maintains its headquarters for the GMD program and a full training operation – including a working missile silo – in Huntsville. A Boeing spokesperson said Friday the company has about 900 GMD employees across various sites, including approximately 525 in Huntsville, 80 in Alaska, 200 in California, and 80 in Colorado Springs. Boeing has a total of about 2,700 employees in Alabama, mostly in Huntsville.

“In selecting the Boeing and Northrop Grumman GMD team, the Missile Defense Agency retains the knowledge, skill and expertise of the world-class men and women who developed this one-of-a-kind system – the only industry team capable of affordable innovation for GMD’s future,” said Norm Tew, Boeing vice president and program director of GMD in Huntsville.

Huntsville-based partners on the Boeing-Northrop Grumman team include Davidson Technologies, DESE Research, Dynetics, nLogic, Penta Research, Trident Group and Victory Solutions.

The GMD system includes a network of land, sea and space-based radars and sensors to detect and track the launch of an enemy missile. That data is used by the system’s military operators to launch a ground-based interceptor missile from silos at Fort Greely, Alaska, or Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The missile, which does not carry explosives, is essentially a sophisticated hammer, designed to smash into threatening enemy missiles in space and destroy them – a feat that’s been described as “hitting a bullet with a bullet.”

In 2009, MDA Director Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly said defense officials had decided the existing silos in California and Alaska are adequate for addressing the threat to the nation of ballistic missiles from rogue nations, and plans for more were canceled.

The 2010 defense budget cut about $1 billion from MDA, much of it from the GMD program, and the agency shifted its focus to countering the growing threat that short- and medium-range missiles pose to our allies and our forward-deployed troops.

That, combined with the end of some GMD-related contracts and delays in awarding the new contract, forced Boeing and Northrop Grumman to issue layoff or furlough notices to hundreds of workers in Huntsville and nationwide over the past couple of years.

It was not immediately known what effect winning the new GMD contract might have on Boeing or Northrop Grumman employment.

“As GMD transitions from a development program to one focused on lifecycle sustainment, we see a relatively stable workforce as we continue our program support,” said Jessica Carlton, a spokeswoman for Boeing in Huntsville.

Updated to add more details, comments from Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

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Blount County economic recovery assessment: Some good, some bad

Metro Economy Climbing to Recovery logo.JPGSince the financial recovery began, each county in the Birmingham area has had its economic challenges to overcome. This series looks at how each county in the Metro Birmingham area footprint fares:

Sunday: Metro Birmingham economy rebounds poorly toward recovery

Sunday: Bankruptcy, slow area job growth among challenges to Jefferson County’s economic health

Wednesday: Recession takes bloom off St. Clair County’s economic boom but its leaders sense a rebound

Today: Blount County

Walker County

Saturday: Bibb County

Jan. 1: Shelby County

Jan. 3: Chilton County

ONEONTA, Alabama — When Bob Hammer’s family store in Oneonta started enjoying one of its best years ever it was a sign that hard times were hitting Blount County.

Hammer’s store offers name-brand clothing and other items at deep discounts because it purchases surplus goods from manufacturers and national retailers. The family-owned chain, which has four Alabama stores, is always popular with the bargain-conscious but experiences surges during lagging economic times.

As 2011 comes to an end, Hammer offers a ray of sunlight.

“The Oneonta store had one of its best years in 2010 but it looks like 2011 is going to be slightly lower than last year,” he said.

Slightly slowing sales at a discount retailer in Blount County’s central city may not be the best economic indicator that the recession’s grip has loosened, but it’s something to cling to for a county where topography and other factors limit its economic development prospects and more than two-thirds of its residents commute to other counties for work.

“We’re a residential, bedroom community,” said Donny Ray, executive director of the Blount County-Oneonta Chamber of Commerce. “We have 67 percent of our people commute to places like Huntsville, Gadsden and Birmingham every day.”

Ray said there are reasons for optimism.

The county’s unemployment rate fell to 7.3 percent in November, its lowest point since January 2009. Still, that’s more than triple the 2 percent the county enjoyed in March 2007. Through the first 11 months of this year, unemployment is averaging 8.7 percent, an improvement over the annual averages of both 2009 and 2010.

Hammers store 122911.JPGView full sizeBob Hammer waits on Janet Bell Tuesday Dec 20, 2011, at the discount store he owns in Oneonta, Ala. Hammer has had a front row seat to the recession’s lows and the current recovery in Blount County. (Birmingham News, Hal Yeager)

“We’re definitely encouraged because we’re hearing good things from builders and the building supply places that things are picking up,” he said. “It’s encouraging that we haven’t had a dip in sales tax numbers. We’ve heard from several merchants leading into the holiday shopping season that they were having good years.”

Retail is an important sector for Blount County. The county’s second largest nongovernmental employer is the Walmart Supercenter in Oneonta.

“Retail retention is going to be the big focus in the new year — we’re going to try to keep what we’ve got and see what we can bring in in 2012,” Ray said. “We want to try to capitalize on the enormous traffic counts that come through Blount County. We’re sort of a crossroads between Marshall County, Etowah County, Jefferson County, Cullman County and St. Clair County.”

Hammer said while his store has done well, he was shocked to see the recession claim other local retailers from Oneonta, including Bennett’s, a family-owned store that had operated next to Hammer’s for several decades.

“That was surprising when they closed,” Hammer said. “We do hope some of these vacant storefronts get businesses in there.”

Franz Lohrke, a professor at the Brock School of Business at Samford University, said for counties like Blount that rely heavily on small businesses, there are some positive signs.

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“The numbers are starting to trend back up in terms of small business optimism,” he said. “About 7 percent of small businesses surveyed by the National Federation of Independent Businesses were planning on hiring over the next few months. That needs to be in double-digits before we can say we’re in an expansion, but at least it’s a positive.”

Lohrke said with a county with heavy commuting patterns such as Blount, gas prices weigh heavily.

“Gas prices have trended down here lately, so that’s a little bit of relief,” he said. “I still get the sense people are pretty cautious. With gas prices still over $3 per gallon, that’s got to have some impact on disposable income.”

Still, Lohrke said most individuals and businesses are feeling a bit better about the economy than they were a year ago.

“I don’t think anybody is saying we’ve completely turned the corner yet,” he said. “We’ve hit bottom and we’re moving back up.”

Despite the widespread economic concerns, Hammer said Oneonta offers comfort to people who are attracted to the alternative from their more hectic lives in larger cities.

“I call it ‘Mayberry’ because it’s that down-home, laid-back, friendly kind of town like you see on ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’” he said. “I think we get so many customers from Birmingham and other places who want to get away from the hustle and bustle and want a more peaceful atmosphere when they shop.”

Ray said there is evidence that the small-town appeal still pays dividends for Oneonta.

“We had the largest fall festival we ever had for our arts and crafts event in Oneonta and the retailers did real well,” he said. “We have plans on the drawing board to do our own farmers market patterned after the Pepper Place Farmers Market in Birmingham. We’re looking to do it down near the public library here in Oneonta. That should increase foot traffic downtown.”

Some industry

Of course, Blount County isn’t completely devoid of industry.

The county’s largest employer is the Tyson Foods chicken processing plant in Blountsville, which employs 850. Another large employer is the American Apparel plant in Oneonta that makes uniforms for the U.S. military, one of the last remnants of the textiles industry that once had a large presence in the county.

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“We know it’s still a slow-go, but we’ve had quite a few inquiries from new and expanding industries,” Ray said. “They’re small 30-, 40-, 50-employee deals, but in our neck of the woods, we will take that.”

Ray said that like all counties, Blount County wants to grow its manufacturing base.

“We’ve got some industrial plans under way. We have engineers helping us plan our industrial parks appropriately, so we have that door open,” he said. “We can’t say names, but we do have some manufacturing options out there. There are some expansions planned and a couple of new projects we’re hoping to get in our industrial parks. It would give us a good base of employees in the industrial sector.”

But Blount County’s primary industry may be tourism.

Palisades Park, Freeman Historic Park, numerous golf courses, Spring Valley Beach water park, Locust Fork River and Rickwood Caverns are among the attractions for residents and visitors alike.

But its the landmark covered bridges — Horton Mill, Swann and Easley — that date back to the 1920s and ’30s that are the main attraction.

“I was with the county for 26 years and I knew we had a lot of visitors up this way to visit our rivers, lakes, streams and covered bridges,” Ray said. “But I had no idea how extensive it was until I came to work at the chamber. We get calls every day from people outside the county and outside the state coming through and wanting to see the bridges.”

A half-million-dollar project to restore the county’s three historic covered bridges has started with completion slated for next fall.

“If we can get tourism cranked up — and we’re going to make a strong push to promote our lakes, streams and golf courses — and promote the covered bridges when the restorations are complete next year,” Ray said.


Tourism could be a good way to grow the county’s tax revenues in the coming years, especially since population growth is not anticipated.

After seeing its population jump from 39,247 in 1990 to 51,024 in 2000 and then take another leap to an estimated 57,328 this year, the U.S. Census Bureau projects the county will be virtually flat over the next five years with a 2016 population of 57,956.

Figures also show that housing is expected to show some increase in the county as children get old enough to build homes of their own and stay in the county.

The average household size is expected to go from an estimated 2.55 people now to 2.27 people in 2016 while the number of households is set to rise from an estimated 22,282 today to 25,324 in five years.

Another positive trend that is expected to continue is a rise in per capita income. In Blount County, it climbed from $10,177 in 1990 to $16,329 in 2000 and an estimated $22,734 today. In 2016, it is expected to hit $28,302.

That’s good news for business owners such as Hammer, who said his business is still getting flooded with calls from manufacturers and retailers looking to sell their surplus merchandise.

“As long as we can keep new inventory coming in and our shelves stocked, I think we’re going to keep seeing people coming and looking for deals,” he said. “Blount County has been a great place for Hammer’s. We’re happy to be here.”

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Birmingham lawyer Rob Couch named to US housing crisis panel

Rob-Couch-Bradley-Arant-1229-11.jpgRob Couch, standing outside his Bradley Arant Boult Cummings law office building downtown, will help develop a strategy to address the national housing crisis as member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Housing Commission. (The Birmingham News/Hal Yeager)

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — A Birmingham lawyer has been named to a committee of heavy hitters tapped to help President Obama and members of Congress craft a strategy to fix the national housing crisis.

Rob Couch of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings is one of 17 business, civic leaders and former politicians from both parties named by the Bipartisan Policy Center‘s new Housing Commission.

In an interview Thursday, Couch said the panel faces a major challenge in trying to help stimulate the nation’s sluggish housing market.

“For me, the biggest challenge rests in the area of home ownership,” Couch said. “I believe the benefits from home ownership abound, both to families and communities. Unfortunately, the nationwide home ownership rate, after climbing steadily for over 50 years to a rate of about 69 percent, has fallen over the past five years to about 62 percent.”

Couch, who participated in his first Housing Commission meeting on Dec. 14, said the group will hold sessions bi-monthly throughout 2012 with a goal of presenting its final recommendations by January 2013, around the same time the nation inaugurates its new president.

He said the housing decline is troubling because housing affordability is more favorable today due to record low interest rates and prices.

“I would concede that we may have been reckless in the years leading up to the recession in the ways we encouraged home ownership, but I hope we don’t lose sight of the good things that can result from owning your own home, and that housing policy going forward will reflect that,” Couch said.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is based in Washington D.C. and was founded by former Democratic and Republican congressional leaders to take politics out of efforts to address the nation’s problems. According to its website, the center’s new Housing Commission aims to reform the nation’s housing policy by crafting a package “of realistic and actionable policy recommendations that consider the near-term and address the long-term challenges in the sector.”

The center says members of the Housing Commission will host four regional forums next year to seek input and ideas from the public: March 6 in San Antonio, April 17 in Orlando, June 5 in St. Louis, and July 25 in Bangor, Maine. The commission is chaired by former HUD secretaries Henry Cisneros and Mel Martinez, and former U.S. Senators Kit Bond and George Mitchell, who co-founded the Bipartisan Policy Center in 2005.

Couch, a Republican, spent eight years as president of the former New South Federal Savings Bank before serving as president of Ginnie Mae in June 2006 and a year later beginning an 18-month stint as general counsel of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He moved back to Birmingham in mid-2009 and joined Bradley Arant as a member of its Banking and Financial Services, Real Estate and Government Affairs Practice.

Couch previously worked at Bradley Arant in the late 1980s and five years at First Commercial Bancshares before leaving for New South in 1993. As he helps the panel address the housing crisis, Couch said he will count on his experience working in mortgage underwriting as well as his background at HUD and Ginnie Mae.

Ginnie Mae is a government-backed program that makes affordable housing a reality for millions of low-to-moderate income households by providing a guarantee that allows mortgage lenders to obtain a better price for their loans in the secondary market.

The housing commission includes two former HUD directors, two former U.S. senators, a Harvard Business School lecturer, the heads of the American Bankers Association and Atlanta Housing Authority, and a home builder.

“As you can see from the wide diversity amongst the members of the commission, you would probably get several answers to the question of the biggest challenge our nation faces in this area,” Couch said. “We spent a significant portion of our first meeting discussing these varying assessments. The one conclusion on which I believe we would all agree is that there are no easy answers.”

Unlike past economic downturns that were followed by rebounds in housing, Couch said the recovery from this recession hasn’t been led by the housing market. Unemployment rates that remain historically high are a part of the reason, he said, as job losses have kept the foreclosure rate high and caused housing prices to plummet.

“About 1.6 million homes are either in foreclosure or headed that way,” Couch said. “The only way we are going to fix the housing problem is to bring both sides of the aisles in Washington together and come up with a solution. That is the goal of our commission.”

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On the Move with Lawanda Baker, Donald M. Wright and more


Style Advertising, a Birmingham advertising, marketing and public relations firm, said Senior Art Director Lawanda Baker won the American Marketing Association’s national logo design contest for the organization’s 75th anniversary.

Baker’s design was submitted by the Birmingham AMA Chapter and picked by a volunteer judging panel to represent the organization during its milestone year. The logo will be used in conjunction with the AMA logo to represent the group’s history at conferences, on and by local AMA chapters.


Sirote Permutt shareholder Donald M. Wright has been elected to serve a two-year term as a board member for the Law Firm Alliance, an international affiliation of firms created to help clients obtain competent and responsive legal services. Sirote said it is the only Alabama member of the Law Firm Alliance, which has member firms in 36 states and 11 countries.

Wright chairs Sirote’s Consumer Bankruptcy Practice Group.

Stan Middlebrooks has been elected to the board of directors of the Electronic Technicians Association-International. Middlebrooks is a senior instructor at Herzing University and has taught computer, electronics and communications technology there for more than 18 years.

Baird Beers, an attorney with Haskell Slaughter Young Rediker LLC, has been re-elected to the executive committee of the Young Lawyers Section of the Birmingham Bar Association for 2012.


Birmingham-based Command Alkon, which makes software for the global construction materials industry, said it has delivered its 5,000th COMMANDbatch system, a plant automation system. Command Alkon has offices in Colombia, the U.K., France, the Netherlands, Australia, India , Brazil and North America.


The Birmingham Bar Association has elected its officers for 2012. They are: President, Joseph A. Fawal of Fawal Spina; president-elect, Robert R. Baugh of Sirote Permutt; and secretary-treasurer, Deborah Alley Smith of Christian Small.

The Birmingham Bar Association is the largest local bar association in Alabama, with 4,000 members.

Frankie Lindon of the Pearce Bevill Leesburg Moore accounting firm has earned the Qualified 401(k) Administrator, or QKA, professional designation from the Association of Pension Professionals and Actuaries

Mail announcements to On the Move, The Birmingham News, P.O. Box 2553, Birmingham, AL 35202, email text and JPEG photographs (150 KB minimum, with the file name including the person’s name) to, or fax to 325-3282.

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Walker County’s economic recovery vision adds manufacturing to its forestry and mining base

Metro Economy Climbing to Recovery logo.JPGSince the financial recovery began, each county in the Birmingham area has had its economic challenges to overcome. This series looks at how each county in the Metro Birmingham area footprint fairs:

Sunday: Metro Birmingham economy rebounds poorly toward recovery

Sunday: Bankruptcy, slow area job growth among challenges to Jefferson County’s economic health

Wednesday: Recession takes bloom off St. Clair County’s economic boom but its leaders sense a rebound

Thursday: Blount County economic recovery assessment: Some good, some bad

Today: Walker County

Saturday: Bibb County

Jan. 1: Shelby County

Jan. 3: Chilton County

JASPER, Alabama — Off the soon-to-be christened Interstate 22 in Jasper, a lonely road construction crew is laboring out in the woods, putting in an innocuous access road that is nonetheless a powerful symbol of the evolving economy of Walker County.

The road will carry traffic into the new Jasper Industrial Park that area authorities hope to pack with growing and relocating companies offering high paying jobs with lush fringe benefits, jobs in strong and stable industries such automotive components, high tech goods assembly and machine tool manufacturing.

“The park will include our area’s fifth spec building,” said David Knight, director of the Walker County Economic Industrial Development Authority, referring to the practice of putting up a building without a firm tenant committed to buying or leasing. “It is our plan to market it and sell it just as we have the other four.”

One of the latest industrial snares for Walker County is Amtex, an automotive supplier selling parts to the Toyota factory in Tupelo, Miss. The company signed on last year, investing $12.8 million in the Bevill Industrial Park, expecting to employ 45 people when operations ramp up next year.

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Historically, the area’s economic fortunes have been tied to nature and the distant markets that consumed the timber and coal severed and troweled from the land of Walker County. Coal mining still counts — about 400 people draw paychecks from the county’s 13 surface mines. Timber is big and so is farming.

But much is changing, much of it tied to the ribbon of asphalt linking Memphis to Birmingham, now known as Corridor X but eventually to be called I-22, which cuts a direct swath through Walker County, through Jasper even, the county seat. It is slated for completion in 2013 or 2014, when the final connections are made to I-65 just north of downtown Birmingham.

“I have been getting updates on I-22 construction for 10 years now,” Knight quipped.

It is serious business, though. Commuting to Birmingham will be far easier, bypassing the slower U.S. 78, cutting 20 minutes off of the hour or so it used to take to get to the Magic City from Jasper. Home prices are expected to rise, with nice riverfront lots available all along the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior at a fraction of what similar acreage and sighting would cost in metro Birmingham.

Better yet, Knight said, the better freeway puts Walker County in a sweet spot for auto parts manufacturing. Jasper is no more than 90 miles from three major and growing automakers: Toyota in Tupelo, Mercedes-Benz near Tuscaloosa and Honda in Lincoln.

All assemble top-selling automobiles and all have a voracious appetite for parts from door panels to windshield wiper housing units, the manufacturing of which is farmed out to smaller firms. All follow strict manufacturing procedures designed to keep costs down by insisting upon “just-in-time” delivery of parts. That means a 24-hour flow of trucks in and out, and that requires a smooth, modern and fully functional interstate running through the front yard.

“We see ourselves a key location for automotive suppliers,” Knight said.

Walker County Amtex 123011.JPGAmtex, an automotive supplier providing parts to the Toyota factory near Tupelo, Miss., is investing $12.8 million on a facility in Jasper’s Bevill Industrial Park. (Special)

Walker County has struggled along the state and nation during the recession. But its unemployment rate has been falling, Knight said, with the latest report showing it at 7.6 percent in November, when the county had 25,087 jobs. In April 2007, before the recession, it had roughly 28,000 jobs and an unemployment rate of 2.8 percent, according to state figures.

Coal mining is doing well, he said, with worldwide demand and high prices making it sensible to re-start small or marginal mines, or open new ones. Walker County’s surface mines produced 2.6 million tons of coal last year, according to the Alabama Department of Industrial Relations.

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“New projects are under way all the time,” Knight said.

Knight said not every angle of economic development requires overthinking, that some natural attributes just are what they are. Jasper, he said, is a central market town, serving the retail needs of people from a wide area. The largest city between Tupelo and Birmingham, the city supplies thousands of farmers, rural landowners and small-town residents who travel in to buy cars, pick-up trucks, ranch goods, fertilizer, work boots, computers, cell phones and other necessities.

“Jasper has long been a retail hub for a large surrounding area, and that is a nice strength that will always be there,” Knight said.

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Upcoming Birmingham area business groups holding meetings

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Upcoming business area group meetings include the following:
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Small Business Administration. Program, “SBA 8(a) Workshop.” 1-3 p.m., Jan. 3, SBA District Offices, 801 Tom Martin Drive, Birmingham. Free. Register, 453-0249 or email.

South Regions Minority Supplier Development Council. Program, “Minority Business Enterprise Certification.” 11 a.m.-1 p.m., Jan. 4, SRMSDC offices, 4715 Alton Court, Birmingham. Free. nformation, 453-0249 or email.

Central Alabama Women’s Business Center. Seminar, “Building an Online Business 101.” 3-5 p.m., Jan. 5, CAWBC offices, Two North 20th Street, Suite 830, Birmingham. Cost: $15. Led by Andrea Walker of W. Social Marketing. Register, 453-0249 or email.

Career Assistance Ministry. Meeting, “Where Is The Job That Fits Me In These Uncertain Times?” 9 a.m.-noon, Jan. 21, Riverchase United Methodist Church. Information, email Mike Coffey.

Franklin Covey. Program, “Blended Learning Solution.” 8:30-10:30 a.m., Jan. 26, Summit Club, Regions-Harbert Plaza, 1901 Sixth Avenue North, 31st floor. Cost: $49 per person. Register here.

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5 questions: Taylor Huff, United Way of Central Alabama food systems facilitator

Taylor-Huff-United-Way-Central-Alabama.jpgTaylor Huff, food systems facilitator with the United Way of Central Alabama, is involved with coordinating the first Birmingham-Jefferson Food Policy Council.

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Taylor Huff, food systems facilitator for the United Way of Central Alabama, has been helping create an organization that aims to help Jefferson County residents get better access to healthy food

The Birmingham-Jefferson Food Policy Council, as it’s called, brings together community and business leaders, farmers and health experts to combat what has been called “food deserts,” residential areas where healthy foods are difficult to find. The group just named its first members, including Monica Baskin of UAB’s School of Public Health, David Fleming of Operation New Birmingham, Ellie Taylor of the Alabama Grocers Association and Spencer Taylor at Birmingham City Schools.

The council, Huff said, will help identify problems with food systems in the area and determine how to help low income families get healthy food or improve wellness policies.

“We have been talking about many of these issues for years,” she said. “But I’m really excited to see this diversity around the table, a different type of diversity and coming together to address some of the issues we’ve been working on.”

Huff joined the United Way in July 2010 and is responsible for managing a portion of a $13 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control. Her job also entails working with urban farms such as Jones Valley Urban Farm to get healthy food into the Birmingham and Jefferson County school districts.

In an interview, Huff talked about the Birmingham-Jefferson Food Policy Council and what it hopes to accomplish when the 21-member body meets for the first time next month.

Q. What is your role in the Birmingham-Jefferson Food Policy Council?

I have worked very closely with Greater Birmingham Community Food Partners to develop a food policy council. I’ve worked with them to help facilitate the process and provide some strategic guidance. It’s really been a community-wide effort to pull this together. I’ve really functioned more than just in an administrative role of reporting on their process, but also as a supporter to help them get where they are today, which is to prepare to convene for their first meeting.

Q. Why is the Food Policy Council needed and what does it do?

The Food Policy Council serves a need that I feel is unfulfilled. There is not a formal department of food in our community or one organization in our government that serves as an advocate for healthy food systems and our public’s health. So the food policy council really has the opportunity to .¤.¤. identify opportunities, challenges, barriers and pathways to improve our local food system, access to healthy food and ultimately community health. It acts as that voice through engagement with local policy makers and the local government specifically related to our local food system.

Q. Which types of problems do you see in the Birmingham-area food system?

The Food Policy Council will initially assess our local food system to see what the needs are. Some of those types of policies could be related to, for instance, urban agriculture, acceptance of WIC (food stamp program) or supplemental nutrition assistance programs for farmers markets, or just different types of policies. It could be transportation policies that help residents (get) to grocery stores. Or it could be incentives that attract grocers to “food deserts.”

Q. How did you choose the council members?

There were certain sectors that we identified. We had an open call for applications and really made a strong effort to ensure that we got the word out so that we would have the diverse representation we’re looking for. We had a great response. Applications, and they ranged from community to political. Those applications then were categorized based on those. It was a blind scoring process. So when the review committee of five looked at applications, they didn’t know whose application they were reviewing. The panel looked at experience with the food system and the sector that they were involved in.

Q. What role does the business community play?

First and foremost, we’ve really tried to have that diversity at the table, that it is a diverse representation of our community. So, we’ve worked hard to have the business voice at the table, have it be part of the conversation as we’re trying to address some of the issues in our community. At the end of the day, everything comes back to the bottom line, so when addressing any sort of policy, we have to take into account the overall economic situation. Pubic-private partnerships, I believe, are more successful than ever in addressing these issues.

I believe the business community is absolutely important in addressing some of these issues and in giving them an opportunity to invest in the well-being of our community, both physically and economically. Once they identify their barriers, their opportunities, their pathways, undoubtedly the business community will be connected to those in some way. So the Food Policy Council will have recommendations and opportunities for improvement.

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