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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