Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Senator Hank Sanders: Senate Sketches # 1210

  My wise mother gave me some advice in graphic language: “Son, when you marry, I hope you don’t have a girlfriend on the side. But I know men, and it’s likely to happen. But if you do, I want you to promise me to never treat a girlfriend better than you treat your wife.” It is a lesson with applications in other areas of life.

  Governor Bob Riley was in Selma last Friday to help treat an industrial wife like we treat industrial girlfriends. I considered but did not share my mother’s admonition about how to treat a wife and a girlfriend because I was introducing the governor.

  When potential industries express interest in coming to our communities, we treat them like girlfriends: we court them; we woo them; we spend money on them; we say nice things to them; we treat them special in every way. We treat existing industry like a wife:  it is there all the time so we take it for granted. But this time we treated an existing industry like a girlfriend.

  Bush Hog is a home grown industry. It was conceived, birthed, and raised in Selma but the brand is now worldwide. Last year, the Alamo Group out of Texas purchased Bush Hog and insisted on closing several streets for safety and efficiency. The alternative was to possibly leave Selma.

  The surrounding community strongly opposed closing the streets. The business community strongly supported closing the streets. The specter of hundreds of jobs leaving Selma for another state shadowed the struggle.

  Selma Mayor George Evans was in the crossfire. He wanted to keep the industry happy and thriving in Selma but he refused to sacrifice the community. The business community was shooting at him from one side because he did not close the streets immediately. Community leaders were shooting at him from the other side because he even considered closing the streets.

  If this situation had involved a new industry – a girlfriend – I think that we would have quickly closed the streets, sacrificing the community on the altar of new jobs. But this was a wife – an already existing industry – so the struggle continued for months. Eventually Mayor Evans crafted a compromise to close the streets but protect the community by creating a new outlet street which had to cross a railroad track. The cost was initially to be about $450,000 but has since risen to $500,000. The city and county were facing financial challenges due to the Great  Recession.

  The City of Selma came up with $50,000. The Economic Development Authority came up with $50,000, and the County of Dallas came up with $50,000. That left $300,000.  We needed help to treat the industrial wife like a girlfriend.

  I first tried to secure the funds from other sources but could not. It came down to asking the Governor of Alabama. At the time, an intense battle was raging over the legality of bingo in Alabama. I had been pretty hard on Governor Riley about the bingo busts. Still, we had to treat the industrial wife right. We also had to treat the community right.

  Asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars is usually done in person but the moment did not permit a personal visit. I could not wait so I asked over the phone. Without hesitation, Governor Riley agreed. This was back in April during the legislative session. July came and went causing some to doubt the governor’s commitment. I did not doubt him even though several scheduled trips to Selma for an announcement were canceled. As Governor Riley said in his remarks, we work together on industrial development regardless of party and politics.

  On the faith of Governor Riley’s word, Mayor Evans and the city closed the streets.  However, the new street could not be constructed for lack of funds. The mayor was under daily attack. It was a political mess.

  Now, we were gathered in Selma on August 6, with Governor Riley announcing the $300,000 grant. Quite a few leaders were just relieved but others were joyful.

  Governor Riley did a excellent job of speaking to the value of existing industry and the need to treat it right. Mayor George Evans did an excellent job talking about the cooperation of so many entities: the community; the city council; the mayor’s office; the probate judge; the county commission; the governor; Bush Hog; Team Selma; the business community; the state senator; and others. Probate Judge Kim Ballard followed suit.

  Because of widespread cooperation, Bush Hog is safer and more efficient, the streets are closed, a new street is under construction, and the hundreds of jobs are still in Selma.  The industrial wife was treated like a girlfriend.

EPILOGUE- It never ceases to amaze me how principles enunciated for one situation are so applicable to completely different situations. I am certain that when my mother told me about the girlfriend-wife principle, she did not conceive of its application to industry.  She was wiser than she knew.

  About the author: Hank Sanders represents the 23rd Senate District in Alabama.

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