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County can't afford to play ‘chicken' again

By Staff
Anyone who's been around Escambia County for the past decade will likely remember The Great Chicken Debacle of '96.
That was the year that economic developers from Montgomery brought a Taiwanese poultry company to visit Escambia County. The company wanted to place a poultry processing facility, a hatchery and a feed mill here. Best I recall, the processing facility would have been outside of Atmore, the feed mill in Brewton's industrial park and the hatchery somewhere in between.
In addition to the jobs those facilities would have created, agriculture and economic development experts agreed that there would be spin-off effects. Those already involved in agriculture would add poultry houses to diversify their businesses; others who had jobs would add poultry houses to supplement their incomes.
The site selectors had narrowed their choices to Escambia and Barbour counties. Inside sources thought we were in the lead.
That was before a group organized to fight poultry. It wasn't just that they organized, but, on a slow Fourth of July weekend holiday, their efforts made Page 1 of the Pensacola News-Journal. The news reportedly reached Taiwan with lightning speed. Barbour County moved to the top of the site selector's list and for several years the economic developer from Montgomery literally would not even stop in Escambia County, much less bring prospects calling. And the mayor of Eufaula, in Barbour County, where the operation went instead? He regularly sends his thanks this way.
You see, we – yes, all of us – were perceived as unwelcoming to industry and unable to get along. In the ensuing years, much has been done to repair our reputation and improve our image. Unfortunately, we could be about to send the same old message to Montgomery.
It is no secret the Escambia's four larger municipalities – alphabetically Atmore, Brewton, East Brewton and Flomaton – have different ideas about where a four-lane highway should be built to facilitate hurricane evacuation traffic. Presumably, widening Hwy. 21 in Atmore, Hwy. 113 north of Flomaton or Hwy. 41 from East Brewton/Brewton north to I-65 would also have positive economic impacts.
Gov. Bob Riley has committed $20 million from the state for widening Hwy. 113 if local officials come up with a $5 million match. Flomaton's leaders have secured a promise of $4 million from Florida, and agreed last week to commit $1 million to the project if the commission would help.
Their request was that the county promise a portion of the sales taxes collected within a mile of the Hwy. 113/I-65 interchange toward the debt Flomaton would incur for the $1 million match. So far, the commission has stalled.
Regardless of which hurricane evacuation/economic development route you would prefer, we can't afford to turn down a $24 million investment in our county, nor can we afford the cost to our image if we don't hold hands and play together.
Commissioners will meet again today to reconsider the issue. Hopefully, this time they'll take the right action.
We don't need to play chicken again.
Michele Gerlach is publisher of The Standard. She can be reached at michele.gerlach@brewtonstandard.com or 867.8821.