OPELIKA, ALABAMA – This is the largest small town I have visited so far. One reason I stopped in Opelika is because I have a blog called www.KeepUSABusy.com, which focuses on reversing the trend of shipping our manufacturing jobs overseas.
I am a long and loyal fan of the television show, Shark Tank. But I cringe whenever the wealthy investors tell the people looking for funds to send their product out of the country to reduce the price and increase their profit margins.
To me that level of greed is being disloyal to America. If you already have billions, how much more do you need? Why not use your creativity to find ways to make more products here in the USA. Are these wealthy people any better than the know-nothing academics that firmly recommend Socialism or worse?
My heart remains with the small, creative cities that have the courage to put the People of America first. (I also have a blog by that name – www.ThePeopleOfAmerica.com where I am learning about the real folks who live and work in our nation.
I admire the 20-year-old college dropout in Picayune, Mississippi who has launched her own business and has hired four people before she turned 21. I really like the retired guy in Reform, Alabama who has assisted his brother in creating a silk screen operation from scratch, producing tee shirts in Reform’s battered and beaten downtown. I met an African American gentleman who rented an old storefront in Starke, Florida as a place to hold events and to deliver tables and chairs to such things as outdoor weddings and tent church services. Then there is the dinner theater with locally written scripts and local actors in Dawson, Georgia. That’s just for starters.
We need to create these tiny town start-ups all over the country. Put them in the thousands of empty downtown stores.
So far, of all the places I’ve visited, Opelika, Alabama, with its checkered history, has done the best over the years. Not only are they revitalizing their historic downtown beside the railroad tracks. Opelika city leaders took a huge risk in the 1990s by building a huge 2,200 acre, $32 million industrial park, while creating a world class economic development team.
Opelika is next door to the highly regarded Auburn University. The city of Auburn has a population of more than 53,000 residents, which admittedly helps assure Opelika’s success. And there are other factors.
Highway transportation is as critical now as sheltered ocean bays, the nation’s large rivers and the Great Lakes were when America began to spread west. Next came the railroads. Many of the small towns I’ve visited were established and thrived when the railroads came through.
Then President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the interstate highway system after seeing the autobahns of Germany in World War II.
Eisenhower sold the idea to the people of our nation on the basis of the need for the interstates for national defense and homeland security. This network of high speed roads became the new backbone of our national transportation system, partially reducing the importance of our sheltered bays, or wide, deep rivers and our railroads.
Opelika is fortunate to be located on Interstate 85, which runs from Richmond, Va. through Atlanta and on to Montgomery, where it connects with Interstate 65, a major highway that begins in Chicago and ends in Mobile.
It also is fair to say in recent decades the community’s economic development team has produced a success story that is hard to match.
While most of the nation’s cities, large and small, have struggled since the 2007 housing bubble and 2008 bank crisis, Opelika has continued – to put it mildly – to keep growing.
It did lose 1,000 jobs when a tire company pulled out because of the nationwide financial crisis. But in time that became just a minor stumble for Opelika, where people just won’t give up.
The official city website quietly proclaims: “Opelika is enjoying an economic boom.” These words seem to be almost as an afterthought. But its not just wishful thinking. Nor idle bragging. It is a solid, nailed down fact.
While hundreds, if not thousands of other U.S. communities slept, coasted, worried or dithered, Opelika rolled up its community sleeves, took large chances and focused on creating jobs. Their huge industrial park of the 1990s brought in major distribution centers.
Pharmavite, considered the global leader in the manufacturing and distribution of dietary supplements also located there. So did Baxter International, Inc. a Swedish company that merged with an Illinois medical products company. Baxter has announced a $300 million plant expansion in Opelika, adding 200 jobs.
Daewon, a supplier of automotive suspension coil springs, stabilizers and bars, is located in Opelika, along with Mando America Corp, which specializes in brake, steering and suspension systems. Mando also has been expanding.
Kia automobiles are now produced in a factory just 18 miles east of the city. (Hyundia’s factory is 67 miles to the west).
Golden State Foods Corp., one of the largest diversified suppliers to “the quick service restaurant and retail industries” announced on February 17, 2015 it was creating a world class meat processing facility in the Opelika industrial park.
Opelika’s largest employer is The East Alabama Medical Center with 2,700 staff members. The hospital not only serves Southeast Alabama, it also draws patients from Southwest Georgia and from as far south as the Florida Panhandle. In certain services it is ranked the best in the state and in some cases among the very best in America.
Then there also is the sprawling, 130 acre TigerTown shopping complex with 1 million square feet of retail space plus free standing hotels and restaurants. It contains such major names as Target, Home Depot, Kohl’s, Kroger, Hobby Lobby, Best Buy, Old Navy, Office Depot and more than 60 others.
Down beside the old railroad tracks one finds restaurants, specialty shops, antique stores, and galleries. Not far from the heart of town there is an unusually large, hilly neighborhood of ancient trees and carefully preserved historic homes.
Considering the struggles the city faced since it was founded in the 1830s as a town called Lebenon, it has had to meet many challenges.
Not all of the city’s history is pretty. The Native Americas were driven out in 1836 and 1837. Yet the community took on the Muskogee name of Opelika, a word that meant “large swamp.”
When the railroad arrived just before 1850 it became a commercial center, since it was the only direct line between the east coast and New Orleans. Raw cotton from the Southern plantations could be stored in warehouses and shipped north.
Unfortunatly during the Civil War Yankee troops sacked the city, destroyed the warehouses, which had been converted to Confederate supply depots, and ripped up the railroad tracks.
Yet the town nearly doubled in population after the war. Perhaps out of retaliation, Opelika officials tried to scam Northern investors with fake railroad bonds, so the city charter was revoked in 1872. For years the state legislature ran the town as a police district.
Citizens tried, at an election, to dump town officials involved, but town leaders nullified the vote even after the courts overturned their nullification.
There were so many saloons along the railroad tracks and so much gunfire that rail passengers were told to duck beneath the windows if they didn’t want to be shot when the train was in town.
The governor solved that and other problems by sending the militia in to restore order. Opelika remained under military rule for 16 years. Then in 1899 the city charter was restored. The following year local investors built the Opelika Cotton Mill, which put 125 men to work. Still living outside the law, in 1925 they collected $62,500 to convince (some say bribe) Pepperell Manufacturing company executives to construct a large mill just outside the Opelika city limits.
From that point on until the 1970s Opelika continued to grow until 10,000 people were working there. It was in the 1990s that the huge industrial park was built.
One traveling across the country, as I am, doesn’t have the time to gain more than a superficial picture of a city. Visiting 1,000 small towns and producing ten more blogs creates a demanding schedule, even when you work and travel 12, 14 or 16 hours a day.
I do this because I consider it important. If the big cities are the backbone of the nation, the small towns are the ribs, the arms and legs, and at times the vital organs of America. I am slowly pulling threads together, As with my other, earlier books I hope to be able to offer solutions that will make a difference.
So if my effort is limited, it is encouraging to remember the companies that have moved to Opelika, after completing their due diligence, are now operating in and around the city.
I can’t, after all its challenging history, absolutely assure you Opelika is now the ideal place to raise a family. But I have a positive feeling that it could be the right place.