Poor Region Plays Waiting Game

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The Crossroads of America Industrial Park in Boligee is bordered on one side by the Tenn-Tom and on the other by Interstate 20/59. It has a railroad spur running through it, as well as water and sewer lines.

Yet the Greene County-owned park remains virtually empty, used mainly by the hunters who stalk their prey this time of year.

About $3.5 billion of new and expanded industrial development has occurred in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky since the waterway's completion.

But the west Alabama counties that border the Tenn-Tom, including Pickens, Greene and Sumter, have seen little of that industrial development in the 20 years that the waterway has been in existence.

These counties, which more than a century ago had bustling river towns like Gainesville and Pickensville, continue to be plagued by poverty and high unemployment.

The Tenn-Tom corridor includes the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers as well as the 234-mile Tenn-Tom Waterway. It has more than 40,000 acres of prime waterfront property.

But only 42 sites along more than one thousand miles of the waterway and two rivers were identified as viable industrial development sites. Tenn-Tom boosters hoped it would light an economic fire in the region.

But director Carl Ferguson at the University of Alabama's Center for Business and Economic Research says it takes more than a nice location and waterway access to lure industry. It takes infrastructure highways, good schools, adequate medical facilities, a thriving community.

Ferguson says it's not a simple or short-term process to transform a rural area into an urban center that's ready for development. The real question, says Ferguson, "is how do you get this engine going?"