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How Jefferson County (AL) Landed a $1.1 Billion Investment After Past With Financial Woes

Jefferson County Commissioners from left: Joe Knight, Lashunda Scales, Jimmie Stephens and Steve Ammons voted for incentives to lure J.M. Smucker Co. to Jefferson County. Commissioner Sheila Tyson was not present. (Barnett Wright, The Birmingham Times)

By Barnett Wright

The Birmingham Times

The J.M. Smucker Co. on Thursday announced plans to invest $1.1 billion to build a new manufacturing facility and distribution center in Jefferson County (AL).

The announcement came 10 years to the month after the county filed a then-record $4.23 billion bankruptcy on Nov. 10, 2011.

“When we came into office everything was quite a mess,” said Commissioner Joe Knight, who was elected in 2010, shortly before the county filed for Chapter 9 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code . “. . .one of those big decisions was ‘do you file bankruptcy? Do you become known as the highest municipal bankruptcy in United States history’. . .and the naysayers said, ‘if you do that this county will die, it will never come back.’ This (investment) is living proof that it is coming back and will continue to come back.”

On Thursday, Knight and the County Commission unanimously voted for an incentive package to lure the Smuckers project that will create over 750 new jobs in an 875,000-square-foot facility on approximately 225 acres in the Jefferson Metropolitan Industrial Park in McCalla, just outside of Birmingham.

This announcement is the largest economic development project in Jefferson County history, according to officials.

“Everybody recognizes Smucker’s and their brand,” said Commissioner Steve Ammons, Chair of the Jefferson County Economic Development Committee. “It gives you a level of competency and capacity for them to recognize that this is a place to come and do business. It gives the county immediate credibility as a place that you can come and do well because that company’s been around for long enough and has made solid decisions.”

Ammons said the deal was a result of work between several regional economic entities including the Birmingham Business Alliance (The Alliance) and the Jefferson County Economic and Industrial Development Authority (JCEIDA). He also pointed to the previous commission (2014-2018) that had the “forethought to add acreage to the JeffMet Industrial Complex,” he said.

The deal was a far cry from when the county made previous national headlines for its financial woes including the bankruptcy filing.

“We were embarrassed and ashamed of what Jefferson County had become,” said Commission President Jimmie Stephens on Thursday following the Smuckers announcement. “We (made a) pledge along with the previous commission and now it’s carried over to this commission that we’re going to work together and we’re going to improve the quality of life in Jefferson County.

“We had a list of things to [fix], and we’ve checked them off,” said Stephens, who was also elected in 2010. “Everything from [hiring] consent decree to bankruptcy and we’ve done it all and will continue.”

Ammons called Thursday’s announcement a new day because commissioners “were not talking about bankruptcy. . .  we’re not talking about sewer issues, we’re talking about economic development and how we’re bringing jobs to” Jefferson County.

Construction on the 225-acre property will begin immediately and the plant is expected to open by 2025. JeffMet Park at McCalla is a 739-acre industrial park along U.S. 11 about a mile from Interstate 20/59 and two miles from I-459.

The facility will produce the company’s fast-growing Uncrustables sandwiches and will be its third plant in the United States with the other two in Scottsville, Kentucky, and Longmont, Colorado.

In a statement, Mark Smucker, president and chief executive officer of Smucker’s, said, “Our Smucker’s Uncrustables brand continues to be one of the fastest growing in our portfolio and in the food sector more broadly. We are proud of the success the brand has achieved, due in no small part to the tremendous efforts of our employees, and we’re excited to take advantage of the opportunities and growth our investments will enable.”

The J. M. Smucker Company, also known as Smucker and Smucker’s, is an American manufacturer of jam, peanut butter, jelly, fruit syrups, beverages, shortening, ice cream toppings, and other food products. Smucker’s has its headquarters in Orrville, Ohio. The family-owned company was founded in 1897.

Ted vonCannon, executive director of JCEIDA, compared the announcement to those of Honda and Mercedes, which left an indelible economic development imprint on the state.

“Of course, those operations have grown significantly since then,” vonCannon said. “But for the original announcement . . . this $1.1 billion is the largest in the history of Jefferson County as an initial investment.”

Ron Kitchens, CEO of the The Alliance, said Smuckers brings a “household name” to the area. “I think Smuckers brings a validation,” he said “. . . I met the Smuckers family so this isn’t just a corporate board making a decision. This is a family who looked at their legacy and said, ‘Where do we want to extend our legacy, and be committed to another community.’ And we are so blessed that they chose Jefferson County to do that.”