Trent Jones course here? Opportunity exists to pursue economic idea

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 2, 2004

The story said nothing about West Alabama or the Black Belt. Why would it?

Last weekend, metro newspapers in Alabama carried a story by Associated Press writer Jay Reeves about a plan to rehabilitate the “struggling” economy of northwest Alabama.

The plan?

That’s right. The Retirement Systems of Alabama will spoil another good walk when it adds another leg to its growing Robert Trent Jones trail of golf courses around the state. The 36-hole complex in the Shoals, located on the Tennessee River, will open next month, and the construction of an impressive 200-room hotel — David Bronner style — will tempt traveling hackers to stay the night in Florence.

“We don’t see the project as a savior to the area, but we see it as the beginning of a rebirth,” Florence Planning Director Melissa Bailey told the Associated Press.

Unemployment numbers confirm the Shoals’ need for an economic resurgence. In June, Colbert County’s unemployment rate hovered at 8.2 percent; Lauderdale County’s was a point lower at 7.2 percent

So if the Shoals needs an economic “rebirth,” wouldn’t that mean West Alabama and the Black Belt could stand to experience an economic conception? And more to the point, why does RSA’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail form almost a perfect bow around West Alabama? Has Bronner, the CEO of a state employee conglomerate that controls $23.4 billion in assets, ever considered building a link to the trail in the one region of Alabama that almost deserves a good break to come along?

The simple answer, according to Bronner’s right-hand-man Marcus Reynolds Jr., is no. Before economic developers in the region spew another round of pity, though, there’s a reason RSA has never seriously considered this region of the state: They’ve never been asked to consider us.

State Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, arguably the most powerful legislator in the state, admitted the novelty of such a concept.

“You know, the thought has never occurred to me,” Sanders said during a stop in Demopolis on Friday. “But if you think about it, if Greenville can be successful with one, then surely the Black Belt can.”

Jay Shows, head of the Demopolis Area Chamber of Commerce and Industrial Development Board, also said the idea of a West Alabama RTJ golf course had never appeared on the economic development radar.

“I think something like that fits our umbrella very well,” he said. “It’s something the Chamber and IDB would put its energy toward if we had some direction.”

Direction to The Trail

In 1990, Alabama again became the focal point for racial relations in the South. Shoal Creek Country Club, an elaborate facility that rejected black members, hosted the PGA Championship.

Media outlets, and some professional golfers, scolded Shoal Creek for its discriminatory policy. Others, like U.S. Steel in Birmingham, sought to change the landscape of golf in the Magic City.

“USX called and offered us a beautiful piece of land,” said Reynolds, deputy director of RSA. “They asked if we wanted to build an 18-hole golf course on the property, and when we saw the land, we had to build more than one course.”

Bronner and RSA decided to construct 54 holes of golf, and Reynolds said the now internationally famous RTJ Golf Trail took on a life of its own.

“We weren’t planning a trail, but other areas around the state started coming to us,” he said.

There was Huntsville, Anniston/Gadsden, Opelika, Dothan, Mobile and Greenville. In all, RSA began construction of seven prodigious golf facilities throughout the state when they planned to build just one.

“As we got into the project, we were very concerned about interstates,” Reynolds said. “We wanted these golf courses to be very close to interstates.”

Every course, with the exception of Dothan, was constructed about a driver and 7-iron away from an interstate. Soon, the Trail expanded to Prattville. And in mid-August, the Shoals will become a must-play location for the estimated 75,000 rounds of golf played annually on each of the RTJ courses.

What about us?

Is there any possibility West Alabama or the Black Belt could catch the right person’s eye — notably, David Bronner’s eye?

Larry Lee, a noted economic developer in the state who co-authored a study on the Black Belt with Joe Sumners at Auburn University, encourages the quest.

“If you don’t dream big dreams, nothing ever happens,” Lee suggested. “It’s kind of like asking someone on a date. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Rejection?”

Lee has a good point — no region of Alabama knows rejection better than West Alabama.

There’s more to the process than coming up with an idea, though, but on a grand scale, there’s no reason West Alabama couldn’t ask for a date.

If interstate is key to the concept, both Sumter and Greene counties offer viable locales. Based on strict numbers — which Bronner likes to be big — Sumter County and the Livingston area may provide the best option.

“I really think there was a quick discussion about it a number of years ago,” said Dr. Richard Holland, president of the University of West Alabama. “But what a great idea. It’s something we need to get together about and discuss.”

With an interstate already in place, the next step in the project would include land. According to Reynolds, RSA doesn’t shop the state for stunning terrain.

“We’ve got enough courses already,” he said, “but if somebody approached us, we’d probably take a look.”

The billowing hills along I-59/20 in Sumter County wouldn’t compare to the near-mountainous landscape of Oxmoor Valley in Birmingham, but they’d provide interesting subtleties for course designers.

Holland, earlier this week, indicated the possibility of a land owner willing to donate a chunk of land in Sumter County. Whether that happens is unconfirmed, but many would jump at the chance to develop property around a track of manicured fairways.

“You have to remember that David Bronner is a numbers guy,” Lee said. “He wants to see specifics, and you’d have to find someone to tote water for you with him.”

Sanders readily accepted the role on Friday.

“I think I could have a discussion with him,” the state senator said.

In terms of pure traffic numbers, the Alabama Department of Transportation’s latest figures indicate that 19,530 cars travel I-59/20 through Sumter County each day. Just north, outside of Tuscaloosa, 23,190 cars drive I-59/20.

The latest-available figures from 2002 have likely increased over the past two years. The growth of Mississippi’s tourism industry leads travelers into the Magnolia State to visit Philadelphia and Biloxi.

In Greenville, where the Cambrian Ridge golf facility has grown in popularity, an average of 27,000 cars travel through Butler County on I-65. In the Shoals, site of the newest RTJ development, 41,240 cars travel Highway 43 in the Florence area. And in Dothan, as many as 35,000 cars travel along U.S. Highway 231 each day.

The numbers in West Alabama, lower than other RTJ areas, will grow in the coming years, and leaders will have to impress that upon Bronner. More importantly, though, developing ideas for economic conception simply requires asking someone to visit for a dinner date.