Architects of local industry

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 23, 2006

After several years of service, John Northcutt and Olen Kerby recently rotated off the Demopolis Industrial Development Board.

Through the years, Northcutt, who came on board in 1988 and Kerby, who came on in 1992, have helped bring many positive changes in their city for no pay. Both served as Chairmen of the Board and both helped do their fair share to make Demopolis a better place to live and work.

There are several examples of great things accomplished by the board including their help in earning the ACE award for the city and role in establishing a process of strategic planning. During their tenure, the board also bought the South Industrial Park and added 70 acres and secured grants, which led to the spec building, a 41,000 square foot facility.

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But, both remember a time when the workers of their city needed them most. When Vanity Fair announced they were closing their doors, Northcutt said it triggered the two most memorable events of his terms.

“There were two big events,” Northcutt said. “We lost Vanity Fair, but we gained New Era. We lost 400 employees when Vanity Fair closed, but there are more than 400 employees out there now.”

Securing a new employer for the city, Kerby said, was probably when the board worked its hardest.

There was another major event, Kerby said, that also helped secure a stable employer for the city.

“We have worked with businesses transitioning and probably one of the biggest examples of that was when Griffith Packaging sold out to Foster Farms,” Kerby said. “We were able to play a role in helping Foster Farms get there and is has been a good story for the city of Demopolis.”

But, one of the most positive changes of all, Kerby said, was the addition of an asset the board had little to do with.

“One of the best things that probably happened to Demopolis is Alabama Southern,” Kerby said. “The IDB didn’t really have anything to do with that, but it gets our workforce trained and gets them a little higher education. That may be the biggest thing that has happened in terms of our time with IDB.”

Attracting new industry and training a workforce for that purpose has always been a priority for the board. At the same time, they also want to reach out to their existing businesses. When Gulf States announced plans to upgrade, the IDB helped them with bond issues. Periodically, Northcutt said, they also go out and visit local business leaders.

When the board seeks new industry, Kerby said, they look for someone who will be around for the long term and concentrate on marketing the city as best they can.

“So much of IDB is positioning,” Kerby said. “You can’t make someone come in and bring 400 or 500 employees, you can only help your community be prepared and market it as well as you can. It’s all just a matter of getting the right fit. It’s all about using our natural resources, including our people, we’ve got with the desired and needs of businesses.”

For the most part, Northcutt said, serving on the board has been a pleasure. The willingness of the community and local leaders to help out has always made their job very easy, he said.

“I think that the IDB is just an example of the volunteerism that we always have in Demopolis,” Northcutt said. “There are always people willing to get into business, the historical society and the arts. They are out there willing to commit to it.”

Both Northcutt and Kerby agreed their terms had been positive personal experiences.

Current Industrial Development Board Executive Director Jay Shows said their service also left a positive impact on the city.

“Looking back on the past years of the IDB, there are really no negatives,” Shows said. “All of the things they have accomplished with the resources they had, I think, are a huge compliment to the Industrial Development Board.”