Strength in the face of adversity

Published 9:59 pm Friday, January 29, 2010

Mike Marshall, CEO of Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital, called me Wednesday to share some news. It wasn’t particularly good news.

Mike, who sits on the Industrial Development Board, called to let me know New Era Cap Co. has shifted gears, leaving Demopolis behind.

We’ve all been well aware that was a possibility. Truthfully, many of us probably expected it, given that – at least on paper – Demopolis appeared to be the early odd man out.

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Losing up to 350 jobs over the course of the next three months is tragic.

After my conversation with Mike Marshall, I spoke with Demopolis mayor Mike Grayson, a man whose disappointment was tempered with high expectations and optimism.

I spent the next several minutes working on the stories you see on Page 1 about New Era’s closure and left the office for a 3 p.m. appointment.

I rolled into the old Food World parking lot and walked into the vacant building to meet Todd Vowell, the man who will soon fill that bare space with his family’s ninth grocery store.

Over the course of the next hour, my perspective on what had been an otherwise dark Wednesday began to change.

Todd told me of his plans to make the empty store new again; told of plans of expansion and growth. When Food World closed, it took with it a Robertson Bank branch and a pharmacy. Vowell’s Fresh Market wants to add those services back to its new store.

I went to do a story about this new business and found myself captivated by a man who was grateful to have an opportunity to open a store in a city that had just lost one of it’s largest employers, but was still full of optimism about the store’s future.

The Vowell family business is rooted in Mississippi. Their Demopolis location is their first venture outside the state whose motto is, “Feels Like Coming Home.”

In fact, Todd told me at least twice that when he first set foot in Demopolis, that he felt like he was at home.

In turn, he’s made a major investment here that will pay dividends immediately in regards to jobs for locals.

Todd’s enthusiasm began to rub off on me.

I began to think back over the course of the last year. Marvin’s expanded. We welcomed Dirt Cheap. Demopolis Market Place is currently expanding. Gateway Plaza has been totally revitalized. Aaron’s Rental opened up on Highway 80. Parr’s West was re-branded and remodeled. South Alabama Gas invested in Linden.

As I drove back to the office, the list kept growing.

If you look at the broad scope of things, it hasn’t been a bad 12 months.

In fact, it’s been much better here than it has been in many other places.

New Era’s building was vacant before it moved in. The cap manufacturing company was recruited to the city by government and civic leadership. Now, that effort must, and will, start again.

I have confidence that our city, county and civic management will find a suitable occupant for the New Era site.

In the meantime, we can thank the people like Todd Vowell for investing in this area and reminding us that while it looks like some people are in a rush to leave our city, there are people – like his family – who can’t wait to get here.

Jason Cannon is publisher of the Demopolis Times.