Alabama business roundup: Headlines from across the state

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One of the world’s most popular video games is teaming up with Alabama to help vets — find out which one. How close is UAB to restoring their football program? There’s a degree for brewing beer? See which Alabama company is suing the EPA. All this and more inside today’s business roundup of headlines from across the state:

Birmingham Birmingham Journal: UAB hits initial $2M goal toward restoring football

The University of Alabama at Birmingham has exceeded its $2 million goal toward restoring its football program.

According to, Hatton Smith – the Royal Cup executive tasked with leading efforts to raise $13 million toward facility improvements – said the fundraising committee already has more than $2 million cash in hand.

Last month, prospective donors were asked to submit their initial donations by Sept. 1, instead of the original Dec. 31 deadline for first payments.

Smith said in the report that the accelerated timetable was “to meet requirements set forth by the (University of Alabama System) Board of Trustees.

Smith is leading a team of heavy hitters who are raising money for the program’s reinstatement following the school’s controversial decision to cut the football program following the 2014 season.

Several business leaders were critical of the initial decision, saying UAB football was a missed opportunity for Birmingham, specifically its potential impact on downtown development.

Birmingham Business Journal: Alabama leads some, lags others for average debt

Debt is a problem that plagues much of America, but for Alabama, it could be worse.

A recent study from showed that Alabama ranks near the middle of U.S. states for debt, with the exception of debt caused by student loans.

On the low end of the spectrum, Alabama’s average student loan debt was $28,895 – the 12th highest among states. Neighboring Mississippi ranked 19th for average student loan debt ($27,571), while Georgia ranked 37th ($24,517).

However, Alabama ranked at 24th overall for states with the highest average credit card debt, at $3,784. Mississippi ranked 47th for the highest credit card debt ($3,416.53), while Georgia came in at 12th ($4,060.44)

These numbers are small, though, when considering U.S. citizens have $703 billion in credit card debt alone. Alaska finished with the highest credit card debt for each state, with residents having an average revolving card balance of $5,081,

Alabama’s best ranking was 34th highest average mortgage debt – $136,154.26. Georgia topped Alabama in this category ranking as the 20th highest ($162,916.66.)

Mississippi also finished well for average mortgage debt, ranking 44th overall ($119,129.52). Call of Duty video game teams with Alabama group to help vets

The philanthropic heart behind one of the world’s most popular video games has found one of the best ways to put action to its money is to hook up with an Alabama-based veterans organization.

The Call of Duty Endowment – the veterans-aid foundation behind the video game that features war-like scenes produced by Activision Blizzard – has bestowed the seal of distinction on Still Serving Veterans, a non-profit organization based in Huntsville that also has locations in Birmingham and Phenix City.

Still Serving Veterans focuses in helping vets transition into their post-military lives.

That certification has turned into real money for Still Serving Veterans, according to Dan Goldenberg, executive director of Call of Duty Endowment. During a recent visit to Still Serving Veterans in Huntsville, Goldenberg said the foundation began working with the Alabama group five years ago.

Still Serving Veterans first received an award of $25,000 from the foundation. Then by meeting a series of metrics, the allotment has increased to a high of $777,000 last year, Goldenberg said.

Altogether, the foundation has donated $1.75 million to Still Serving Veterans.

“It’s only because they get better and better at what they do,” Goldenberg said.

In 2013, Still Serving Veterans was among the 11 organizations to receive the first seals of distinction from the Call of Duty Endowment. There are now 18 veterans groups carrying the CODE seal of distinction.

“These are organizations that can expand and find way to serve under-served vets,” Goldenberg said. “Still Serving Veterans has done a great job with that with their expansion all over the state.”

For Still Serving Veterans, the partnership with CODE is confirmation that their process is effective.

“We appreciate as a business-oriented, business-focused non-profit, a partner that is savvy enough and also business-oriented to give us that leeway,” said Will Webb, co-founder and president of Still Serving Veterans. “I came up with a way to explain it as verify by trust. Which is kind of a flip on President Reagan’s trust but verify. What they do is they verify you are the best, most efficient, effective and integrity-based organization. But once done, they trust them to do the right thing if they make the metrics.

“For an organization that is similarly focused, we love that. We love for somebody to check us out, give us the thumbs up and give us the ball and let us run with it — an increasingly more lucrative ball. With a partner like that, then we can go to the next level and really leverage what we’ve done. It’s a great partnership.”

CODE has set a goal of placing 25,000 veterans in jobs by 2018 by working through partners such as Still Serving Veterans. Goldenberg said 14,700 vets have found jobs through CODE and its partners so far.

“It’s not us doing it,” he said. “It’s our grantees. We’re vetting them and writing the checks and trying to support them if we can but they are the ones doing this amazing hard work.”

Dothan Eagle: Grants that helped Todd Farms expand could be cut from Alabama budget

“Coffee’s ready,” 78-year-old Joe Todd alerted visitors before an event with city and state officials on Monday.

His hospitality and will to grow the family’s seven-generation syrup business into a viable regional attraction on U.S. 431 are what Headland Mayor Ray Marler said the city considered in providing funds to help with a sewer line project that aided Todd Farms’ creation of a general store and restaurant. Headland’s contribution of $20,816 was a 20-percent match to an $83,264 Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) designed for water and sewer line projects that would be a return on investment for the taxpayers where the projects are done.

As part of the grant, Todd Farms owner and operator Dewey Todd – Joe Todd’s son – said the family agreed to employ 15 to 20 workers, 80-percent of whom are in a low-to-moderate income bracket, for a payroll of more than $300,000 a year.

Unless Alabama lawmakers reconsider a proposed budget cut of about 54 percent to ADECA for the upcoming fiscal year, ADECA director Jim Byard Jr. said Monday that the CDBG program will be among cuts the department makes to balance the budget.

Legislators have about a month to pass a budget.

According to Byard, the department’s budget is $263 million, $9.3 million of which is from the state’s general fund budget. He said about $1.3 million in CDBG funds drew more than $30 million in federal funds last year.

“When we use CDBG dollars we ensure they are being used wisely, legally and that they’re a return on investment for taxpayers across Alabama,” Byard said. “If we do away with the $1.3 million, we’re leaving $34 million on the table.”

Marler said several smaller and larger projects have been completed throughout Headland with CDBG funds. He said many of the projects could not have been possible without CDBG.

“If we lose CDBG it would be devastating when it comes to matching funds for projects that are very vital to our growth,” Marler said.

Tom Solomon, executive director of the Southeast Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission, said CDBG funds affect more than just one specific project. For example, Solomon said the sewer line expansion at Todd Farms gives other existing and future business the potential to operate on the city’s sewer line, versus septic tanks that can’t support larger business.

“CDBG is the only safety net communities have for plans. A lot of other grant programs have dried up, so all (communities) have are loan projects that aren’t always the best avenue to help the city,” he said.

According to Dewey Todd, who in addition to being the owner at Todd Farms is a Troy University faculty member and product manager for banking technology company FIS, the CDBG project helped open the door for so many more opportunities at Todd Farms, such as a future RV park, senior living neighborhood and other businesses on the property.

The family also plans to begin hosting a National Fig Festival in coming years. Todd Farms already had a museum.

Dewey Todd said the general store should open within the next couple weeks, while the restaurant should open within the next couple months.

Dewey Todd said the family produces around 1,800 gallons of syrup a year and 160 cases of figs per year for sale and use in products internationally, including use in rum at a distillery in Opelika and in a men’s fragranced shampoo in Canada.

Dewey Todd said the family’s first sugar cane crop was harvested by his great-great-great-grandfather in 1835. Today, the farm grows seven different varieties of sugar cane and is known for the purity of its mostly manual process. He said his father, who has retired three times – once from the Alabama National Guard, as a prison warden and a police officer – still serves as the “syrup master.”

Dewey Todd said the recent addition of employees is the first time Todd Farms has hired outside the family.

“It’s really phenomenal when you think about it,” Dewey Todd said of the farm.

“In our guest book we’ve had visitors from all 50 states, Norway, all the Caribbean islands, north of South America, and Canada. They’re 17,000 to 20,000 cars that pass through here, and we want to introduce them to Headland.”

Birmingham Birmingham Journal: Drummond files lawsuit against EPA

Drummond Co. has filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency, claiming the government agency violated the Freedom of Information Act.

The lawsuit stems from the coal giant’s request for information regarding the 35th Avenue Superfund Site in Birmingham, which the EPA claims poses “risks to human health and the environment.”

Drummond is one of five companies named by the EPA as potentially responsible for the contamination at the site and its neighborhoods. Designation as a Superfund site gives the regulatory agency broad authority for cleaning up the sites.

The EPA invited Drummond and the other companies to submit Freedom of Information Act requests for EPA records regarding the site, but Drummond claims in the suit that the federal agency has not provided much of the requested information.

Drummond accuses the EPA of withholding numerous records, and provided an index of withheld records with the 35th Avenue Final Response, which listed completely withheld and partially redacted records. It is also requesting the EPA fulfill a request for records submitted to the EPA by GASP, an air quality advocacy group that has been active in the Superfund site debate.

Drummond attorneys warned in June that it might take legal action after months with no response to its requests and appeals, according to the lawsuit.

Among other requests, Drummond wants the court to order the EPA to produce all responsive information with respect to the 35th Avenue FOIA Request.

Drummond, one of Birmingham’s largest private companies, is also requesting the EPA pay its attorney fees and litigation costs. Four Alabama teams win share of $240,000 in startup business funding

Two teams from the Birmingham area, one from Mobile and another from Opelika split $240,000 in startup business funding as winners of the latest round of the Alabama Launchpad competition.

The program of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama is designed to help entrepreneurs get capital to launch their businesses.

Teams compete by giving their pitches before a panel of judges, which included entrepreneurs, investors and industry experts. They determine the amount of funding for each winner.

The newest winners, announced Thursday, were chosen from a slate of six finalists. They are:

  1. editBIO, LLC ($25,000) : Based in Hoover, this company aims to create an efficient, web-based marketplace to connect global biological and medical scientists with freelance editors to communicate clearly their science through English publications.
  2. IllumiCare, Inc. ($100,000): Birmingham-based IllumiCare is a non-intrusive ribbon of information that hovers over a hospital’s electronic medical record, showing physicians real-time, patient-specific costs and risks associated with tests and medications when they are about to order the next test or medication.
  3. Open Frame LLC ($75,000): Open Frame LLC, based in Mobile, has created NitroPCR, a mobile electronic patient charts for Emergency Medical Services.
  4. SimplyProse ($40,000): Based in Opelika with an Auburn University affiliation, this is a collaborative writing platform that affords all writers a space to create, critique and market their work for profit or personal enjoyment.

We congratulate the winners,” Greg Sheek, Alabama Launchpad programs director, said in a written statement. “Alabama Launchpad is committed to helping entrepreneurs succeed, so their businesses can create jobs and grow Alabama’s economy.”

Judges included Bob Crutchfield, general partner with Harbert Venture Partners; Antonio Montoya, founder of Huntsville-based Rocket Hatch; Dean Parker, founder and CEO of Mobile-based Callis Communications; Dr. Ashok K. Singhal, principal founder and chairman of Huntsville-based CFDRC; and Jason Thomas, executive vice president and general counsel of Atlanta-based Total EHR and the company’s technology partner, Total Dental.

The winners will be recognized Wednesday at the Alabama Innovation and Entrepreneurship Conference at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.

The Time Daily: Microbrewery owner first Alabama woman to complete Auburn Brewing Science program

When the intricacies of brewing beer came up at Singin’ River Brewing Co., Michelle Forsythe Jones sometimes found herself wanting to ask questions.

She and her husband, Rob, opened the first microbrewery in the Shoals, but while Rob brewed beer in college, her background was in business and finance.

Rob and brewmaster George Grandinetti were at the brewery full-time. She would often arrive after leaving her regular job.

“A lot of the time, Rob and George would be talking about something and I didn’t understand,” Jones said. “The first year in business, you don’t exactly have time to stop every five minutes and say, ‘Can you explain that.’ ”

That all changed. Last week, Jones graduated from Auburn University’s first Brewing Sciences and Operations program, an 18-hour distance learning course that took her about a year to complete.

“The really big deal about this class was to kind of get me up to Rob’s level,” she said. “Not that I’m at George’s level, but at least I can be on the same page with him.”

Grandinetti, she said, has 20 years of experience in the brewing industry.

Martin O’Neill, the head of Auburn’s Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Hospitality Management, and director of the program, said 17 people started the program and 15 graduated.

Jones, he said, was one of two women to graduate. He said women make up about 13 percent of the people involved in craft brewing nationwide, but their number is growing.

The newest Brewing Sciences class that began earlier this month has 10 people, O’Neill said.

Jones said she would wake up at 4:30 a.m. and watch the classes online from 5 to 6:30 a.m. Then she worked from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Forsythe and Long Engineering, her family’s business, where she is the chief financial officer. Some nights after work she would join her husband at the brewery.

Jones said she was raised around manufacturing, which is one of the reasons she wanted to take the course. The brewery is her husband’s full-time job.

“When people make comments about it’s so cool, you own a brewery, Rob and I look at them and say, ‘If you only knew,’ ” Jones said. “I think it’s harder than either of us ever expected.

“There are benefits and it is fun,” she said. “The culture of brewing is fun. But anyone starting their own business, especially the first in this area, it is so indimidating. You’re always questioning yourself about whether you’re making the right decisions.”

Completing the brewing classes helped the couple make more confident decisions, she said.

Many of the standard operating procedures they had in place have been improved; inventory methods have been streamlined; and more detailed production planning has been implemented.

“We added a lot more equipment to our lab, and the testing we’re doing to ensure that the beer is quality beer,” Jones said.

They also added a “nano system,” a miniature brewing system that allows them to make small test batches of beers.

Jones said the coursework and her strong background in accounting helped her develop more efficient accounting procedures.

Since Jones is a brewery owner, O’Neill said the course will give her great insight into the logistics and business of the operation.

Jones said she was the only brewery owner in the class. There were some who worked in the industry, but many were people in other professions, such as real estate, retired veterans and some looking to work in the brewing industry.

There were historical aspects of the class, such as researching beer recipes from the 1800s. Students were also required to brew a beer from their own recipe. Jones said the brewery might attempt to brew one of the old recipes in the future.

Completing the class also allows Jones so sit for the Institute of Brewing and Distilling’s General Certificate/Diploma of Brewing examination. Located in the United Kingdom, the IBD is the world’s leading organization dedicated to the education and training needs of brewers and distillers.

O’Neill said the 18 credit hours Jones earned could be applied toward a 33-hour master’s level class that Auburn may offer in the future.

“She is a very hard worker and represents us very well,” O’Neill said.


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