With unemployment at an all time low and companies relocating to Alabama’s business-friendly environment, our state’s economy is strong. Unfortunately, rural counties have lagged behind their urban neighbors in infrastructure development, job creation and revenue growth.

This year, Gov. Kay Ivey and the Alabama Legislature took strides toward closing the prosperity gap through investment in roads, bridges and Port of Mobile; expansion of rural broadband; and passage of the Alabama Incentives Modernization (AIM) Act.

As a fifth generation farmer and president of the Alabama Farmers Federation, I have seen firsthand the role rural Alabama plays in our state’s economic success. I’m more encouraged than ever about the opportunity for our rural communities to thrive.

According to recent census estimates, 45 of Alabama’s 67 counties have declining populations. For these rural counties to grow and fully participate in America’s economic rebound, we must improve infrastructure and attract good paying jobs.

The Alabama Incentives Modernization (AIM) Act, passed this year by the Legislature, is a step in the right direction. It provides incentives for businesses creating as few as 10 jobs in rural areas. It also expands the number of rural counties eligible for incentives under the 2015 Alabama Jobs Act and enhances incentives within federal opportunity zones.

We are especially excited about one project the AIM Act will advance — the Alabama Farm Center. As the Farmers Federation celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2021, we want to give back to Alabama by investing in the future of agriculture and forestry. The Alabama Farm Center at Alfa Centennial Park will provide a venue to cultivate the next generation of agricultural leaders while educating the public about the importance of farming and forestry.

Located on 500 acres along I-65 in Chilton County, the center will welcome visitors from across the country for fairs, livestock shows, trade exhibitions, concerts and more. The preliminary master plan includes a 5,000+ seat air conditioned arena, 150,000 square-foot exhibition building with meeting rooms, 400-stall horse barn, 1,125-stall cattle barn, 400 recreational vehicle (RV) hookups, as well as other arenas and buildings.

The AIM Act will help make this plan a reality by driving additional investment in the Alabama Farm Center through economic development organizations, corporations, utilities and others. The result will be an estimated 300-400 new jobs and annual economic impact of $40-$55 million.

We appreciate Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, for sponsoring the AIM Act, and Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, for carrying it in the Senate. Thanks to their leadership, with support from small and large businesses alike, the AIM Act will open doors for success in rural counties that need it most.

For decades, agriculture and forestry have been the lifeblood of small communities across Alabama. The AIM Act — along with infrastructure and broadband improvements —will strengthen these industries while attracting technology companies to invest in Alabama’s future.

Jimmy Parnell is the president, CEO and chairman of the board for the Alabama Farmers Federation and Alfa Insurance.

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