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Major employer to rebuild in tornado-ravaged Alabama town

By Phil Gast, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Wrangler jeans distribution center will rebuild and may add jobs
  • It was destroyed during the April 27 tornado in Hackleburg, Alabama
  • Officials had offered incentives to the parent company
  • Decision called an unbelievable morale boost" for Hackleburg
RELATED TOPICS
  • VF Corporation
  • Tornadoes
  • Alabama

(CNN) -- After an anxious three-month wait, residents of a northwest Alabama town that lost 18 residents and its business core to an EF-5 tornado learned Monday night that their largest employer will rebuild -- and may add jobs.

The announcement by VF Corp. elicited joyous responses by Hackleburg, Alabama, residents -- many of whom honked their horns -- and on Facebook pages that had followed the developments.

"It feels like the weight of the world has been lifted off your shoulders," said Hackleburg Police Chief Kenny Hallmark.

The April 27 tornado leveled the Wrangler jeans distribution center and killed one employee. It also destroyed or damaged 31 of 32 businesses in town, wiping away most of the town government's revenue sources. Nearly 500 homes were damaged or destroyed.

The new facility will be larger, more modern and could bring an additional 50 positions to the community -- for a total of approximately 200 employees, VF said in a statement. It also will have the potential to handle additional shipping capacity.

The company, based in Greensboro, North Carolina, will break ground in the second quarter of 2012. Target date for completion is mid-year 2013.

"Throughout the evaluation, Hackleburg remained our leading option based on multiple factors, notably a work force who has demonstrated a passion for their work and a commitment to our company," CEO Eric Wiseman said. "We are also grateful to the state of Alabama for the support and assistance it has provided. We are pleased to continue our longstanding relationship with Hackleburg and look forward to a bright future."

Federal, state and local officials had conducted a full-court press, offering a range of incentives to VF Corp., including $300,000 from the town and Marion County, with millions more from the state. Town officials said Monday night Gov. Robert Bentley was crucial to the effort.

Since the tornado, the majority of the displaced workers have been employed at company-owned locations in Hackleburg and, about 70 miles away, in Holly Pond, Alabama. The Holly Pond location will close once the new Hackleburg distribution center is open. No jobs will be lost because that facility was brought back on line to provide work to the displaced Hackleburg employees.

The Hackleburg distribution center shipped pallets of Wrangler clothing to Walmart, Target and other retailers around the country. One of five Wrangler distribution points in the nation, the center was well-run and efficient, the company said in June while it was evaluating the site and other distribution facilities.

But some of the town's nearly 1,500 residents had worried that Wrangler would not rebuild. Hackleburg's mayor had said the return of Wrangler was crucial for the town's recovery.

"The morale boost it's given this town is unbelievable," Mayor Pro Tem Barry McCarley said after the announcement.

Leaders had worried about possible layoffs, including in the police force, but Monday's development, the return of some businesses and donations -- including from a Native American tribe -- will brighten the economic outlook.

Residents are hopeful the approximately 150 people who left town after the tornado will return.

The Hackleburg tornado was one of 62 twisters and storms that swept through Alabama on April 27, killing 247 people.

Hallmark and Keith Morrow, Hackleburg's only doctor, told CNN Monday night the announcement may eventually draw new employers and convince others that hadn't started rebuilding to do so.

Nancy McCarley, who co-owns the Panther Mart convenience store, likened the excitement Monday night of residents in their 50s and 60s to kids on prom night.

"People are smiling," she said. "It's just great, great, great."

 
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