Tag: The Prosperity Fund

Prosperity Fund tackling Walker’s linked transportation, opioid problems

Southern Research’s Prosperity Fund, created to help revitalize Alabama’s Coal Country, is taking aim at a pair of problems burdening Walker County – limited transportation options and the opioid epidemic.

Since last fall, Steven Puckett, the managing director of the Prosperity Fund, has been working closely with the Walker Area Community Foundation, Capstone Rural Health and other organizations to address these problems, which are often linked.

Thanks to a high level of cooperation, plans are already beginning to take shape that could provide new ways for Walker County residents lacking transportation to get to treatment for addiction or other ailments, or to work so they can support their families.

“We believe this can make a huge difference in Walker County,” Puckett said. “We’ve talked to one company that has over 150 job openings but can’t find people who can come to their plant to work. New transportation options will give people the opportunity to get to healthcare, to school, to their jobs and to be mobile in their lives.”

Already, the Prosperity Fund and its partners are collaborating on a pilot program that is exploring how to create more transportation options for the county’s residents, fueled by a $25,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).

Additional funding has been provided by the Alabama Power Foundation, the Community Foundation of Alabama, the Walker Area Community Foundation, Central 6 AlabamaWorks, and the Birmingham Business Alliance.

The group’s goal is to create an on-demand transportation service in Walker County, Puckett said.

Other important partners are the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, the United Way of Central Alabama and MoovMo, a ride-sharing startup based in Birmingham that specializes in transporting the disabled.

“What intrigues me is that if this idea of a rural ride hailing service is successful, an ambitious individual could turn this into a model for other areas facing the same issues,” said Paul Kennedy, president of the Walker Area Community Foundation. “There is also the potential for small-business startups to provide some of these rides.”


Walker County’s transportation problems intersect with another major issue for many residents there -– opioid addiction treatment and recovery.

“As part of this whole process in looking at prevention, treatment and recovery, an ongoing barrier we run into is that transportation is an issue,” said Rachel Puckett of Capstone Rural Health. “That spans across healthcare, education, anything you can talk about – transportation is a barrier.”

Capstone is focused on identifying ways to address Walker County’s growing opioid crisis through a grant from the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration, or HRSA, which seeks to improve health care in underserved communities.

Data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention show that Walker County had Alabama’s highest opioid prescription rate in 2017, with 216 prescriptions for every 100 residents. While that’s down from 2011, when the prescribing rate was 340 per 100 residents, Walker County’s 2017 figure is still more than three times the national average.

Capstone’s Puckett said transportation challenges in Walker County complicate matters for many residents seeking treatment and long-term recovery.

“We can subsidize costs of some transportation for services, but that doesn’t really address the larger issue as we try to help people find a stable recovery where they can have stable employment and manage other things in their daily lives,” said Puckett, program manager for Capstone’s HRSA grant.


Southern Research Prosperity Fund
Steven Puckett is the manager director of Southern Research’s Prosperity Fund.

Meanwhile, Southern Research’s Prosperity Fund is helping the Walker County coalition zero in on new funding opportunities.

After the Prosperity Fund’s Puckett identified an opportunity with the ARC, Capstone is pursuing a $1.5 million POWER grant to construct a residential substance abuse disorder treatment facility. The Walker County Commission has pledged $450,000 in matching funds for the project.

“There are no long-term drug treatment centers in the Walker County region,” Puckett said. “We’re trying to get longer-term treatment plans in place and to get people back to work as part of a stable recovery.”

To help the group get a deeper understanding of how the opioid and transportation issues are impacting Walker County, Puckett has brought in a team of students from the University of Alabama’s STEM Path to the MBA program.

The students have conducted research on transportation topics and studied the opioid epidemic. They travel to Walker County every month to present findings, including economic impact assessments and recommendations on best practices. (A previous UA student team studied issues affecting Walker County’s timber industry.)

Kennedy at the Walker Area Community Foundation said the contributions of Puckett and the Prosperity Fund have been invaluable to the effort to overcome two of the county’s most pressing problems.

“Steven has acted as an advocate for Walker County and helped us establish a brain trust of individuals who have parts of the solution,” Kennedy said. “Having an advocate of the caliber of Southern Research just makes everyone pay more attention. It’s instant credibility, and that is political capital we have used.”


With the backing of ARC, Southern Research launched the Prosperity Fund in 2017 to accelerate economic vitality and spark job creation in four Alabama counties rocked by the coal industry’s steep downturn.

Besides Walker, the other counties served by the $2.4 million initiative are Fayette, Tuscaloosa and Jefferson, which together make up the core of Alabama’s Coal Country.

When it launched, the Prosperity Fund set goals of assisting 10 existing businesses and 10 startups, while also creating at least 80 jobs. To date, the fund has engaged with 37 companies and 42 startups, with 146 jobs created, according to Puckett.

Among those assisted are small businesses in Fayette County, a Jasper aviation firm, a company seeking to grow Alabama’s bamboo industry, and a startup that is turning chicken poop into protein-rich animal feed.


Prosperity Fund works to help Jasper aviation firm take off

JASPER, Alabama — Business at Sanders Aviation, which operates a flight training center at the Walker County Airport-Bevill Field, is poised to climb to new altitudes amid high hopes for the future.

Southern Research’s Prosperity Fund is working to help the family owned company capitalize on recent momentum, including a pilot training partnership with Delta Airlines that got under way Sept. 27.

Sanders Aviation’s activities are helping to position Walker County for growth in the aerospace and aviation sector, according to Steven Puckett, managing director of the Prosperity Fund, an initiative formed by Southern Research to spur growth in Alabama’s coal country.

“Sanders Aviation is working to create a more robust aviation industry in Walker County and to train a new generation of aircraft pilots, mechanics, and flight support personnel,” Puckett said. “The firm’s partnership with Delta and its educational outreach efforts are positioning it for future growth, which will spark economic vitality in the Jasper area.”

Puckett said the Prosperity Fund is assisting with what could be the next major milestone in Sanders Aviation’s growth – a possible 1,500-foot extension of the runway at Walker County Airport-Bevill Field.

Southern Research Prosperity Fund
Southern Research’s Prosperity Fund is assisting Jasper’s Sanders Aviation with its growth initiatives.

“As the next phase of this, we’re working together to get an expansion at the airport in Walker County so it can host military aircraft. We’re working to find partners and others willing to be part of this,” Puckett said. “The military could use the airport for training and to house aircraft. Larger civilian aircraft could also use it.”

Jessica S. Walker, the chief operating officer of Sanders Aviation, said the Prosperity Fund’s assistance has been beneficial as it plans for future growth.

“Steven is helping us to build relationships and connect us with the right people to help us get the world out about what we’re doing here,” Walker said. “We definitely want this relationship to continue.”


The partnership with Delta, which was in the works before the Prosperity Fund’s involvement, is a major step forward for the company, she added.

The Sanders-Delta Airline Transport Pilot Certified Training Program (ATP-CTP) is a10-day course that involves 30 hours of classroom academics, hands-on experience in full-motion flight simulators, and several hours of training in the Sanders Flight Training Center’s multi-engine airplanes.

Each session will have about 12 students, and the class will be repeated multiple times every year the agreement is in place. It’s expected to place 100 pilots into Delta’s pipeline annually. This adds to the nearly 400 military aviators who already train with Sanders Flight Training Center each year.

“We hope to help those who want to transition out of the military to find a new home in the aviation industry,” Walker said. “We really strive to be the full package and make sure our students are fully trained to become the best and most qualified aviators in the industry.”


Southern Research Prosperity Fund
Steven Puckett is the manager director of Southern Research’s Prosperity Fund.

The Prosperity Fund is collaborating with Sanders Aviation on the firm’s efforts to increase interest in the aviation industry in Walker County. It recently launched a course called “Theory of Aviation” at the Walker County Center for Technology (WCCT) to expose students to career opportunities in the field.

Puckett has plans to develop a virtual classroom system that would allow students at the WCCT to interact with Sanders instructors at the airport. In addition, the Prosperity Fund is collaborating with Sanders Aviation on the introduction of a FAA-approved drone pilot course.

The Prosperity Fund has also placed an intern at Sanders Aviation and is working to raise the firm’s profile through marketing efforts, Puckett said.

Sanders Aviation was founded in 1996 by Joseph Gordon “Gordo” Sanders Jr., a former military aviator and FedEx Captain whose nickname was his call sign. He and the other instructors at Sanders Flight Training Center have more than 60,000 hours of combined flight time.

Sanders Flight Training Center has trained thousands of pilots from all over the United States and military aviators stationed abroad in Germany, England and Japan.

With backing from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), Southern Research  in 2017 launched The Prosperity Fund, a $2.4 million initiative to accelerate entrepreneurial activity and spark job creation in four Alabama counties rocked by the coal industry’s steep downturn. These counties — Walker, Fayette, Tuscaloosa and Jefferson — experienced a combined 12,000 lost jobs because of the industry’s contraction.

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Prosperity Fund works to boost Fayette small businesses

FAYETTE, Alabama — As the point man for the Fayette Area Chamber of Commerce, Danny White sees the hopes and struggles of small business owners in this northwest Alabama town, and he knows they sometimes can use a helping hand.

“Small businesses don’t have a lot of resources, so it’s really helpful to have outside eyes to come in and look at a problem,” White said. “When you’re in a small town, you need some fresh eyes, some fresh ideas. That alone is a big deal.”

Enter Steven Puckett and Southern Research’s Prosperity Fund, an initiative backed by the Appalachian Regional Commission that aims to foster job creation and facilitate entrepreneurial activity in a four-county area in Alabama impacted by the coal industry’s downturn.

Puckett, managing director of The Prosperity Fund, has been working with small businesses and entrepreneurs in Fayette — population 4,500 — since late last year. He’s become a familiar face in town, providing advice on funding sources and suggestions on ways to trim business expenses, as well as helping out with market research and logo design, and much more.

Southern Research Prosperity Fund
Julie Madison stands in the Alabama Sunshine storefront location in Fayette before she moved the family business to a larger space downtown.

“Our main goal is to lend our capabilities as an organization to small business owners in across Alabama’s coal region to overcome the challenges that are preventing them from growing and creating jobs,” Puckett said.

“For a community like Fayette, it’s especially important because positioning small businesses for success will inject vitality into the local economy and fire up the engine of job creation,” he added.


White knows Fayette’s economy faces some headwinds. Following a growth spurt in the 1970s, the city’s population has dropped, and its per capita income remains at a level that’s around half the U.S. average. Like much of Alabama, entrepreneurial activity in the city has lagged.

Then the coal industry collapsed.

Fayette County lost all of its coal jobs in 2013, when the North River Mine near the Berry community shut down after 40 years of operation. Some of the 320 or so miners who worked there were able to transfer to other mines owned by Walter Energy, but many of them saw jobs paying as much as $70,000 a year vanish, triggering a massive economic blow.

White believes facilitating small business growth will provide a sustainable economic boost to the area.

“Fayette is not going to attract any big new industries, so our focus is on small businesses and their potential for growth,” he said. “And when people start seeing positive results from small business growth, things can just build on that. It’s like a snowball effect.”


Julie Madison, a former pre-school special education teacher turned entrepreneur, and her brother, David Smith, are the driving forces behind Alabama Sunshine, a Fayette business that specializes in hand-crafted hot sauces and other artisanal products.

Southern Research Prosperity Fund
Fayette’s Alabama Sunshine produces a range of products from homegrown peppers. (Image: Alabama Sunshine)

Alabama Sunshine’s products, based mostly on homegrown peppers and unique recipes, are sold by 200 retailers and shipped across the U.S. to fill online orders.

Madison recently moved the business into a new downtown location several times larger than its old storefront home.

Still, the jump into the business world has been an adjustment for the newcomer.

“It’s 10 times harder than I thought it would be,” she said. “It was a huge challenge and a big learning curve.”

Puckett, who has been working with Madison since last October, has investigated cheaper sources for the bottles used by Alabama Sunshine, which could mean big savings for the company. He’s also teamed with college interns working with the initiative to develop marketing strategies to expand Alabama Sunshine’s business and to design merchandise for the shop to sell.

“Steven’s help has been really great because sometimes, as a small business owner, you’ve got blinders on. You’re just trying to make, to get through the week and figure out what to do next,” Madison said.

“When someone comes in and says, ‘Hey, how are you getting your name out there? What about marketing?’ These are the things that, when you’re in the grind, you don’t think about much. You’ve got your head down.”


Southern Research Prosperity Fund
Southern Research’s Prosperity Fund is working with small businesses in Fayette, located in an area affected by the downturn in the coal industry. (Image: City of Fayette)

Puckett has joined with White to assist a number of other Fayette small businesses and organizations.

Puckett has been working with leaders of the Fayette Area Community Development Corp., a non-profit established to renovate a historic downtown hotel property, to identify possible funding sources to help advance a $3 million project that could have a major impact on revitalization efforts.

“We have everything else to get started on it. The last piece of the puzzle is financing,” White said.

Puckett has also provided a helping hand in the reopening of a downtown restaurant and has worked to get a financially struggling thrift store operation on track. He’s making plans to assemble an angel investor network to benefit capital-strapped small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs in the area.

White thinks The Prosperity Fund’s presence in Fayette is transmitting a positive signal about what’s possible in the community.

“There are a lot of things we can do together,” he said. “Once people start to see that things are happening, it just has a stimulating effect on them. People will start to say, ‘Hey, I can do this. I can start a business or expand my business.’”

Madison at Alabama Sunshine said many small enterprises in Fayette can profit from the initiative’s assistance.

“I think the No. 1 thing is showing small businesses how they can cut costs. That’s a huge help. In a small business, a family-run business, the bottom line is everything. Every little bit counts,” she said.

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With Prosperity Fund help, startup CHONEX aims to turn waste into profit

Southern Research’s Prosperity Fund is assisting an Alabama startup that sees one of nature’s great recyclers – the black soldier fly – as an instrument to convert chicken poop into high-value products such as protein-rich animal feed and organic fertilizer.

CHONEX, the brainchild of entrepreneur Michael Lynch and fifth-generation farmer Harley Martin, got its start about 18 months ago, and Southern Research has been involved in the firm’s development almost from the beginning.

“They’ve been a huge part of helping us solve some initial problems,” Lynch said. “We’re just getting started, but I imagine this is going to turn into a long-term relationship with Southern Research.”

CHONEX calls itself an agribusiness nutrient recycling company, but that hardly tells the whole story.

Prosperity Fund CHONEX
Southern Research’s Corey Tyree, a co-founder of The Prosperity Fund, left, poses with CHONEX’s Michael Lynch at an Alabama Launchpad competition where the company won $85,000 in funding.

Using a proprietary process, CHONEX applies black soldier fly larvae to poultry manure. The voracious larvae convert the waste into three products: a certified organic protein feed, a fatty acid used in cosmetics, and a high-value organic fertilizer and soil enhancer.

“I think there is a lot of potential in what we’re doing,” Lynch said.


Corey Tyree, Ph.D., Southern Research’s director of strategic growth initiatives and a co-founder of The Prosperity Fund, said CHONEX’s technology not only has commercial potential but also addresses several problems facing the agriculture industry today.

For one thing, the industry needs sustainable and more efficient methods to produce protein since most soybeans, one-third of all grains, and a large portion of caught wild seafood go to make animal feed. At the same time, egg producers need new sources of organic protein.

Meanwhile, poultry companies are searching for smart alternatives for the more than 6 billion tons of chicken manure produced each year. With the industry exploring methods to handle waste that are more environmentally friendly, the timing is right for CHONEX’s model, Tyree said.

“CHONEX is increasing the process intensity of egg and protein production and creating beneficial uses for nutrients found in the manure,” he said.“Though there are many uses for chicken manure, processing it using a highly controlled, closed, industrial system offers several advantages.

These include near-complete utilization of available nutrients, intense production of proteins, and less environmental impact compared to other beneficial uses for manure.

CHONEX also aims to tap into the growing demand for organic fertilizer and soil amendments that improve the capacity to support plant life. It says one of the largest by-products of its process is organic fertilizer with high values of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.


Lynch became acquainted with the potential of black solider flies after conducting consulting work that centered on their potential. He thinks the black solider fly, whose larvae are champion eaters, represents the ideal vehicle to advance CHONEX’s goals.

“It’s been around for about 66 million years, and its larvae was eating dinosaur manure. It was what God designed to help recycle waste. This recycling process has been happening naturally for millions of years,” he said. “What’s happened recently is that concentrated poultry operations don’t allow for this process to happen naturally.

“So, we’re going to scale up the insects to eat the manure and continue the natural process.”

Prosperity Fund CHONEX
The larvae of the black solider fly are voracious eaters. CHONEX plans to use them to turn chicken manure into protein-rich animal feed and organic fertilizers. (Image: CHONEX)

Lynch and Southern Research joined forces in early 2017, after the CHONEX CEO delivered his first-ever business pitch at a meeting of the Birmingham Venture Club. Lynch had carefully rehearsed his pitch, but lost track at one point and had to wing the rest in a panic. He thought he had blown a big chance.

After the event, Art Tipton, Ph.D., president and CEO of Southern Research, approached Lynch and handed over a business card. A telephone call followed. Tipton steered him to Bill Grieco, Ph.D., vice president of Southern Research’s Energy & Environment division and a co-founder of The Prosperity Fund.

Soon, CHONEX was part of The Prosperity Fund, a $2.4 million initiative launched by Southern Research in 2017 to foster small business growth and spark job creation and economic vitality in four Alabama counties affected by the coal industry’s downturn.

Through the Prosperity Fund, Tyree has worked with Lynch on a variety of challenges facing a startup with few resources. He helped research patents to ensure that CHONEX’s intellectual property in nutrient recycling was safe from challenges.

Lynch said Tyree’s team at Southern Research has helped him develop important relationships with potential partners for equipment production and as suppliers of black soldier fly eggs. Tyree also supported CHONEX in a meeting with the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC), a non-profit in Muscle Shoals that can help study ways to improve the company’s processes.

Lynch said Tyree’s team has brainstormed on equipment design and ways to overcome significant engineering challenges posed by scaling up those processes. Ultimately, Southern Research may help design testing protocols to aid in material handing and product quality control.

“CHONEX has benefitted from its relationship with Southern Research from the early days of the company,” Lynch said.


Lynch is encouraged by CHONEX’s progress with its protein extraction technology. (The company’s name is an acronym stemming from the four components of protein – Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Nitrogen, as well as “ex” for extraction.)

The fledgling company has already formed a partnership with a large poultry company and received interest from fertilizer industry leaders. It has retrofitted an 8,000-square-foot, climate-controlled hog barn at Martin’s farm in Pickens County as a black solider fly nursery and will soon launch a testing project with renowned entomologists.

Lynch added the company’s headquarters – now at his Birmingham home – will move to space at the IFDC, which will serve an incubator for the startup. A larger nursery is eventually planned for Baldwin County.

The company is getting noticed. Judges at an Alabama Launchpad startup competition in February 2018 awarded CHONEX $85,000 in seed funding to support the company’s development. That was on top of $10,000 awarded earlier by the Birmingham Venture Club.

“That day at the Venture Club was probably the lowest point in my career with CHONEX, but Art Tipton kind of turned everything around for me by giving me his card,” Lynch said. “I’m grateful that he helped me get on this path.”

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Prosperity Fund works to launch angel investor network for coal counties

The co-founder of Southern Research’s Prosperity Fund said the program to spark job creation and stimulate entrepreneurial activity in Alabama’s coal country is preparing to launch an important new initiative after surpassing initial goals.

Corey Tyree, Ph.D., director of strategic growth initiatives at Southern Research, said The Prosperity Fund is working to create an angel investor network that would pump much-needed capital into small businesses and startups in the four-county region.

Southern Research
Corey Tyree is co-founder of The Prosperity Fund.

“Bringing investor dollars into underserved communities – and I mean communities that are in the bottom 10 percent in terms of these kinds of investments – could make a huge difference,” Tyree said. “It could help create hundreds of jobs.”

Angel investors are deep-pocketed individuals who make early investments in promising small businesses to accelerate growth, and they often operate in networks to pool financial resources and share the risks and rewards of investing in entrepreneurs.

“If you look at the statistics on the amount of investor dollars flowing into Alabama, you’ll see they’re not flowing into rural communities,” Tyree said. “But there are opportunities in these communities.”

In a question-and-answer session, Tyree explains how The Prosperity Fund is measuring up against its goals of fostering small businesses growth and spurring job creation in Walker, Fayette, Tuscaloosa and Jefferson counties. Between 2012 and 2016, more than 2,500 coal miners lost their jobs in the region, wiping out more than $200 million in wages.

He also talks about future developments for the $2.4 million program, which was created by Southern Research in 2017 with backing from the Appalachian Regional Commission and other partners.

Q: What’s next for The Prosperity Fund?

Tyree: A coming focus for the program is going to be helping to get new sources of investment into the communities in these four Alabama counties. The bridge we haven’t crossed is whether we are creating this angel investor network, or whether we are participating in a network that’s created by someone else.

Regardless, we want to facilitate the creation of an angel investor network.

When you’re in rural America, you just don’t think about this kind of investor network. But we can work to make it happen.

Q: How would you assess the early performance of The Prosperity Fund?

Tyree: One of our biggest successes was the hiring of Steven Puckett to run the program. Steven has exceeded expectations. He’s credible; he’s got experience as an entrepreneur. People wanted to see an entrepreneur in this role – somebody who has been there. When he talks to small businesses, those people say, ‘This guy can help me.’

He’s really hit the ground running.

Another big achievement is that we did what we said we were going to do. We’re in the communities, and the people there see us. We’re visible. We’re going to be someone they can count on and trust to get things done. Steven has proven that at the local level. He’s a doer, and we need doers in these communities.

Q: What accomplishments impress you the most?

Tyree: We’re here to create jobs, and we’ve done that. Job creation is ahead of schedule. There’s no doubt about it. Plus, we thought we’d be able to help at least 20 companies. We’re helping over 50 now.

Southern Research Prosperity Fund
As managing director of the Prosperity Fund, Steven Puckett, left, works to assist small businesses in four hard-hit Alabama coal counties.

Another thing has been the approach that we’ve been able to take. We’ve been able to provide direct help to startups and small businesses, but we’ve also looked at how to build up entrepreneurial ecosystems. It’s not what people classically think of when they think of helping entrepreneurs.

I think we’re really pioneering a way to help people in rural America. It’s about getting in there and finding ways to help.

Q: In a sense, economic development has always been a central mission of Southern Research. Is The Prosperity Fund serving to expand this legacy?

Tyree: When Southern Research got its start, it was designed to help local businesses in Alabama by providing them with technical resources they wouldn’t have had otherwise. We’re getting back to that with The Prosperity Fund.

But the focus of The Prosperity Fund has not been entirely on technical assistance but more on what these businesses actually need, regardless of what that is. Steven has brought resources to small businesses in these areas that really did not have access to them before. His formula is simple: He listens to the businesses and understands their problems, he helps them develop solutions to those problems, and he works side-by-side with them to define and implement a plan for deploying the solutions. It’s a winning formula that can be used over and over again.

Q: Are other economic development initiatives like The Prosperity Fund possible in the future?

Tyree: I think there are a number of initiatives related to The Prosperity Fund that we need to think about. Within the entrepreneurial ecosystem, there are multiple components. There are education and workforce development issues.

We aren’t in the business of education; that’s the role of school systems and colleges and universities, but what we can do is help make curriculum more relevant to local employers. By talking to employers and learning what they need, we can help facilitate a curriculum that is very focused on local needs. That’s just one component of the ecosystem that we can help strengthen.

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Prosperity Fund supports growth of Alabama bamboo industry

Could Alabama become home to a major new industry centered on bamboo farming and product manufacturing?

Southern Research and its Prosperity Fund initiative are teaming up with Resource Fiber, a bamboo fiber products company, to help realize the commercial potential of bamboo in a state known for thick pine forests.

Marsha Folsom, Resource Fiber’s Chief Development Officer/Governmental Affairs/Economic Development, said The Prosperity Fund has connected the firm with Alabama businesses interested in exploring industrial applications of bamboo and university professors who want to do bamboo research.

Meanwhile, Southern Research’s testing facilities are evaluating company bamboo products to determine strength and other important characteristics to advance their product development efforts.

“We are very excited about the prospects for the future with Southern Research and its Prosperity Fund and what this collaboration will do for the expansion of economic development around the mass cultivation of bamboo and manufacturing of bamboo industrial products in Alabama, a first for the U.S.,” Folsom said.

Resource Fiber Southern Research
Southern Research and its Prosperity Fund initiative are providing testing services to Resource Fiber, a firm that wants to launch mass cultivation of bamboo and manufacture bamboo industrial products in Alabama.

She added that one of Resource Fiber’s goals is to act as a magnet to attract other industries interested in utilizing bamboo fiber to Alabama and the region.

“Collaboration with Southern Research serves as a key component to making that happen,” Folsom said.


Steven Puckett, managing director of The Prosperity Fund, said the economics of bamboo are compelling. Bamboo grows rapidly, up to two feet per day, and it yields 20 times more fiber than trees, with no replanting necessary. Plus, it requires little water and no pesticides.

Estimates show that bamboo could yield considerably more revenue per acre annually than pine, Puckett said.

“Bamboo cultivation and product manufacturing could one day become a significant new industry in Alabama, and that’s why The Prosperity Fund is keenly interested in its future possibilities,” Puckett said. “We are committed to investigating innovative solutions that spark job creation and foster sustainable growth through a new brand of economic development.”

The testing of bamboo samples is now underway at Southern Research’s Birmingham engineering facilities, focusing on factors such as strength and flammability that are integral to product development.

“Southern Research is performing testing on the bamboo product as the company moves forward to achieve the certification needed for commercial use,” Puckett said. “Certification is an expensive process, and we are helping work out all the kinks as they prepare for the certification process.”

Southern Research Resource Fiber
Southern Research and its Prosperity Fund initiative are providing testing services to Resource Fiber, a firm that wants to make bamboo industrial products in Alabama.

Folsom said the testing at Southern Research will provide Resource Fiber with performance information before it sends product samples to third-party laboratories for industry certification. Securing that certification is key to market acceptance for the company’s products, which include bamboo rail ties and bamboo nail laminated timbers for the construction industry.

She expects Resource Fiber to work with the Prosperity Fund to expand the testing to other products in the future.

“We see this collaboration continuing and hopefully expanding into the future. A myriad of products can be made from bamboo,” Folsom said. “Through collaboration and drawing on the respective expertise from both Resource Fiber and Southern Research, we can establish Alabama as the epicenter of bamboo research, bamboo farming at scale, and bamboo manufacturing expertise in the U.S.”


While bamboo represents a $60 billion industry worldwide, there hasn’t been much of an attempt to capitalize on it in the United States, according to Resource Fiber, which calls itself the nation’s only vertically integrated bamboo fiber products company.

Resource Fiber now operates a 100-acre in-field bamboo nursery in Greene County, located in Alabama’s “Black Belt,” named for the rich, fertile soil that made it a key cotton-producing region. With the doubling of the size of its nursery, the company expects to provide enough plants to populate 100,000 to 150,000 acres of bamboo over the next decade.

Southern Research Prosperity Fund
A Southern Research technician splits a piece of bamboo as part of testing conducted for Resource Fiber, which wants to launch a bamboo industry in Alabama.

While much of Resource Fiber’s focus is on the Black Belt, its growth potential has implications for the Alabama coal counties targeted by The Prosperity Fund. The company intends to move its production facility to Tuscaloosa County, and Puckett has connected it to support businesses in Walker and Jefferson counties already.

“As the bamboo economy grows in Alabama, we fully expect many more counties other than those in the Black Belt to benefit through expanded manufacturing of bamboo products utilizing bamboo fiber grown in Alabama,” Folsom said.

With financial backing from the Appalachian Regional Commission, Southern Research formed The Prosperity Fund in 2017 to accelerate small business growth and job creation in four Alabama counties hurt by the coal industry’s downward spiral.

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Prosperity Fund teams with UA students to assist Walker County timber industry

Southern Research’s Prosperity Fund is collaborating with students from the University of Alabama’s STEM Path to the MBA program to explore strategies to improve the fortunes of Walker County’s forest products industry.

The UA students, working with Prosperity Fund Managing Director Steven Puckett on a yearlong research project, are investigating a wide range of ways to spur a comeback for the industry in a county already battered by the coal downturn.

The students are evaluating possible new uses for Walker County’s vast timber resources, including engineered wood panel systems used in construction projects. They’re also studying unconventional solutions such as the viability of bamboo farms to augment the county’s sprawling pine tracts.

“We’re working as a team to develop concrete recommendations that will help this important industry in Walker County move toward more fully reaching its potential,” Puckett said. “We’re searching for ideas that could lead to job creation and provide a boost to small businesses in the county.”

Southern Research Prosperity Fund
Students in the University of Alabama’s STEM Path to the MBA program are helping the Prosperity Fund understand the problems facing Walker County’s timber industry.

With financial backing from the Appalachian Regional Commission, Southern Research formed The Prosperity Fund in 2017 to accelerate small business growth and job creation in four Alabama counties hurt by the coal industry’s downward spiral. Besides Walker, the counties are Fayette, Tuscaloosa and Jefferson.


Troubles for Walker County’s forest products industry began shortly after the loss of 500 coal jobs. In 2014, a paper mill in Courtland – about 70 miles from Jasper and the chief consumer for Walker County wood fiber – shut down after 40 years of operation.

The mill’s loss has dealt a heavy blow to the industry across the region, said Paul Kennedy, president of the Walker Area Community Foundation, a partner in The Prosperity Fund.

“The forest products industry is a traditional economic roller-coaster,” Kennedy said. “This time, the roller coaster got to the bottom of the hill, and there was nothing to pull it back up.”

Today, Puckett said harvesters in Walker County must transport their product – essentially a bulk commodity with a low per-unit value — great distances under extremely uneconomical conditions.

“In Walker County, the producers have all this land and all these trees, but nowhere nearby to take it,” he said. “They have to take their loads about 150 miles one way, which means they travel all that way to make a delivery, then deadhead it back with nothing.”


The UA students got involved when Puckett approached Pamela Hill, a clinical instructor in the STEM Path to the MBA program, which allows high-achieving undergraduate students majoring in STEM disciplines to earn an MBA in an additional year.

Student Alex Jaffery said the UA team has been engaged in finding new solutions to improve the use of Walker County’s natural resources. His role has been to research alternative products, specifically bamboo. He served as a liaison with a company called Resource Fiber that’s seeking to commercialize bamboo.

“I learned a lot about business optimization in the project. In the program we also learned about formulating business models,” Jaffery said. “With the project I was able to formulate and apply a business model to a real-life situation.”

Other UA students working with the Prosperity Fund are Tyler Matthews, Tom Kobitter and Nichole Cheatum.


University of Alabama
Collaborating with the Prosperity Fund are University of Alabama students Alex Jaffery, Tyler Matthews, Tom Kobitter and Nichole Cheatum.

Puckett said the UA students have focused on identifying catalysts that could spark growth in Walker County. One idea centers on cross-laminated timber, or CLT, an engineered wood panel system that is increasingly used in construction projects, particularly in Europe.

The students have been willing to think outside the box. Their research determined that pine trees yield about $54 an acre over 20 years. Bamboo, on the other hand, can yield between $700 and $1,500 per acre. And once it’s established after seven years, bamboo can be harvested every year.

“There’s a huge difference in value,” Puckett said. “If bamboo could be introduced on a meaningful scale and markets found for it, that could produce a substantial potential economic impact on the county.”

The student group has also met with several large companies involved in land management in Walker County. One company is intrigued by their bamboo idea; this spring, a test plot will be planted on reclaimed mine land as an experiment, Puckett said.

In addition, a lumber company in Jasper is evaluating a cost-saving suggestion advanced by the students. The company currently imports expensive exotic wood from South America to use as spacers in its wood kilns. Tests will show whether bamboo grown and processed in Walker County serve the same purpose more cheaply.

One unconventional idea being explored involves planting lavender on a commercial scale on reclaimed mine lands for sale to industrial producers of essential oils.

Kennedy at the Walker Area Community Foundation is grateful for the students’ involvement and isn’t concerned that some ideas likely won’t fly. He recalled an anecdote about inventor Thomas Edison saying 300 failures taught him valuable lessons.

“If the students can take us through the 300 ways that won’t work for our forest products industry and get us to the one way that actually lights up and changes the world, that’s what I’m after,” Kennedy said.

Corey Tyree, director of strategic growth initiatives at Southern Research and a co-founder of the Prosperity Fund, said he is confident the students will develop actionable recommendations that could benefit the forest products industry in Walker County.

“The Prosperity Fund operates by harnessing available resources and identifying innovative solutions to difficult problems holding back industries and communities,” Tyree said. “Our work with these talented University of Alabama students to assist Walker County’s timber industry aligns perfectly with that strategy.”

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The Prosperity Fund brings new growth approaches to Alabama’s coal region

Southern Research’s Prosperity Fund is working to create jobs and boost economic activity in Alabama’s coal region by developing big ideas while always thinking small — small business, that is.

The Prosperity Fund’s efforts in Walker, Fayette, Tuscaloosa and Jefferson Counties concentrates on providing support to bedrock small enterprises and aspiring business owners in communities whose fortunes have long been tied to the coalfields.

As the recognized heart of the nation’s jobs engine, small business should play a larger role in economic development efforts today, according to Corey Tyree, Ph.D., a co-founder of The Prosperity Fund and a director in Southern Research’s Energy & Environment division.

“For a long time, economic development has been about attracting large businesses to your region, and there was a good reason for that,” Tyree said. “But small businesses create two-thirds of U.S. jobs, and there are more things we can do to help them.

“We want to help retain and grow existing small business and help create new ones,” he added.

Southern Research coal
The Prosperity Fund is a $2.4 million initiative led by Southern Research that seeks to create jobs and inject economic vitality into four Alabama counties hit hard by the downturn of the coal industry.

The Prosperity Fund, created with significant backing from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), begins its work at a time when many Alabama coal-mining communities are showing signs of prolonged distress.

Jobs lost in the coalfields aren’t being replaced quickly enough, and new businesses aren’t springing up to fully replenish the economic activity that’s slipped away. The fact that the coal slump followed on the heels of “The Great Recession” just made matters worse.

Alabama’s coal job losses have been heaviest in the four-county area, where some families have worked in mining for generations. The 2,505 coal jobs lost there between 2011 and 2016 represent 10 percent of all U.S. job losses in the sector.


Despite some stabilization this year, many in Alabama’s coal communities doubt the industry will ever regain its traditional role as an economic pillar and job creator in the area.

“I don’t see the industry coming back to its heyday for two reasons – one is mechanization, which has reduced the need for the headcount that mines used to have, and the second is that natural gas prices are just overly competitive compared to coal,” said Paul Kennedy, president of the Walker Area Community Foundation in Jasper.

Fayette County Probate Judge William Oswalt said economics are working against a comeback for coal mining.

“It’s going to be hard to convince a group of investors to come in and spend $700 million or $800 million to develop a coal mine,” Oswalt said. “I’m not hopeful.”

Coal mining has long played an important role in the region served by the Prosperity Fund. In 1997, Jefferson County alone produced 10.4 million tons of coal, making it one of the Top 15 coal-producing counties in the U.S., according to ARC data.

Coal jobs were plentiful that year. Jefferson County had 2,052 coal miners, while Tuscaloosa County had 1,750, the ARC data says. Coal mining jobs numbered 750 in Walker County, and 375 in Fayette County.

The region looks a lot different today.

As this year began, Jefferson County had 1,198 coal miners, a 42 percent decrease in one generation. Tuscaloosa County’s coal miners totaled 397, a decrease of 77 percent. Walker County’s total dropped slightly to 644, according to ARC data.

Fayette County, meanwhile, has lost all its coal mining jobs.


The harsh blow fell on Fayette County in 2013, when Walter Energy shut down its North River Mine near Berry, saying its coal reserves were running low after 40 years of operation. Some of the 320 or so miners were able to transfer to other Walter mines in Tuscaloosa, but many of them simply saw their paychecks come to an end.

“We had people who were making $60,000 or $70,000 a year digging coal, with benefits, with retirement, lose their jobs,” Oswalt said.

The pain is still being felt. Today, some of these miners remain out of work after decades in the mines because employers see them as too old to start a new career and unwilling to accept wages that fall short of the pay of the lost mining jobs, he added.

The closing of North River Mine also delivered a devastating blow to the finances of Fayette County, wiping out coal severance tax revenue that brought in $500,000 for the county’s general fund annually, Oswalt said.

“It’s been brutal. We have absolutely no means of replacing that. Zero. We had been drawing that revenue for the last 30 years,” he said. “You wake up one morning, and it goes to nothing.”

When Walter closed the North River Mine, the company planned to invest $1.2 billion in a massive new mining operation that would open by 2019 with 450 jobs in northeast Tuscaloosa County.

That project died, and Walter slid into bankruptcy.


Corey Tyree is director of strategic growth initiatives for Southern Research and a co-founder of The Prosperity Fund.

The kind of concentrated job losses affecting Fayette County have magnified the coal downturn’s negative effects in many Alabama communities, adding to challenges that were already present.

For one thing, wages have been lagging in much of the four-county area. Fayette County’s per capita income in 2014 was $19,356, only slightly more than half of the U.S. average. Walker County’s figure of $25,993 was 78 percent of the national average, according to data from the Economic Innovation Group, a bipartisan public policy organization.

Another challenge is that entrepreneurial activity is low through much of Alabama’s coal region, which creates a negative cycle in a struggling community. With few new businesses being formed in these communities, economic fragility increases and some residents depart for areas offering more opportunity.

So the big question is: How can Alabama’s coal country bounce back from a devastating downturn that appears lasting?

Tyree believe the answer lies with new approaches to help small businesses in the region become healthier.

The Prosperity Fund’s focus in on helping nurture small businesses so they can grow and hire new workers, as well as lending support to get promising new ventures off the ground. It has hired a veteran entrepreneur, Steven Puckett, to work with businesses in the region.

The initiative will collaborate with existing businesses, colleges and universities, economic development groups, potential investors, and community leaders throughout the region. It’s working with businesses to find new customers, improve efficiency and update their technology and processes.

The Prosperity Fund is also developing broader small business programs such as workshops focused on small business procurement, lending, human resources, and more.


Leslie C. Hartley, Ph.D., dean of instruction and interim executive vice president at Bevill State Community College, agrees that a new way of looking at economic development is needed in the area.

“The economic development of today is focused on human capital building. That’s where we’re going today – building the human capital we already have in our area,” she said. “There are so many niches of talents and ideas, and there are lots of opportunities for individuals in our community to be more prosperous.”

Tyree believes that Southern Research, which was founded in 1941 to drive economic development in Alabama, is the right organization to help small enterprises and struggling communities in Alabama’s coal belt.

“Regions with strong entrepreneurial cultures bounce back faster from economic downturns. Unfortunately, that sort of economic resiliency is increasingly something seen only in a few urban areas. We’ve got to work to change that,” Tyree said. “We want to work with community leaders who can introduce us to the folks who need our help.”

Oswalt said he believes small business growth and increased entrepreneurial activity would provide a boost for Fayette County.

“If I could get a new company that employs 10 people, I’d shout,” he said. “That would be a huge victory.”

Southern Research coal

The Prosperity Fund works with colleges to stimulate growth in coal region

JASPER, Alabama — The Prosperity Fund, an economic development initiative created by Southern Research, is collaborating with universities and colleges in Alabama’s coal region to help speed recovery in communities rocked by the mining industry’s painful downturn.

Steven Puckett, the fund’s managing director, sees these partnerships as key to advancing the initiative’s goals of increasing entrepreneurial activity and sparking job creation in Walker, Fayette, Tuscaloosa, and Jefferson counties.

“We’re working closely with local universities and colleges as part of this effort,” Puckett said. “Working with companies, students get to attack real-world problems, like finding new markets and carrying out basic market research. These are activities that can help small businesses grow and create jobs.”

The Prosperity Fund and Bevill State Community College have become allies in the effort to replace lost coal jobs and improve economic vitality in Alabama. Puckett is helping the school develop and promote an entrepreneurship program and working to connect students with businesses that need their help.

Kim Ennis, Ph.D., interim president of Bevill State, said the partnership can help rejuvenate the small business environment in Walker and Fayette counties, where two of the college’s campuses are located. Stimulating entrepreneurial activity represents the most effective strategy to add new jobs in communities that have struggled to grow in recent years, she added.

“Small business is what America is built on,” Ennis said. “We realize that smokestack-chasing is not going to change things overnight, especially in our area.”

Prosperity Fund
More than 21,000 coal-related jobs have been lost in Alabama since 2012.

Puckett has also arranged for students in the University of Alabama’s STEM Path to the MBA program to conduct a study that aims to identify ways Walker County’s ailing timber industry can begin growing.

“If you’re in the forest products industry in Walker County, you’ve got access to a lot of raw materials but not a lot of outlets for distribution,” said Paul Kennedy, president of the Walker Area Community Foundation. “So, this has the potential to impact a lot of families if we can come up with new uses for the wood and wood waste.”

Puckett plans to engage other academic institutions throughout the region to develop partnerships that can benefit both their students and businesses, giving a lift to local economies.


Many communities in Alabama’s coal counties have seen their economic stability turn fragile since the industry downturn began. To attack this problem, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) provided Southern Research with a grant to establish The Prosperity Fund, whose total funding is $2.4 million.

The coal industry’s swoon has been damaging to the region. Between 2012 and 2016, the four Alabama counties shed more than 2,500 coal jobs, equal to 10 percent of the all industry employment losses in the nation. Disappearing with those coal mining jobs was an estimated $205 million in annual wages.

As the negative economic ripples have flowed through the entire region, the suffering has been particularly acute in Walker County, whose fortunes have long been tied to the coal industry. During that four-year time frame, the county lost 494 coal jobs with $41 million in wages.

“The impact has really been more far-reaching that just a lost coal job,” said Leslie C. Hartley, Ph.D., Bevill State’s dean of instruction and interim executive vice president. “One coal job impacted so many other jobs. That has been devastating in these counties. A lot these areas have been built around coal – they’re coal towns.”

Like Walker, Fayette County, which lost 383 coal jobs during the four-year period, has been struggling for growth.

The Economic Innovation Group, which studied economic well-being across the nation in an analysis, found that more than 40 percent of adults in each of the counties are not working. More than 20 percent of residents don’t have a high school diploma, and incomes lag the state average.

The number of businesses shrank by 8 percent in Fayette County between 2011 and 2015, according to the group’s 2017 Distressed Communities Index report. In Walker County, the number of business establishments declined by 3 percent over the four years.


The Prosperity Fund and Bevill State are working together to improve the business outlook in the counties. Last year, the school received an ARC grant to establish a workforce training and job placement hub in northwest Alabama.

Fostering the creation of business startups and supporting small business growth are priorities for Puckett and the college’s leadership.

With Puckett’s assistance, Bevill State is working to launch an entrepreneurial program that will help current and future small business owners master the fundamentals they need to better manage their endeavors. The program will start early next year.

“If you don’t know anything about starting a business, it’s intimidating,” said Tana Collins, director of public relations for Bevill State. “Working with The Prosperity Fund, we can provide them with the resources they need to get over that first hurdle.”

Creating an environment where small businesses can thrive is vital to the future of communities in the region, Collins said.

“We need these businesses that are opening up to be successful because as we try to draw in new businesses, if they see one open up and the doors close immediately, they think they can’t be successful,” she said.

The Prosperity Fund offers Jasper firm support amid coal downturn

JASPER, Alabama — A&A Machine & Welding has been operating for nearly four decades, but the last few years have brought challenging times for the family owned business in the heart of Alabama’s struggling coal country.

While A&A never performed much work directly for coal companies, it has felt the impact of the industry’s damaging decline in Walker County. That’s because many other machine shops in the area worked only for mines that shut down, touching off a fierce fight for survival.

“As soon as that work dried up for them, you know what happened? Competition came out for us in every direction,” said Scott Aaron, who operates A&A with his brother, James, and sister, Patty Sanders.

As a result, it became tougher for A&A to win work. And when the company did secure a job, prices were lower, driven down by all the new competition. “Last year was the toughest year we’ve ever had,” Sanders said. “Really, 2015 and 2016 were tough years for our company.”

The siblings who operate A&A are working hard to regain a firm footing for the business founded in 1978 by their father. They have a partner in this undertaking: The Prosperity Fund, an initiative founded by Southern Research to assist small businesses and spur job creation in four Alabama counties hit hard by the coal industry downturn.

“This effort is about getting in the trenches with businesses like A&A, getting out on the shop floor, understanding how their processes work, and finding solutions for them so they can boost productivity,” said Steven Puckett, The Prosperity Fund’s managing director.

“It’s a very hands-on approach to help these businesses reach the next level.”


A&A Machine & Welding team standing in workshop with Steven Puckett
The Prosperity Fund’s Steven Puckett (far left) with the owners of A&A Machine & Welding: Scott Aaron (L), James Aaron (R), Patty Sanders (top). Puckett has been working with A&A to increase efficiency in its operations.

Though it has been operating for only three months, The Prosperity Fund has become active in the Alabama counties most severely affected by the collapse of the nation’s coal mining industry: Walker, Fayette, Tuscaloosa, and Jefferson.

The negative effects in Alabama’s coal country have been severe. Overall, the industry’s downturn has cost the four counties nearly 16,000 direct and indirect jobs, wiping out more than $800 million in wages.

Since joining The Prosperity Fund in August, Puckett has engaged in discussions with 18 small businesses in the four counties, and he has been working with aspiring entrepreneurs looking to start new businesses.

Puckett has also connected with universities and colleges in the region about getting students directly involved in working with businesses. He’s recruited community organizations and others to lend support as partners throughout the region.

Corey Tyree, Ph.D., director of strategic growth initiatives for Southern Research and a co-founder of The Prosperity Fund, said areas that see their traditional economic base weaken must embrace innovation and new job-creation approaches.

“Alabama knows how to turn its assets into jobs. We did it with coal. Our state’s natural resources fueled massive industries like steel and electric power that were the backbone of America’s growth. Luckily we have other assets that can be a source of job creation. Small businesses like A&A are one of those assets. Let’s invest in them. Let’s deploy resources to serve urban and rural Alabama. That’s what The Prosperity Fund is about,” Tyree said.

Southern Research launched the 30-month, $2.4 million public-private partnership earlier this year with partial backing from the Appalachian Regional Commission.


At A&A Machine, the owners are encouraged by the assistance they’ve already received from The Prosperity Fund.

Sanders said the early focus of the collaboration has been on introducing efficiency to the company operations, which include precision machining, welding, and fabrication at locations in Jasper and Cordova. The firm has 20 workers and mainly serves customers in the wastewater treatment industry.

“What we’re initially going to do is get a hold on the business and get it working more smoothly,” Sanders said. “After we get through the initial phase, hopefully we’ll be able to grow and find new customers. We have already started working on that.”

Puckett has been working to deploy on a smartphone app that will allow the workers on A&A’s shop floor to record time spent working on a particular project, replacing an inefficient paper-based system. He also plans to line up Bevill State students to help transform A&A’s website into a more effective marketing tool for the company.

Aaron said the fresh ideas are already paying positive benefits.

“This is a family business, so there are limits on where we have gotten our training,” he said. “It’s really been right here between these four walls since we were probably 14 years old. We grew up, and that’s how we did things.”

Puckett has been working with A&A to add new processing capability that they currently sub-contract. Welding or grinding stainless steel can make the material susceptible to corrosion. As a result, customers require machined or welded stainless parts to be passivated before they are shipped.

This could be a burdensome and expensive process for A&A, which sometimes had to ship stainless steel components to a shop in Texas for cleaning. Puckett has identified an environmentally friendly, citrus-based cleaner that A&A can use to make the passivation process more affordable.

The change could result in big savings for the company.

“Some of the stainless products we work on are pretty large, so we were spending a lot on that,” Sanders said. “We felt it was taking customers away from us because we could not come up with a good way of getting it ready to ship.”

In addition, The Prosperity Fund is working to identify new markets and customers for A&A. Procurement agents from new potential customers visited the shop, and the siblings are eager to pursue the potential of winning jobs from these new customers.

“I think Steven and The Prosperity Fund can really help us over the long term,” Aaron said. “He is helping us manage what we have going on in the business now and setting us up for when we can grow. Right now, I think we have the potential for a lot of good growth.”