And Hazel said, ‘Amen’

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 19, 2011

If you’ve ever heard Earl Johnson get fired up and argue his position – be it Auburn football or city business – you know he might could have made a preacher.

This week, he left the preaching to someone else, but the message was oh-so-Earl. During Tuesday’s workshop portion of the city council meeting, the mayor had council members watch a recent speech given by Dr. David Bronner, who heads the state’s retirement system.

Speaking to a group assemble by PowerSouth, the colorful economist opened with his thoughts on the current state of the economy before turning to the investment strategy he uses with the state’s pension fund.

A number of years ago, he said, he decided Alabama was going nowhere, and he set out to change the culture.

He decided the rSA needed to invest in the state. So he apportioned 60 percent of RSA investments in stocks; 2 percent in bonds; and 15 percent in “I want to change Alabama.”

Years later, those investments have included the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail and spa-class hotels, as well as hundreds of companies across the state.

The result? Alabama’s tourism industry has grown from a $1.8 billion a year industry to a $9.8 billion industry last year. Tourism-related properties RSA owns or partially owns employ 2,000 Alabamians.

In neighboring Butler County, there was one hotel. Post-Robert Trent Jones, there are eight hotels in Greenville. In other words, the RSA investment was the impetus for private investment.

And that’s a sermon our mayor likes to preach, especially when criticized for investments the city has made.

It’s hard to imagine Alabama without the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, the preserved and improved Grand Hotel in Point Clear; the restored Battle House in Mobile, or the new Renaissance Hotel in downtown Montgomery. But these things are part of our culture because the Retirement System opted to invest in our state. Note that the investments have not only moved us forward, but also preserved some history along the way.

Ten years from now, it might be as difficult to imagine Andalusia without a “Central Park;” Springdale as a private residence; a Debro Hill looking like a great place to build housing units.

And that’s why the mayor let Bronner deliver the sermon Tuesday night.

“If we’re going to move our community forward, we’ve got to invest in ourselves,” he said after the video. “We are investing in our community. If we as a city don’t have confidence enough to do it, tell us who is.

“Dr. Bronner is certainly more qualified than me to say what we ought to do, but I wanted y’all to hear him,” Johnson said. “I stand by our decisions and I hope you do, too.”

There wasn’t time for discussion after that, but I believe I heard Councilwoman Hazel Griffin quietly say, “Amen.”