For nearly 75 years, one of Alabama’s most iconic food concoctions has been produced in the small town of Fayette. The delightfully gooey Golden Eagle syrup stirs memories of country mornings spent eating grandmother’s homemade biscuits, and using the final bites to sop up every bit of the sticky remnants.
The ingredients for Golden Eagle are deceptively simple: corn syrup, sugar syrup, cane molasses and pure honey. That’s it. No cellulose gum or caramel color or sodium hexametaphosphate. Yet, somehow, those few ingredients blend to produce big results.
The same can be said for the city of Fayette, located about 40 miles north of Tuscaloosa. Despite having a population of fewer than 5,000 (and fewer than 20,000 throughout Fayette County), Fayette’s residents and officials have a way of working together to solve problems and create economic development and community enhancements that belie the town’s modest size.
“We have great collaboration here,” Fayette Mayor Ray Nelson said. “We sit down with our citizens and make plans. We all get together on what we need, and then we just find a way to make it happen.”
Fayette County Probate Judge William Oswalt agrees. A lifelong Fayette resident, Oswalt said the city has a deep-rooted spirit of cooperation.
“People in Fayette get along. We work together and cooperate,” Oswalt said. “You can’t imagine how much of an advantage that gives this community. With that mindset, we’ve tackled some pretty ambitious projects.”
In recent years, many of those projects have been accomplished with the assistance of the Alabama Communities of Excellence program, which provides smaller communities the programs and tools needed to strengthen their long-term economic success. By following ACE’s core values of planning, leadership development and community engagement, Nelson said Fayette officials have been able to turn several of their plans into reality.
“Planning is the key to the success of any community,” Nelson said. “If you don’t have a goal and make a plan, then it’s just a wish. And a wish is not going to make things happen. Through the ACE program, we have been able to develop a strong, five-year strategic plan along with a long-range comprehensive plan, as well as an active adult-leadership class.
“But those plans have to be put into action. We don’t place plans on the shelf and let dust collect. We become active. We want to make things happen, and we do that by working with members of the community and through our leadership class, which has taken a big role in helping us develop some of our goals.”
Fayette’s most visible recent achievement is a $3.1 million downtown renovation. Using a combination of federal and state grants along with local matching money, the city created a new streetscape, complete with decorative lighting and refurbished sidewalks.
“When I was elected mayor, my main goal right off the bat was to develop some plans for revitalizing downtown,” Nelson said. “Mark Twain once said, ‘We take stock of a city like we take stock of a man. The clothes and appearance are the externals by which we judge.’ The way you look is really important. So we have beautified our downtown, which has attracted people to our business district.”
A grant from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs provided 80 percent of the money for a storefront renovation project, with the individual businesses covering the remaining 20 percent of the cost. Nearly 30 businesses took part in the project, which included upgrading facades, awnings and doorways.
Donna Kerr, who runs the boutique clothing store Robbie’s of Fayette, said the renovations greatly improved the look of her 60-year-old business (started by her aunt, Robbie Perry). That has led to an increase in customer traffic.
“The landscape of downtown has changed so much in the last five years,” Kerr said. “It was a huge undertaking, but it was worth it because it’s brought major traffic to the town. Any improvement you do like that comes back tenfold. You have to look progressive if you want to be progressive.”
Fayette has managed to be progressive while maintaining the town’s historic nature by restoring and repurposing buildings rather than tearing them down. For example, the old post office went through a $1 million renovation and now serves as City Hall. A $600,000 grant enabled the city to transform the old elementary school into a civic center and arts museum, while a $250,000 grant was used to turn the 1913 train depot into a museum.
Offices now occupy the old Hodges department store, and condominiums are planned for the upper floors of the century-old, five-story Cannon Building. There also is a group of residents working to raise money to renovate and reopen the old Turner Hotel.
“That’s an example of how everything is interdependent on one another,” said Jason Cowart, a member of the Fayette City Council. “The public side can’t do it by itself, and neither can the private. People here work well together and understand that there is a bigger picture. And that the decisions made today – or lack thereof – are going to affect your community 20 to 30 years down the road.”
Chasing down business
While Fayette is careful to keep one eye on the past, the other is focused squarely on future advancement. That means attracting new businesses – and jobs – to the area to go along with several longtime employers, such as Ox Bodies (dump truck manufacturer), Best Glove (latex gloves), Daltile (commercial tile), the Georgia-Pacific lumber mill and, of course, Golden Eagle.
To recruit new businesses to the area, Fayette opened a 52,000-square-foot industrial park as well as a business incubator. On the county level, Fayette again demonstrated the spirit of cooperation by teaming with neighboring Lamar and Madison counties to create the C3 of Northwest Alabama Economic Development Alliance.
“Economic development is not easy. You can’t call 1-800 send-me-an-industry,” Oswalt said. “We have to go out and find these people; they don’t come find us. Sometimes it depends on networking; sometimes it’s just pure luck. But when an opportunity appears to present itself, we pursue it to give life to it.”
One of the city’s business newcomers is Fayette Fabrication, which builds and repairs custom racks for the automotive industry and other manufacturing companies. Since opening in 2014, Fayette Fabrication has expanded from having six employees to more than 70.
Owner Mark McClanahan said he chose to come to Fayette partly because of the proximity to the Mercedes-Benz plant near Tuscaloosa, but primarily because Fayette officials recruited his business.
“It was really their idea and they talked me into it,” McClanahan said. “They were driving the train. They were aggressively looking for an industry to come in. They had the buildings and a great attitude. They said, ‘If you’ll do it, we’ll help.’
“It is absolutely about the leadership and their willingness to cooperate. When I need something from a business point of view, I just call the mayor and we figure out how to do it. There’s never a question of whether we can do it. That helpful, aggressive, we-can-get-it-done attitude is what makes Fayette great.”
It’s also helpful that the city can offer residents local health care through the Fayette Medical Center, a 61-bed hospital with a 122-bed nursing home. At a time when many rural medical facilities are closing because of financial issues, Nelson said Fayette established a half-cent sales tax increase dedicated solely to the hospital. The facility now has more than 300 employees and a $14 million payroll.
But the city isn’t all work and no play. In 2013, Fayette added a $2.3 million aquatic center to 130-acre Guthrie Smith Park, complete with an Olympic-size swimming pool, a 35-foot tower with three slides, a lazy river and a splash pad.
“What’s happened is that aquatic park has become a tourism destination for our city,” Nelson said. “We had 25,000 visitors to that water park last year. That is truly amazing.
“We have a lot of amenities in Fayette that you don’t usually find in a city our size. And we’re just going to keep adding to those things, to help us grow and attract people to our community.”
It is a recipe that has given Fayette a taste of sweet success.