Majority of council still undecided on Bush Hog street closings

Published 1:09 am Sunday, March 7, 2010

SELMA — A majority of the city council’s members said they want options to closing streets surrounding Bush Hog, a manufacturer employing about 288 people.

The council will hold the last of public hearings Tuesday at 4 p.m. A vote is not on Tuesday’s agenda of business released Friday by e-mail from City Hall.

Bush Hog officials want to close off its land by closing streets surrounding its operations. At least five houses are directly affected by the proposal, although some residents who live along Plant and Vine streets and Griffin Avenue say they’ll be affected as well.

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“If [the council] closes the streets, I don’t have an option to leave like Bush Hog,” said Kurt Marks, who lives at 2615 Griffin St., “We’re just in a bad situation.”

The council has held a series of public hearings since January to discuss the issue.

On one side, Bush Hog officials say they worry about the safety of people who travel the streets through the plant’s property. Forklifts and transport trucks come in and out of the site all day. Already some accidents have occurred, officials say.

Additionally, Bush Hog officials say their new parent owner, Alamo Group, has concerns about the cost of liability insurance. Howard May, a representative of the company, said insurance premiums for the high safety risks are expensive.

Alamo Group bought Bush Hog several months ago after the Selma-based Bush Hog had shut down.

Bush Hog officials have said if they cannot reduce costs and ensure the safety of their employees, they are concerned the plant will have to close, costing Selma at least 288 jobs that average $15 an hour.

Officials at Bush Hog have said the city needs to move quickly.

On the other side, residents said plant officials knew the street situation before Bush Hog set up shop in what was once known as Smokey City. They say closing off the streets will shut them off from quicker routes for police, fire and ambulances to reach them.

“I cannot see us doing anything but closing down those streets,” said Council member the Rev. Dr. Cecil Williamson of Ward 1. “You are talking about jobs and the economy of the city here. Dallas County already has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.”

Dallas County’s unemployment has crept up since the national recession began last year. In January, the county’s unemployment rate was 20.1 percent, the third highest in the state.

Williamson is joined in his advocacy to shut down the streets by Council members Susan Keith of Ward 2 and Dr. Monica Newton of Ward 3.

“I understand how the people who live on those streets must feel,” said Keith, “but to lose 300 jobs. We just can’t do that. I support Bush Hog.”

Council member the Rev. B.L. Tucker of Ward 6 is the only other to take a firm stand on the issue. He wants the streets to remain open and has said so openly. The neighborhood is in his ward.

“We’re standing at your back,” Tucker told concerned residents recently. “We’ll come away from this smoothly. We’re behind you 100 percent. God bless you. Keep coming and keep speaking out.”

Residents in the plant’s area have said they do not want to take an alternative route from the short Griffin Street around to Ethridge because of a corner lot grown up near a deep curve, which motorists cannot see around. The lot is owned by the city.

Other council members have said they want other options.

Selma Mayor George Evans is in search of a compromise.

One would see Etheridge Avenue extended 1,078 feet to link into the Cecil Jackson Bypass. The city and Economic Development Authority of Dallas County have begun negotiations with the Alabama Department of Transportation to see if the state will grant permission to link Etheridge to the bypass.

Another compromise would include lengthening Etheridge Avenue to cross the railroad tracks owned by Norfolk Southern and take motorists out east of town. The railroad company would have to approve the street crossing over its tracks.

Council member Angela Benjamin of Ward 4 said she’s still listening to both sides. She grew up in the neighborhood. Her father worked on the welding side of Bush Hog.

“I am still listening to the last meeting,” she said. “I have not made up my mind.”

Council member Corey Bowie of Ward 8 said he’s also taking all sides into account.

“I am studying this and have not made up my mind,” he said.

Council President Dr. Geraldine Allen did not attend the last city council meeting when the issue came up and residents asked council members to take a stand. Previously, Allen has said she is listening to all sides.

Neither Council member Sam Randolph of Ward 5 nor Council member Bennie Ruth Crenshaw of Ward 7 have made definitive public or on-the-record statements. They have asked questions and taken information.

Randolph’s public safety committee will meet at 8:30 a.m. Monday to discuss the road closure at Bush Hog among other items. The options are expected to come up.

These options would take time, if they were feasible, said Williamson.

“I’m afraid we don’t have a lot of time,” he said.