After sitting vacant for more than a decade, the former WestPoint Stevens building in Abbeville is now buzzing with new life and 115 jobs after a $40 million transformation by Great Southern Wood.
It was standing room only at Tuesday’s grand opening celebration for Abbeville Fiber. The new sawmill, at the intersection of U.S. 431 and Alabama Highway 27, represents an investment of $40 million, the largest in Henry County’s history, and fills a building that sat empty since 2007. Now, the building houses a state-of-the-art sawmill, equipped with the latest technology.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey joined Great Southern Wood CEO Jimmy Rane in cutting the ribbon.
“Abbeville Fiber is proof that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in Alabama,” Ivey said. “Our state is enjoying the lowest unemployment rate in our history, and without businesses like Great Southern Wood and Abbeville Fiber, this would not be possible.”
Rane, best known for his commercials as the “Yella Fella” promoting Great Southern Wood’s YellaWood brand, shared the history of the site, which began in 1917 when the state’s first peanut oil mill was located there. Community leaders in the 1940s convinced WestPoint Stevens to locate a new textile plant in Abbeville. It opened in 1952 and operated until 2007.
After closing the Abbeville plant, WestPoint Stevens spent several years seeking new uses for the site. When that failed, a decision was made to sell the property to a salvager.
Just like in the commercials, the Yella Fella stepped in to save the day.
“I got them on the phone and told them they had no idea what that building means to my town – that they couldn’t let it go for salvage,” Rane said. “They told me if I would pay them what the salvage company was going to pay, they’d sell it to me.”
After purchasing the property in 2013, Rane continued the search for a suitable industry to fill the void, when he finally asked the right person the right question: “Do you think we could ever put a sawmill in this building?”
Michael Lancaster, general manager of Abbeville Fiber, was then working at Ashton Lewis Lumber, a holding of Great Southern Wood in North Carolina. Lancaster’s answer was “yes.” He took Rane’s vision and made it a reality.
“Michael designed, engineered and oversaw construction of what you see before you today,” Rane said. “He understood what a tragedy it would have been for our area if we had lost this facility. My only contribution was asking that question. Michael made it happen. For that reason, this mill will be known as the Lancaster Mill of Abbeville Fiber.”
Lancaster was honored by the tribute.
“We’re very excited about the opening of this new facility,” said Lancaster. “Not only will it bring jobs to the area, it’s great for Great Southern, too. All the production from the sawmill will be going to Great Southern treating plants, enabling us to improve efficiency, consistency and quality for our products.”
Lancaster said a sawmill is a key link in a chain of jobs in the industry.
“Abbeville Fiber will also create logging jobs and value for landowners through our log purchases,” he said. “According to a study from the Alabama Forestry Association, there is a one-to-one ratio on jobs when a sawmill open. That means that the job creation at the sawmill will lead to another 115 jobs being created in the logging and timber operations.”
Matt Parker of the Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce pointed to the Abbeville Fiber project as an example of regional economic development.
“Employees will come from Henry, Houston, Barbour, Dale, Geneva and border Georgia counties to supply its labor needs,” he said. “In addition, regional trucking and pine will be supplied throughout the multi-county area. Growing our area’s gross domestic product is the end game and all of us win with a regional approach.”
Henry County Probate Judge David Money echoed Parker’s sentiment.
“In some places they talk regionalism. In Houston County, they live it,” Money said. He commended the many Houston County leaders who helped make the new sawmill a reality.
According to county officials, the impact of the project can already be seen in tax revenues for the city of Abbeville, which increased nearly 27% in the second quarter of 2019 versus the same period last year. The sawmill received its first load of logs on July 8 and now employs 65 workers as it ramps up to full employment.
The caliber of jobs is also notable. The estimated average hourly rate will be $21.62, well above the current average wage in Henry County.
“With the opening of the sawmill, we will be continuing to invest in our most valuable resource – the people in our hometown and throughout the entire Wiregrass,” Rane said. “This state-of-the-art facility is not just about producing the highest quality wood products, it is about empowering people to provide a better life for their families and building a stronger, more prosperous community for all of us.”