Alexander City must focus on tourism, Lake Martin to power economic development, Collari says

Alexander City Chamber of Commerce executive director Ed Collari

Tourism is Alexander City’s main asset to bring about a return to prosperity, according to chamber of commerce president and CEO Ed Collari, who said his organization is developing a strategy to fully tap into Lake Martin and those who enjoy its waters.

“We’re a city of 14,000 people with a median income of about $32,000 and that’s not too attractive to national retailers,” Collari said. “That’s why a dedicated focus on tourism is so important too. Whether people want to admit it or not, the lake is our economic engine.”

Collari said Alex City’s shift from a manufacturing center following the demise of Russell Corp. to a thriving tourism destination is essential.

“Tourism is an untapped asset,” he said. “We call it ‘R and D,’ ripoff and duplicate. We’ve visited with other communities and one thing that’s happened over and over on those visits is they ask about tourism in Alexander City because of the lake. I’d have to answer, ‘We don’t have a dedicated tourism organization to help market our community.’”

That’s why the nonprofit Lake Martin Tourism Association has been created. Its first board meeting is scheduled for Wednesday.

“We’re establishing a 12-person board and it has a diverse representation throughout the community,” Collari said. “We’ve got a chamber presence, the city council, Main Street (Alexander City), the city, Wind Creek State Park, Russell Lands, the hotels, restaurants and three floating positions.”

Collari couldn’t accurately estimate how much money a focus on tourism centered around Lake Martin would bring to the city but knows it’s enormous.

“I don’t know how much money we’re missing out on but it’s a lot,” he said. “Look at Wind Creek State Park. Last year, 319,000 visitors went through the front door and that doesn’t count the boats. There’s Lake Martin, the (Charles E. Bailey) Sportplex, Jazz Fest, Russell Lands doing things all the time, the Smith Mountain Fire Tower. It would be nice to have one organization that can maintain a calendar of events, attracting fishing tournaments, sports tournaments.”

In January, when Russell Lands announced it will build a marine superstore on U.S. Highway 280 in Alexander City, CEO Tom Lambeth said an economic impact study conducted in 2018 by RCLCO showed full- and part-time Lake Martin residents generate retail demand of $200 million a year.

“Only a fraction of that is spent locally,” Lamberth said.

The chamber recently revealed its 2019-23 strategic plan and added tourism, partnering with Alexander City schools and engaging with the community as pillars. That led to some bold goals within the next five years, Collari said.

“Based on our strategic plan, we want two major retail developments on 280, including restaurants and shopping,” he said. “(We want to) continue to recruit to our available space downtown, although it is near full capacity, make it more vibrant, make it a destination. And for tourism to grow, (we need) to bring tourism dollars to Alex City. I’d also love to see us work toward a new high school in Alex City, to show an investment in your youth. Recruiting young families to this community will always be a significant step.”

The chamber has even played a part in employing people through leasing space in its Lake Martin Innovation Center. Eight full-time businesses have rented office space there and created 50 jobs, Collari said.

Collari conceded it’s frustrating to hear residents say they don’t see any effort being made to attract new businesses to Alex City but said that could soon change.

“The list of projects we’re discussing is more than I’ve seen in the three years I’ve been here,” he said. “We have a lot of retail projects. We’re a hot community. We’ve got a major project where we are hoping a national retailer will select our market; we’ve been working on it for years.

“We need the big one. Once the first piece of the puzzle falls into place, it will be a catalyst. I think Russell Marine and city hall moving out to the 280 corridor will be catalysts.

“We see the 280 corridor as regional and national and downtown as local. Downtown now compared to what it was five or 10 years ago, it’s seen a significant change. We’ve got to make it an experiential place for young couples.”

While Collari said attracting young people and families is paramount for Alex City’s future, he respects what Russell Corp. did for the community in its glory years and knows diversification of the economy is crucial.

“I think it is so unique that a Fortune 500 company was in a rural community this size,” he said. “It’s part of the DNA here. Generations worked at Russell. It’s emotional for people. Overcoming it will naturally take time. I don’t think we’ll ever get away from it. We shouldn’t erase it. I didn’t live through (the closure) but something that substantial, in its heyday, it pretty much employed half the people in this town. It funded roads, schools and communities.”