By David Palmer
The Cullman Times
The County Road 222 interchange project is getting a big boost from the Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce.
With $2 million of local matching money needed to satisfy the requirements of Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program (ATRIP) funding for the proposal, the chamber of commerce has offered to put in $1.3 million from its share of a local lodging tax. The offer left several local officials astounded, and certainly grateful.
“We were going to ask for $100,000 for five years, but when we sat down with Charlie NeSmith (chamber chairman) and the chamber folks they offered more than a million dollars,” said state Sen. Paul Bussman, R-Cullman. “That shows me the chamber is good stewards of this money and that they are moving forward with their mission of helping the community. This project has tremendous potential for the entire area.”
Until October 2012, a large share of the lodging tax was being used by the City of Cullman to pay off a bond issue for the development of Heritage Park. Bussman said the original legislative bill stipulated that by October the money would revert to the chamber of commerce.
NeSmith, who has one month remaining as chairman, said the chamber of commerce will still have roughly $50,000 annually from the tax available for ramping up its efforts to increase tourism in the area.
“We knew it was coming and we were looking for a grand vision,” NeSmith said. “We couldn’t buy anything that would help Cullman County better than the 222 interchange. We are going to keep a portion of the money for tourism, but the main reason we’re here is to promote Cullman County and enhance our businesses in the community. We felt like this project would have a tremendous impact on Cullman County.”
The interest in the CR 222 interchange dates back to when Topre located in Cullman County. The company was promised that the interchange would be established, which provides direct access to Interstate 65. Others, such as Good Hope Mayor Corey Harbison, Cullman Mayor Max Townson, and Bussman also point to the need to ease traffic issues in the area.
Last year, representatives of the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame visited Cullman and expressed interest in establishing a museum and other facilities on Cullman’s Burrow property, which rests along CR 222. The interchange with I65 appeared to be an important point in the organization’s desire to locate in Cullman County. Now that word has spread that Alabama’s highway director has agreed to keep the local matching cost at $2 million, Mayor Townson believes the project has a realistic chance of materializing in Cullman County. He announced Friday that he has been invited to the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame banquet in Tulsa, Okla., next month.
“The lodging tax money has been a part of our budget, but we negotiated with the chamber in good faith. What they’re proposing to do with the money is for a project that will benefit Good Hope, the county and the City of Cullman. I always say that what is good for one is good for the other,” Townson said.
Townson said he is also excited about the chamber’s renewed emphasis on tourism. He said in the near future there will be more conversations and plans with the chamber concerning the tourism push.
“I believe they will do their part for the community. I know that we can sit down with them and plot the right strategy for the future. We have a good working relationship with the chamber and I know we can call on them anytime to help,” Townson said.