(Albany Herald) A large crowd gathered at Albany State University’s West Campus Wednesday as the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual State of the Community luncheon. The theme for this year’s event was “After the Storms: Commerce and Community.”
The meeting began with a powerful video narrated by Albany’s original Freedom Singer, Rutha Harris, who said the storms tested the community to its limits but ultimately brought the community together stronger than ever before. As images of storm damage and community cleanup efforts flashed across the screen, Harris spoke softly yet firmly of the tenacity, love, hope, perseverance and collaboration that helped the community cope with the trauma and inspired it to join forces with the common goal of rising above the ruins.
Highlighting the event was a panel discussion featuring officials with three local businesses hit hard by the storms that devastated Albany five months ago.
“We wanted to show how far our community has come,” said chamber Chairwoman Jenny Savelle.
Chamber President Barbara Rivera Holmes served as moderator for the panel discussion, which included David Castellano and Dixie Ziegler, representing Hamilton Relay; Werhner Washington, who serves as plant manager for Procter & Gamble Albany, and Karen Snyder, a board member representing the Albany Museum of Art.
“Hamilton Relay has rebuilt almost as quickly as the storms demolished their facility,” Holmes said while announcing that the company would hold a ribbon-cutting at its newly rebuilt Dawson Road facility later in the day.
“After the storms, we examined our facility and saw it was a total loss,” Castellano said. “We determined we would need everything brand new. Instead of leaving Albany, we decided to stay right here and expand.”
Hamilton Relay Corporate Office Representative Ziegler said the company began its plans to rebuild in Albany right away.
“The minute the storm hit, we had no doubt about staying in Albany,” she told the audience. “It was a no-brainer because we had been in Albany for 10 years. Albany has a good work force and a good labor pool. The community has been supportive, and we know we are in a good environment.”
P&G’s Washington said the company’s manufacturing plant was not heavily damaged, but the distribution center had significant structural damage. Washington also reported that much of the company’s inventory was destroyed.
Although the distribution plant had to be demolished, the company kept its supply lines open and filled its orders by partnering with other Procter & Gamble distribution centers. Five months after the storm, Washington now credits the tornado that hit his plant for helping the company to rethink its distribution process by finding better ways to fill orders.
“The storm could have destroyed us,” he said. “Instead, it forced us to to discover a new opportunity to rebuild and a new way to synchronize our supply chain. Those changes ultimately helped us to streamline operations around customer sales.
“Today, we are well on the road to recovery, and we are transforming our distribution plant into a lean, mean and highly synchronized machine.”
Meanwhile, the Albany Museum of Art remains in transition. After experiencing a great deal of damage from the storm, the museum, located next to Albany State University’s West Campus, had to be shut down. Since then, the museum has been actively searching for a permanent home.
“We had heavy damage from rain and high winds, which peeled back a significant portion of the roof,” Snyder said. “The good news is not one of our paintings or artifacts was a total loss, although many items had to be sent to Chicago for repairs and restoration. Just like family photos, none of these items can be replaced.”
As the artifact restoration efforts continue, the museum has remained in a state of transition. Snyder estimates it will take at least two years for the museum to fully recover. She noted, though, that plans are underway to move the museum permanently to downtown Albany.
“The storm gave us the opportunity to reconsider how we want to grow,” Snyder said. “We like the synergy of things that are happening in downtown Albany. We want to become the anchor of the cultural center in the downtown district.”
Snyder said the museum board members are highly optimistic that the museum will find a new home and be settled enough to open a new downtown location by Labor Day.
While business leaders were happy to share their success, the representatives of all three companies agreed that the road to recovery isn’t over and more support will be needed in the days ahead.
After lunch, Albany Mayor Dorothy Hubbard and Dougherty County Commission Chairman Christopher Cohilas continued the discussion on ways to keep Albany moving forward after the storms.
Holmes said the city is allocating SPLOST funds to initiate a variety of new and ongoing efforts to improve city infrastructure and to continue with disaster clean-up. Homeowners can still contact the city if they need help removing stumps and other debris left by the storms, the chamber president said.
Cohilas said housing initiatives and road improvements will also be a priority as Albany officials continue to evaluate storm recovery progress.