Alabama Highway 77 is a 124-mile stretch of road in eastern Alabama that runs from U.S. Highway 431 near Lafayette through the Talladega National Forest, past the entrance to the Talladega Super Speedway and ends at U.S. Highway 431 just north of Attalla.
Just south of Ashland on a perfectly straight stretch of Highway 77 sits Wellborn Cabinet Inc. Paul Wellborn and Doug Wellborn founded the company in 1962 in Ashland. It began as a small cabinet shop in a 3200-square-foot building manufacturing low-cost kitchen and bath cabinets. In 1986, according to the company’s website, Paul Wellborn purchased the company to become sole owner and changed the marketing strategy to dealer/distributor sales.
The plant has expanded since those early days to a 2,000,000-square-foot facility which supports a multi-million dollar business. Although during the past two years there have been some 300 layoffs, the company still employs over 700 workers. It is the largest employer in Clay County, home of Gov. Bob Riley.
Needless to say, Gov. Riley has been a huge booster of the company in his home county. The Wellborn family and the corporation, however, have returned the favor, contributing over $25,000 to Riley’s political causes.
Over $7000 of those contributions were of the “in kind” nature for the use of the corporation’s airplanes. In 2007, The Independent
reported that Riley’s campaign may have violated the state’s Fair Campaign Practices Act by improperly listing the $7350 “in kind” contribution of Wellborn’s company’s King Air 350 Turboprop as a contribution of Wellborn, the individual.
Contributions of over $500 by a corporation are illegal in a single election cycle. In 2007 the company refused to tell us if Wellborn had reimbursed the company for Riley’s use of the plane, but a spokesman did state that the plane was owned by the corporation. No investigation, if any was initiated, has yet been made public.
Riley’s parting gift to Paul Wellborn
In 2007 Gov. Riley began pressuring the State Department of Transportation (ALDOT) to facilitate Wellborn Cabinet’s desire to relocate Highway 77, which would free up additional acreage on the side of the highway where the company’s manufacturing plant is located. Wellborn would donate the right-of-way for the new roadway and the state would give Wellborn the old right-of-way.
State officials, other than ALDOT employees, who have spoken off the record, say there is no need to re-route Highway 77, nor any state interest in doing so. “We’re putting a curve in a straight road, which amounts to making the road more dangerous to the driving public,” one official familiar with the project told The Independent.
The early projected cost of the project was estimated by the State Department of Transportation at $7.3 million and it will be funded entirely with state money. ALDOT won’t finalize the construction estimate until the project is authorized for bids, which, according to department spokesperson, Tony Harris, appears to be some time after January.
Funds for construction of the project have not yet been authorized, and the project is not scheduled in the December 2010 or January 2011 bid openings, according to Harris.
The project was originally put in the DOT system for 2015, but suddenly moved to December for a bid letting. The preliminary engineering and plan development started in 2007, and the state has already spent $410,000 on the project.
However, The Independent
has learned that there has been an unexpected delay in the speed-up of the project. Sources in Clay County tell us utility firms there are balking at the cost they must bear to move utility lines and pipes to accommodate the re-route. And we are told that the state cannot pick up that tab unless the utilities are paupers, a situation that doesn’t seem to be likely.
The storyline on this project by the governor’s folks is that the reason for the Highway 77 re-route is that it would allow for the future expansion of one of the county’s largest employers.
If that employer has plans to hire 500 more workers, that might be a valid reason, but Wellborn Cabinets has laid off more than 300 workers in the past two years … some just weeks ago.
We suggest that our incoming governor, Dr. Robert Bentley, should take a close look at this Riley payback to a political supporter as soon as he takes office.