Leaders from across West Alabama returned home Thursday after an overnight trip to Montgomery to meet with state officials and learn their plans for 2024.

Around five dozen heads of area businesses, nonprofits and governments including the 2023-2024 class of Leadership Tuscaloosa attended this iteration of the Montgomery Drive-In, which is organized annually by the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama and presented this year by the University of Alabama System.

The West Alabama crew arrived in the capital Wednesday morning, which the Thread reported here, and after meeting with Senators, State Representatives, agency heads and more, the Chamber Group went Wednesday night to a celebration of state leaders presented by the Business Council of Alabama.

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
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The mixer featured prominent faces from all corners of the state and allowed the MDI attendees to make new connections to benefit their home organizations and also catch up with old friends, like former Chamber President and CEO Jim Page, who stepped down last year to take a new position in Huntsville.

Kyle South, a former State Representative himself, stepped down from elected office to replace Page at the Chamber, and the two were able to reunite during the Drive-In.

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
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The group split off to their own networking, exploration, exercise or rest Wednesday night and were back at it Thursday morning with a trip to the State House.

First, Tuscaloosa's own Bill Poole, who now serves as director of finance and senior advisor to Governor Kay Ivey, updated the group on her administration's priorities, which she laid out Tuesday in her State of the State address.

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
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Alabama's Secretary of Commerce Ellen McNair talked about the challenge of stepping into the big shoes left by former Secretary Greg Canfield, who stepped down late last year after 12 years in that role.

The State House meetings wrapped up with an informative session with Dr. David A. Hughes of Auburn University at Montgomery about the inexact science of polling, and how that side of politics has had to reckon with its weaknesses after big missed predictions in 2016.

Then it was upstairs to watch the Alabama Legislature in session, though the House had already finished the day's business when the Chamber group arrived, so they instead monitored a few minutes of the state Senate.

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
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The day and trip ended with a luncheon at the Alabama Activity Center, where Dr. David Bronner gave as close to a keynote address as the trip featured.

Bronner, the extremely wealthy and extremely candid CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, was a breath of fresh air as he pulled no punches about the tragedy of some of our state's follies but also profusely praised the potential of its people.

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
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Bronner was also sharply critical of single individuals of both political parties whose decisions he said negatively impacted the people they represented. Targets from Tuscaloosa included former Governor Robert Bentley for not expanding Medicaid a decade ago and Walt Maddox, who Bronner said turned down an RSA proposal to build a Civic Center and hotel in town when he was still "a brand new mayor."

Calling the 2024 presidential candidates the worst in his lifetime, Bronner was extremely pessimistic about the nation's political future and only slightly cheerier about his outlook for the state but held Tuscaloosa in high esteem and said it will thrive if people can collaborate instead of compete.

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
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"Go back for me to Tuscaloosa - I've always had a great time when I was there and I think the world of it," Bronner said. "I think just working together, working together and I'll say those words again, working together, you can make that city just as dynamic as anything is in this state."

After stepping outside for a group photo, the Tuscaloosa group departed to return to their corners of West Alabama and get back to the business of making it better.

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
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“Attending The Montgomery Drive-in is very important, especially at this time, because now that our legislature has started their session, it allows us to learn about the issues and bills that will be at the forefront," said Jheovanny Gomez, the new chair of the Chamber's board of directors. "Now, we can bring those to our community and make everyone here aware of what’s going on and how that will affect us.”

Justice Smyth, the executive director of the Tuscaloosa County Economic Development Authority echoed those sentiments and said this annual meeting with legislators is critical for area leaders as they plan their agendas in 2024.

“It is incredibly important for the local business community to engage with state leaders and elected officials. Events like the Chamber’s Montgomery Drive-In provide a platform for dialogue and collaboration," Smyth said. "By developing relationships with key decision-makers, not only are we able to more effectively advocate for our community’s needs and priorities, but we can demonstrate that state government has a willing partner in Tuscaloosa and West Alabama when it comes to addressing broader issues across Alabama.”

Special thanks to the Chamber for allowing the Thread to attend and cover the Drive-In this year, and stay connected for more news from business and government leaders in west Alabama.

Top Stories from the Tuscaloosa Thread (1/29 - 2/5)

10 of the Top Stories published by the Tuscaloosa Thread during the fourth week of 2024, led by the third murder of the year and a spat of armed robberies.

Gallery Credit: (Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)

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