Once built to scale, the 4,000-square-foot educational exhibit will be placed at the park, complete with a partial reconstruction of the cave.
“It’s an immense exhibit,” Morrow said. “When all is said and done, it will fill up our whole shop.”
The cave exhibit is but one of three major projects Morrow and his business, Southern Custom Exhibits, have undertaken this year, all funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, better known as “the stimulus.”
The projects are almost too much work for the Anniston-based company to bear and may require the creation of new jobs, according to Morrow.
“It’s very possible we may have to add three to four people over the life of these contracts,” he said. “This is literally five years’ worth of work that has come out at one time. The schedules are very rigid … most of them will be done by next fall.”
The contracts creating business for Morrow include, besides the cave, exhibits at the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge and the historic Alexander Hamilton house in Harlem, N.Y. Valued at approximately $3 million, they’re part of the $787 billion stimulus package the federal government approved in 2009 to jumpstart the sagging economy.
The money was designated for three sectors: tax breaks to individuals and businesses; payments to state governments to fund things such as police departments and schools; and for projects like new roads and bridges.
The government’s stimulus spending website, www.recovery.gov, shows more than $3.2 billion has been allocated in Alabama for contracts, grants and loans. The money has reportedly created more than 9,000 jobs.
Of the state money, $13.6 million has been allocated for Calhoun County, $11 million of which has been designated as grant money, including money for the Anniston and Calhoun County schools systems and the Alabama Department of Transportation. About 30 jobs have been created in the county so far due to the stimulus.
According to the government’s website, Southern Custom is the only local business to receive any major stimulus-funded contracts this year.
While Morrow has not hired any new employees yet, the stimulus will help his business by creating a long, steady flow of work.
“The stimulus will directly affect 40 families over the next year and a half,” Morrow said.
Southern Custom, which opened in 1989, produces museum and trade show exhibits for facilities and organizations across the United States.
“If somebody is willing to pay for it, we can make it,” Morrow said.
Derrick Palmer is an audio-visual specialist who will likely work on all three of the company’s stimulus-funded projects.
“Now I’ll get even more work,” Palmer said with a laugh. “Our jobs usually do come in spurts.”
Palmer, who is from White Plains, said his job usually involves creating interactive visuals for museum exhibits. For the Tennessee contract, Palmer will create interactive video that will allow museum visitors to virtually manage the wildlife refuge.
“It will be touch screens set up in a three-monitor array that will ask questions on what you should do in certain situations … things like that,” Palmer said. “And there will be video that corresponds with the questions.”
Though the stimulus money appears to be helping just one local company this year, it is significantly benefiting the schools in the Calhoun County and Anniston systems.
Anniston’s schools received $1.3 million in 2009 and are set to receive another $1.3 million by the end of this year.
In the two years since the stimulus program began, county schools have received more than $5 million.
Anniston School Superintendent Joan Frazier said the money has been used to create jobs.
“We’ve infused federal dollars … used stimulus money to add jobs we didn’t have before,” she said.
Alabama’s school systems have been in proration for several years and have had less money to hire and retain teachers.
Frazier said around 10 jobs were added to the school system last year. She said they were not necessarily traditional education jobs such as elementary school teachers, but instead were certified jobs that deal with specialized areas, such as graduation coaches and counseling services.
“The stimulus has been exceedingly beneficial … we’ve used it in the areas that had the most need,” Frazier said.
County School Superintendent Judy Stiefel said her system’s stimulus money was not used to create new jobs but save existing ones.
“It has helped retain jobs … we would have lost jobs without it,” she said.
Stiefel said stimulus money has also been applied to current operating expenses, such as light and phone bills. “It most definitely has helped us, that’s for sure.”
To Keivan Deravi, professor of economics at Auburn University Montgomery, the government’s stimulus plan has benefited the national economy as a whole.
“We don’t have hard evidence of how many jobs have been created, but we can say it has saved jobs from being eliminated,” Deravi said. “Had it not been in place, the loss in jobs would have been substantially higher. Conventional thoughts are it helped.”
Deravi noted, however, that the stimulus was not large enough to truly pull the country out of the recession.
“The stimulus plan was supposed to just fill in the gap, but the gap was much deeper than people thought it would be,” Deravi said. “The argument being presented right now is that as deep as the recession is, the stimulus was not enough to pull us out.”
Auburn University economics professor Daniel Gropper, however, disagrees that the stimulus has been a benefit.
“In general, it does not help in the long term,” Gropper said. “It just prolongs the time for the adjustments people will have to make … adjustments in consumption patterns and productivity.”
He said the stimulus money is not free and will one day have to be repaid.
“Nothing is free from Washington, D.C.,” he said. “It will have to be paid with future tax payments.”
Gropper also disagrees with the argument that the recession would have been worse without the stimulus.
“The stimulus,” he said, “is creating a culture of dependency from Washington, D.C., which is dangerous.”
Contact staff writer Patrick McCreless at 256-235-3561.