Publix Super Markets held the grand opening for its Alabama distribution center today with plans to have 300 workers there by year’s end.

The first truck left the facility at midnight, the first of many Publix tractor trailers that will now make Alabama roads a regular part of their route. The distribution center initially will provide goods to 80 stores in Alabama and Tennessee and will add stores in Georgia and the Florida Panhandle later in the year.

The 638,000-square-foot facility is in Jefferson Metropolitan Park-McCalla between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. It has 600,000 square feet of warehouse space and 38,000 square feet of office and cafeteria space.

A look inside Publix Super Markets’ first Alabama distribution center from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Jefferson County and economic development officials joined Publix in celebrating the opening.

“This puts us in a better position to serve our customers,” said Mike Smith, senior vice president of industrial operations with Publix. “It brings us a little bit closer to the stores we’re responsible for. We’re planting roots in communities.”

Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, was unable to attend but did have praise for the project.

“Alabama’s robust infrastructure network and capable workforce make the state a solid location for distribution hubs like the Publix center in Jefferson County,” he told Alabama NewsCenter. “We make it a point to recruit top-performing, high-quality companies to the state, and Publix is one of those operators. We’re excited to see them put down deeper roots in Alabama.”

Another factor that made the Publix project more celebrated than normal was that it took a space that was about to be vacated by OfficeMax, the original tenant and the first project to move into JeffMet-McCalla.

“This building is very large,” said Jefferson County Commissioner David Carrington. “The probability is it would have stayed empty for a while because you would have had to have found the right tenant to come in here. It’s exciting that we were able to backfill a piece of property that we have.”

Jeff Traywick, senior project manager with the Birmingham Business Alliance, worked on the Publix recruitment. He said the work of the Jefferson County Economic and Industrial Development Authority (JCEIDA), OfficeMax, Publix and others helped make lemonade out of lemons.

“As we were working with Publix to try to identify them a site they could build upon, OfficeMax had told the locals that they were planning on shutting down the facility,” Traywick said.

Ted vonCannon, executive director of the JCEIDA, helped orchestrate a deal that would allow Publix to purchase and move into the OfficeMax space.

“Publix, to their credit, committed to try to rehire as many of those OfficeMax workers as possible who were affected by the closure,” Traywick said.

“It’s not every day you get a prospect that’s looking for a 700,000-square-foot facility,” he said. “It’s a great facility and I have no doubts that we would have filled it, but having it vacant for any period of time would not have been great.”

Brenda Reid, media and community relations manager for Publix, said having an available facility allowed Publix to be up and running sooner than planned.

“That is a blessing that we didn’t have to build from the ground up, so we were able to come in and retrofit the equipment and bring in the new equipment that we need,” she said.

Distribution centers like Publix are a key part of Jefferson County’s economic development strategy to use the network of interstate highways and railroads, including the Norfolk Southern Birmingham Regional Intermodal Facility, next to JeffMet-McCalla.

“Distribution can be an important component of our economic growth,” Carrington said. “But Publix, a high-quality brand name … they’re the kind of employer you would want to work for, want your children to work for.”

Publix does have room to expand in JeffMet-McCalla.

“We always have a plan, a strategy of growth,” Reid said. “We’ve been in growth mode for the last 87 years. Alabama has been a great market for us. All of the markets are doing really well, so we are delighted we can continue to grow with the state.”

Rick Davis, senior vice president of economic development with the BBA, said Publix had originally committed to creating 200 jobs but now it is planning 300 in the first year. That makes officials hopeful more growth is coming.

“There are 27 Publix grocery stores in our area – which is great and I hope we grow enough that they need to put more here,” he said. “But the fact that we have one of their major distribution centers here now ratchets them up even a little higher in that corporate ladder. They’re one of the larger employers already in our area, so we’re very, very glad they’re here.

“We want to create an environment where they get to grow on that extra land and add more space and more jobs to this community.”