Alabama golf courses save pension fund

By Tom Foreman

MONTGOMERY, AL (CNN) – If you don't like the way things are, then change them. That's what one Alabama state worker did about 20 years ago. And it's paid off big!

Back in the late 80's when the pension fund for Alabama's state employees was small and struggling, the head of the retirement systems teed up an idea about golf. He works today in one of the most stunning state office buildings you'll ever see. Where Dr. David Bronner sits, is an empire of pension money.

"Well, you've got to keep in mind that if you're near the bottom, you're not going to get out of the bottom unless you do something different, or as I tell the people of Alabama, you've got to take risks," said Dr. Bronner.

Here's how it happened. Frustrated by tourists just passing through on the way to Florida, Bronner commissioned famed golf course architect, Robert Trent Jones, to design more than 20 courses all over Alabama to attract tourists and business people.

"My theory there was can I divert you? Can I stop you? Can I hold you over? And you knew if you could hold those people over, they would leave money in Alabama," said Dr. Bronner.

It worked!

Before the golf trail, annual tourism was under $2 billion. Now, it is pushing $10 billion, and Bronner has remade Montgomery's skyline. That new construction and all those buildings with green tops? All built with retirement systems cash.

He has invested Alabama's retirement funds in world class hotels, spas, media -- even a landmark office building in New York City.

"And I guess what I was trying to do was pick things that they could be proud of, because they are wonderful people in Alabama. Hard-working people. What we have tried to do is have something that would take the potential of a state, instead of talking about potential, and turn it into a reality," remarked Dr. Bronner.

The pension funds success has helped draw more businesses and investors willing to consider Alabama as a home.

For more information on Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA) check out:

CNN will feature Montgomery and much of Alabama in a special report to air at a future date.  This report and many others will be apart of CNN's Building Up America series.