Economic vitality in Alexander City could hinge on “quality of place,” and public involvement is more important than any other part of the process, according to Dr. Joe Sumners, the executive director of Auburn University’s Government and Economic Development Institute.
Sumners, who has been involved with economic development since 2000, spoke to government, business and community leaders at Central Alabama Community College’s Betty Carol Graham Center on Thursday. His presentation supported the Alexander City Chamber of Commerce Partners in Progress five-year strategic plan for 2019-23.
“Strong economies are built on strong communities,” Sumners said. “To be successful, a community needs infrastructure — physical roads, buildings. It needs the human element — a workforce, quality schools. And it needs the civic element.
“This doesn’t get as much attention as the other aspects, but it’s really the most important. A community needs strong leadership, public involvement and a community-mindedness of pride and optimism. You need all three to be successful.”
Economic development is broader than simply recruiting industry, according to Sumners.
“It’s anything that you do to improve quality of place,” he said.
The effort to recruit industry is a community effort, not just the job of an economic development agency, Sumners said. In many ways, it is exactly like marketing or sales.
“First, you need a good product to sell,” he said. “You will not be successful if you don’t have a good product — a good community, a good place. We need a better product and we need to work together — citizens and leadership — to develop a good product.”
Industrial leaders who are looking for a new location usually begin the search with a broad perspective, narrowing their criteria down to a particular region of the country and focusing on areas that meet that broad criteria, be it access to interstate transportation, proximity to their targeted markets or something else. That process continues until the selection comes down to just a few identified communities with the criteria becoming more specific at each level of the search, Sumners said.
“At that point, the decision is based on quality of place,” he said. “They look for communities where there are fun things to do, where their employees’ children will get a good public education, where there is quality healthcare, affordable housing, access to services, communities where there is diversity and inclusion because they want to locate in a place where their employees will want to live with their families.
“It’s very competitive to see who is going to get these jobs because if you don’t make your place great and somebody else does, who will they choose?”
Sumners cited a 2018 survey by Area Development Magazine in which 82.8% of industry leaders said they could make the most money in a community where quality of place is a factor.
“They can maintain their employee base best in a place that is attractive for their employees’ families to live in,” Sumners said.
Sumners said communities that want to succeed need many civic leaders, not as gatekeepers or watchdogs but as door openers.
“These are the communities that will thrive,” he said. “Places that are apathetic and wait for the mayor or someone else to take care of it will not succeed.”
Chamber president and CEO Ed Collari said Alexander City has more going for it than many other southern communities.
“Our biggest asset is that giant lake,” Collari said. “We can use that as a basis for quality of place. Overall, it has the biggest potential for economic impact for us, and it can help us to develop trades, recruit industry and help to support our existing businesses.
“Also, we are in a good location among three strong cities. We get a lot of traffic on (U.S. Highway) 280. That’s our heartbeat.”
The challenge, Collari said, is workforce development, which is a regional and national problem that is almost at a crisis point. Developing talents in the area — through trade schools, high schools and college — combined with the quality of place Sumners addressed and the initiatives of the chamber’s strategic plan could create the difference that would attract business and industry.
The strategic plan’s initiatives include stepping up retail and commercial recruitment, supporting existing business growth and entrepreneurship, partnering with education and establishing a destination marketing organization to promote the local area as a tourist destination with entertainment venues, recreational opportunities and sports tournaments and events.