Many Alabamians have taken note of job and economic growth in Huntsville over the last 10 years.
Blue Origin Rocket, Aerojet Rocketdyne, LG Electronics, Facebook, Google, GE Aviation and Mazda-Toyota have located to northeast Alabama and are just some of Huntsville’s successes over the last few years but it does bring frustrations too. Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle spoke with several area leaders sharing some those successes, frustrations and tips on how to help Tallapoosa and Coosa counties succeed in advancing economic development.
“We’ve got the jobs coming in,” Battle said. “We need the workers.”
Battle said workforce development is a huge deal with 2.3% unemployment and the Huntsville area uses the two- and four-year colleges in the area to help but said recruitment starts even before the education available in college.
“You have to make an investment in education,” Battle said. “The executives for these companies will visit the area and one of the first questions they ask is, ‘Where are my children going to go to school?’”
Battle said 10 years ago the Huntsville and Madison County area used part of the 27 mils in property tax it collects to build $250 million in new schools to replace and renovate schools built in the 1950s. He said another $250 million in school facility projects are projected in the next few years.
The new schools are also crucial in training the upcoming workforce.
Battle shared the Huntsville story of recent economic development success with Alexander City Mayor Tommy Spraggins, Dadeville Mayor Wayne Smith, New Site Mayor Phil Blasingame and Jacksons Gap Mayor Jeff Walker. Alexander City community development director Al Jones, Central Alabama Community College president Dr. Susan Burrow, Denise Walls with the Lake Martin Area Economic Development Alliance and Ed Collari with the Alexander City Chamber of Commerce were also in attendance. State house Rep. Ed Oliver (R - Dadeville) arranged the meeting together.
Battle and Oliver were classmates in college. Battle even campaigned for Oliver’s father when he ran for circuit court judge.
Battle said the military operations in the Huntsville area had already helped start the work on infrastructure especially roads as part of an overall transportation grid. He said the area boasts a commute time of less than 28 minutes from home to work.
“We use it as a selling point,” Battle said. “Some areas the commute is more than an hour each way. We ask prospective industries, ‘What could you do with an extra hour and a 1/2 a day?’”
The area also has a major plan for roads to allow workers to travel and from work from outlying communities.
“Our workforce comes from 14 Alabama counties and three Tennesse counties,” Battle said. “We in the middle of an eight-year, $1 billion road infrastructure project.”
Other things industries check on according to Battle are things like a 10 year capital plan.
“They are making a long-term investment,” Battle said. “They are wanting to see a long-term plan for the community to make sure it is able to address the needs of a growing community.”
Roads and a 10-year capital plan helped Battle and Huntsville land 2,000 jobs and $135 million capital investment from Polaris.
Firearms manufacturer Remington Arms was another Huntsville success. It was looking to spend upwards of $250 million on facility, but Huntsville put it into a vacant building saving the company a huge amount of money.
“They were looking for a green field,” Battle said. “We had the Chrysler Electronics building that cost $12 million. Once they found out the facility would work, it was a slam dunk.
Outdoors retailer Cabela’s followed. It already had relationships with executives from Polaris and Remington.
Facebook and Google have built data centers in the area. Although it brings only about 300 jobs to the area, it does bring property tax. Facebook is building a $750 million facility and will build a duplicate giving it a $1.5 billion investment in the area. Battle said they abated the property taxes for most of the projects but it is still a win for education as the companies will still pay 27 mils of property tax towards education.
Battle understands the dynamics of a rural area and said the likelihood of bringing a big plant with 4,000 jobs like the Mazda-Toyota facility to a rural area like Lake Martin is not feasible. But all is not lost.
“This is great for Tier 2 and Tier 3 suppliers for the those,” Battle said. “To be Tier 1 you have to be within 50 miles of the main plant.”
Battles wants those to facilities land in Alabama and see other areas develop jobs as well.
“If you succeed, Huntsville succeeds,” Battle said. “If Huntsville succeeds, you succeed.”
Editor’s Note: A story on how these can be used in Tallapoosa and Coosa counties will be in The Outlook later this week.