Huntsville has been successful recruiting jobs the last decade, but it has had its share of bumps bringing new jobs to north Alabama.
Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle shared with Tallapoosa County officials the Madison County and Huntsville area is averaging 200 new jobs a month, but the success came from learning lessons over the last three decades. He said some of the lessons learned were getting along with others, having property ready to build on and having good school systems.
Battle said north Alabama officials learned a lesson following failures recruiting jobs to Redstone Arsenal during the Base Realignment and Closure Committee (BRAC) of 1995.
“We weren’t working together,” Battle said. “We killed the golden goose.”
Battle said all of the cities and counties in the area competed with each other instead of working together therefore offering only parts of the solution needed to bring BRAC to northern Alabama.
“This group would go to (Washington) D.C. and pitch an idea,” Battle said, “then another group would go and pitch something slightly different. We were competing against each other and not one of us could come up with a complete plan. Together we are able to offer a better package and is more appealing to executives. Everyone pitches in now to make it come together. It is hard to do but you got to get rid of the egos.”
The idea is by helping a neighbor with a project today, they will benefit you tomorrow.
“If y’all succeed today, I’ll get the business someday,” Battle said. “It I succeed today, y’all succeed someday.”
Another lesson was learned when Volkswagen chose Chattanooga over Huntsville. Battle said property needs to be purchased or at the very least authorities need to have options of property to purchase before companies come to visit. Chattanooga was already moving dirt and had the necessary studies completed before Volkswagen arrived to look.
“Chattanooga already had a package deal with everything they needed,” Battle said. “We showed them one site; they asked about another site. Well the site they asked about was not lost.”
Battle said the site Volkswagen expressed interested in is where Mazada-Toyota would locate a few years later.
Battle said it is also necessary to also invest in certifying the sites getting the soil competition surveys and environmental studies. It is a lesson Jasper is putting into practice.
“They are setting aside 20- to 30-acre sites and certifying them,” Battle said. “They are ready for any Tier 2 or Tier 3 company to come to town.”
The main plant will have Tier 1 plants supplying it. They are required to be within 50-miles but that restriction does not apply to Tier 2 and Tier 3 suppliers who feed parts to the Tier 1 manufactuer.
Incentives are also key. Governments and officials give things like abating property taxes, helping bring utilities to the site and other industry specific needs.
“We usually end up giving them the land,” Battle said. “We will often abate taxes but you have to careful. You have to make sure the investment is recovered.”
Battle said one community or county can’t do it alone.
“It takes all of us to pull it together,” Battle said. “We all contribute something. Today it might be for a project in Huntsville. Tomorrow it might be for a project in Limestone County and next week it might be a project in Madison County.
The reason is the investment leads to the property taxes especially for education. When property taxes are abated, the property taxes for education are not. In the case of Huntsville, it amounts to 27 mils. As new industry takes advantage of the incentives, like the new 4,000-job Mazda-Toyota plant costs can still be recovered. It is thanks to a new constitutional amendment allowing education to collect taxes for what the property was worth prior to development and local governments to collect the increase until costs and loans are paid for usually 10 to 15 years after the industry comes to town.
For Huntsville, the bump in revenue times out good. 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.
So as the area grows, schools can grow with it.
Central Alabama Community College president Dr. Susan Burrow said the Lake Martin area understands it probably can’t land a Mazda-Toyota facility.
“If a company is looking for 100 to 200 employees, that is our sweet spot,” she said. “We can’t handle 4,000 employees.”
Battle understands that but said there are things that can be done to help recruit industry to Lake Martin.
“Lake Martin is a great asset,” Battle said. “It is a competitive edge you can use that no one else has.”
Broadband is another factor in recruiting business and industry. Battle said all of the companies now must have it, but it also brings others to the area. Battle said his area has individuals who work remotely from Huntsville.
“(Broadband) sets you up on a different level,” Battle said. “Fiber makes it work. There is a traffic engineer from San Francisco. He lives here and does CAD drawings of intersections. He sends them in and they send it back.”
Battle suggested with broadband and the lake, the area could recruit individuals. The same ingredients to attract a data center.
“It has fewer employees but with the capital investment you make it on the property taxes for education,” Battle said. “Those fewer employees tend to make more because of technology and might be attracted to the lake.”
Once a plan is in place and property is in hand, Battle said things are just getting started. While Huntsville doesn’t directly deal with industries except for ones already in the area and at trade shows, it does still actively recruit new industry.
“We stay in front of site selectors,” Battle said. “We invite them in but you have to have inventory to show them. You have to have something to show them.”
Battle said schools are another piece of the puzzle when site selectors and industry come to visit as executives want to see where their children would be going to school.
With the Alexander City Chamber of Commerce housing the Lake Martin Innovation Center and Auburn University nearby, Tallapoosa and Coosa counties could benefit from the spinoffs. Battle said the chamber of commerce is also critical in determining the future of any area as it has people who want to see success and will work to get things done.
“Your chamber is one of the most important things,” Battle said. “It will tell you where the community is wanting to head.”