As a result of consistently poor outcomes, Alabama has a perception that brings to mind desolate thoughts: poverty, low social mobility, rickety infrastructure. It is true we have a long, long way to go.
This observation is neither original nor profound.
Just a few months ago, I began a column with a certain quote: “Thank god for Mississippi.”
I made a call to action to address ‘brain drain’ in Alabama and to retain our young talent.
I wrote that column prior to completing an internship in economic development this past summer.
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I started my first day with no more knowledge than the simple definition: “recruiting jobs and recruiting and maintaining wealth.” What exactly ‘economic development’ means may seem obvious on the surface. In practice, there is unsurprising nuance, not to mention an abundance of acronyms.
I worked with the Birmingham-based, statewide nonprofit, Economic Development Partnership of Alabama (EDPA), while the other three interns worked with the Department of Commerce, PowerSouth and Alabama Power.
This structure led to a deeper understanding of our respective organizations but also of the overall environment in Alabama, including the numerous players and each of their separate and concurrent roles. I left that internship after nine weeks entirely enlightened and empowered by how well Alabama works with economic development.
Alabama’s economic development environment is composed of public, private, nonprofit and even hybridized entities that engage in what I have learned to call ‘co-opetition.’
Private entities invest in nonprofits in exchange for specialized and enhanced services. Regional alliances made up of local development offices form and work together across the state — ranging from three members to 13. The Department of Commerce — our official, governmental face — helps spearhead ad campaigns and cooperation among these numerous entities.
Even with all of our current setbacks, let’s take a look at where we are now.
We are home to world class infrastructure (which is critical for the movement of commerce).
Alabama has six interstate highways, 92 airports, 3,700 miles of rail line, 1,300 miles of commercially navigable waterways and home to the port of Mobile - one of the the most heavily trafficked international seaports in the world.
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Chemicals are Alabama’s second largest export bringing in $2.2 bil in 2016. 25 companies make up the Gulf Coast Chemical Corridor that stretches 60 miles in Mobile. In addition, 200 other chemical companies have popped up as a result across the state.
Alabama has an unrivaled government, defense, and aerospace presence. Redstone Arsenal, a massive army defense and research compound located on a 9x11 mile plot of land; Lockheed Martin producing hellfire missiles; a flight simulation school utilized by American and foreign governments; and United Launch Alliance producing the very rockets that enter outer space. Major companies such as Boeing, Airbus, Austal, and recently announced Blue Origin represent a global aerospace presence.
The most well-known cohort of Alabama’s economy is our automotive industry. Toyota manufactures motors. Honda and Mercedes assemble several models of cars from start to finish in Alabama, and Hyundai calls Alabama home to their only North American headquarters.
If we can accomplish all of this while still facing so many difficulties, just imagine what can happen with genuine, collective effort.
While all of these notable companies are crucial to Alabama, It is important to note that each county and community’s approach will not look the same. Not every community desires or is the right fit for multinational manufacturer. For some communities, economic development may involve an incubator-like entity such as Innovation Depot that helps provide initial resources to organically grown ideas. It may include participation in the national MainStreet program, working to spruce up a downtown area with vibrant shops. It could mean participation in EDPA’s Launchpad Program. Or, like in the case of Thomasville, AL, it may mean a brand new library with internet access for its citizens.
The purpose of this column is not to inundate the reader with acronyms and useless information. Alabama has an abundance of tools and players in its economic development toolbox that are not fully understood by those outside of (and those who inevitably interact with) the field. The power and diversity of Alabama’s toolkit cannot be fully harnessed until it is understood, or even known about. The economy affects each and every single one of us. By combining an array of individuals from several disciplines, Alabama has the potential to coordinate government officials, construction companies, land developers, engineers, city planners, bankers, utility workers, researchers and virtually citizens from each and every background.
There are limitless roles to play in improving Alabama, whether it is training through AIDT to assemble at a world-class manufacturing plant or assisting that same plant with your engineering or human resources degree. I implore students to embrace the land-grant philosophy of Auburn and give back to the state and communities that have helped shape you (not to mention a wonderful cost of living and amazing food).
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