For nearly two decades, Alabama has been remarkably successful in attracting new manufacturing industry to the state. But the Great Recession has changed the game, and Alabama's new governor, Robert Bentley, says he intends to remodel the state’s economic development strategy to meet the new world economy.
Bentley calls for closer cooperation between the state’s Alabama Development Office and the private Economic Development Partnership of Alabama; for efforts to reduce duplication among the many statewide and local agencies involved in economic recruitment; for enlisting the colleges and universities in the recruitment, and for more serious attention to home-grown businesses.
While making an effort to put his own stamp on economy building, Bentley is quick to acknowledge the work of his predecessor, whom he says he’ll especially emulate in one respect—personal leadership in industry courtship.
“I want to continue what Bob Riley started, ” says Bentley, in an interview in his state capitol office. “I want to be an economic development governor. We have to put people back to work.
“I will go anywhere and talk to anyone about creating a job, ” Bentley says. “Whether it’s 10 jobs or a 100 jobs or a 1, 000 jobs. They all add up.
“No one can recruit like the governor, ” Bentley says. Foreign dignitaries especially regard personal touches—such as an invitation to dinner at the governor’s mansion—as appropriate protocol, he says.
Bentley’s re-branding of the state’s recruitment initiative centers on “streamlining.” Over the past two years, he says, he came to believe that “we have a lot of silos of economic development all over the state. Every county, every city, every company–everyone has an economic development team, ” he says, and that’s confusing even to Alabamians, let alone outsiders considering a business venture here.
“It’s amazing we were able to accomplish what we were, ” he says, considering the duplication of efforts.
One of his first steps as governor was to bring the various agencies into a clear working relationship, which started with “putting good people in place, ” Bentley says. Bill Taylor, who came to Alabama to lead Mercedes-Benz’ efforts here, had been directing EDPA for more than a year, but Neal Wade left ADO before Bentley’s inauguration. Bentley chose Seth Hammett, long-time speaker of the state House of Representatives, to take over leadership of ADO.
“Seth Hammett knows more about economic development than just about anyone in the state, ” says Bentley, who crossed party lines to choose Hammett.
Since January, Taylor and Hammett say they have been working to create a more efficient coordination of economic development resources. Using private funds, they’ve hired the Arkansas firm Boyette Strategies to help develop a plan for recruiting, retention and expansion, Hammett says. Boyette, which has worked previously with Alabama Power, Tennessee Valley Authority and PowerSouth, will be meeting with representatives from many of the diverse economic development agencies. The goal is to have a plan in place some time this month.
“We’re looking at roles and responsibilities, where we may find redundancies, ” Taylor says. “We’re talking ‘people, ’ quite frankly. What are people doing? Not everyone can be the quarterback. It’s hard to play football if you don’t have defined roles and responsibilities. But if the quarterback drops the ball, everyone has a responsibility to pick it up.”
“We’ve had a lot of success in the recent past, ” Hammett says, “but we’ve had budget cuts and anticipate more, so we’ll have to rely more on the private sector than perhaps we have in the past.”
There is no plan to merge the agencies, Hammett says, though such a plan was rumored early in the year. “We’re working to realign, not to merge, ” he says.
About Taylor, Hammett says: “He’s known across the country and around the world for the great work he did with Toyota, Ford and later Mercedes. He comes with instant credibility.”
The state has done well in recent years, Taylor says, “but businesses have reset during the recession; they needed to or they wouldn’t have gotten through. I think that’s a good example. We need to look at that, too. What do we need to do better? Where are our priorities?”
While ADO had led recruiting, Taylor says, it’s time to look at who else should be involved. Likewise, he says, Alabama Industrial Development Training has been a key factor in retention through its job training programs, but new industry may demand a larger role from four-year institutions.
We need to continue to improve cornerstone industry like aerospace and automotive, but we need to leverage that success to move into other fields, too, Taylor says, repeating a theme the former auto executive has been making since taking over at EDPA in 2009.
Bentley’s emphasis on new efficiencies, he concedes, is a necessary result of dwindling funds.
“We want to wisely use the amount of money we still have available for economic incentives, ” Bentley says.
And, of course, it never hurts politically to call for rubbishing red tape.
“We tend, in government, to pass laws and then agencies promulgate those rules and regulations that really put the pressure on companies. I’ve instructed all our agencies to look to see how they can help in the job creation process.”
Bentley says he has been busy meeting with companies from all around the world since taking office. There’s a great prospect for the Wiregrass, he says, and he expects continued announcements of new biofuel and ethanol plants that take advantage of the natural resources available in the Black Belt. And he’s working to attract the National Solar Observatory directorate to Huntsville. Even before he was inaugurated, Bentley signed an agreement guaranteeing that Alabama would help with infrastructure and buildings, if the University of Alabama in Huntsville were selected.
Bentley says believes he has an advantage, especially in working with the Huntsville business climate full of engineers and PhDs, because of his scientific background as a physician, enabling him to communicate scientist to scientist.
Bentley also hopes that his team’s economic development will succeed in diversifying the state’s economy—going beyond the manufacturing jobs that have captured business headlines for nearly 20 years.
“We will welcome any new job into Alabama, ” Bentley says, “but if I can, I would like to recruit industries that are not as sensitive to the ups and downs of the economy as the automobile industry.”
Aerospace, medicine, biotechnology and drug research and development are good prospects, he says. “These types of things are not so sensitive to ups or downs of the economy.”
As he travels the state, Bentley says, he hopes to visit existing businesses, thanking them for being in Alabama and asking how the government can help them get better. “Because that’s where we’re going to create most of the jobs. It’s glamorous to go to China and get a company to come, or Japan or Germany. That’s very glamorous and we get on magazines for that. We don’t get on a magazine when we go out to a company and ask how can we help them create two or three more jobs.”
Bentley says he’s pleased that the state’s unemployment rate, 9.1 percent as of December, is the third lowest among the 10 Southeastern states but hopes for full employment, which he defines as about 5.2 percent unemployment.
Although he expects to be presenting plenty of bad news about the “dire straits” we’re in economically, he hopes to offset that with good news about job creation. “I’m a governor of hope, ” he says.
Nedra Bloom is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. She lives in Mobile.
By Nedra Bloom