This story is featured in the April 2021 issue of Business Alabama magazine.
Etowah, St. Clair and Blount counties in central Alabama boast diverse manufacturing, educational opportunities, comprehensive health care facilities and robust quality of life. The counties benefit from interstate, rail and air access and from proximity to Birmingham.
It’s a region of great natural resources, with lakes, rivers and forests, plus picturesque downtowns, offering residents an enjoyable place to live and work while also attracting tourists.
“We truly know that quality of life is crucial to economic development, and we emphasize this in recruiting,” says David Hooks, executive director of the Gadsden-Etowah Industrial Development Authority.
All three counties have strong economic sectors in automotive, agriculture, food service, higher education, diverse manufacturing, health care and tourism. And workforce development is in progress to make sure there are qualified workers available.
COVID-19 presented challenges, says Jason Roberts, industry and workforce director for the St. Clair Economic Development Council. “We shifted our focus from recruitment to retention and from job training to job placement,” he says. Communities helped displaced workers find roles in fields such as food production, household goods and distribution, Roberts says.
Counties also are working to make sure there is plenty of space for economic development. Etowah County is marketing its 1,000-plus acre Little Canoe Creek Mega Site, adjacent to I-59, and working on a $2.7 million site prep via a partnership with Norfolk Southern through the Growing Alabama Credit program. The 70-acre, pad-ready, rail-served site, along with a new Alabama Power substation, will be a game-changer, says Marilyn Lott, county economic development director.
In St. Clair County, officials have prepared a 27-acre industrial site in the Cogswell Industrial Park and have demolished the former St. Clair County Hospital, freeing another 20 acres for commercial development, says Brian Muenger, city manager of Pell City.
“When you look back at last year and see the plans being made, even with COVID, it makes me feel better about prospects,” Muenger says. “No one sat on the sidelines. We are still getting calls that are in a holding pattern, but action based.”
St. Clair County saw 100 home construction permits in 2019, 152 in 2020 and expects more than 100 this year, Muenger says.
Blount County also has available buildings and land for development.
Oneonta is the county seat and is home to a growing satellite campus of Wallace State Community College. “Wallace State has added a second building to the campus, and enrollment is through the roof,” says Oneonta Mayor Richard Phillips. “We expect it to be a catalyst for more growth.”
The city also is closing on a $10 million bond issue to overhaul its parks system, Phillips says. “We compiled a detailed view of our amenities and wanted to see what we can do better,” Phillips says.