ABOVE The Conecuh River is 230 miles long and flows through nine Alabama counties.
Photo courtesy of Alabama Tourism Department/Curt Burdick
The Coastal Gateway region in southwest Alabama is made up of five counties centered between Montgomery and Mobile. They are full of excellent natural resources for both recreation and industry.
Wood and wood products comprise the largest manufacturing industry in the region. These southwest Alabama counties — Choctaw, Clarke, Conecuh, Escambia and Monroe — are known as the wood basket, with the vast majority of land in timberland.
“Wood products and all its existing diverse industries here is a sector we will always pursue, ” says Will Ruzic, executive director of the Coastal Gateway Regional Economic Development Alliance. “We have excellent infrastructure for this sector.”
Many of the largest companies in the wood/paper products sector have expanded, signaling a commitment to the region and its resources.
The largest single employer overall is Wind Creek Hospitality, employing more than 2, 000 people in several enterprises in Escambia County headlined by Wind Creek Casino and Hotel. Creek Indian Enterprises Development Authority is also involved in aerospace and other industries. Another boost in aerospace has come from Brown Precision Inc. of Huntsville, which is locating in Escambia County. The county is located within an hour of the Port of Mobile and the Airbus campus.
Also included among the region’s largest economic sectors are metals and automotive, tourism, agriculture, health care, oil and technology. Speaking of technology, Provalus, which provides IT development, software engineering, third-party IT services and more will locate in Brewton in Escambia County and will employ 300. Several of the region’s industrial parks are now fiber-ready.
“Along with our current workforce development efforts, we are seeking those high-tech jobs, ” Ruzic says. “Provalus gives us an opportunity to expand this sector in the area.” Broadband is a priority in the cities, too, Ruzic says.
Economic developers in the region work together. “Interestingly enough, our strong economy has led to another welcome development throughout Clarke County, ” says Jesse Quillen, executive director of Clarke County Economic Development. “The exit of the textile industry from our region a few years ago left us with several hundred thousand square feet of vacant and unused buildings. I am pleased to report that over the last couple years we have been successful in repurposing this space and, fortunately, have been able to occupy well over 300, 000 square feet of space with small business and local entrepreneurs.
“We have leased space for manufacturing, warehousing, distribution as well as research and development support for our larger industries, ” he says.
In higher education, Faulkner State, Alabama Southern and Jefferson Davis community colleges consolidated into Coastal Alabama Community College, with campuses in Bay Minette, Fairhope and Gulf Shores in Baldwin County, Atmore and Brewton in Escambia County, Monroeville in Monroe County, Jackson and Thomasville in Clarke County and Gilbertown in Choctaw County. Reid State Technical College in Evergreen in Conecuh County, has undergone a significant restructuring and continues to provide technical training across many fields.
Ruzic says the area is truly a regional effort to leverage the resources it has and form partnerships to make things happen. The agency just received a regional development plan that will help tie in all of the metro areas and make sure that the right sectors are pursued for the region.
“The good news is that most all of our areas have had tremendous success in the last two years, ” Ruzic says.
Lori Chandler Pruitt is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.
Text by Lori Chandler Pruitt