Houston County, in the southeast corner of the state, is in the heart of the Wiregrass region. It is only a few miles from Florida and Georgia, and is a major retail and medical hub that serves hundreds of thousands of people within a 100-mile radius. It has a very diverse manufacturing base and a strong agricultural sector.
Houston County is the peanut capital of the U.S. and also produces a large percentage of cotton, corn and other crops. It also is a major chicken producer. But not far away from the fields are Commercial Jet and other companies that have propelled the county into the aviation and aerospace technology sector.
Houston County’s largest overall employer is Southeast Alabama Medical Center, followed by Dothan City and Houston County schools, Flowers Hospital and the city of Dothan. Southern Nuclear Power Plant in Farley is the fifth largest employer.
The largest manufacturing employer is Michelin North America, followed by Georgia-Pacific. Wayne Farms, a poultry producer, will eventually add about 500 more workers, which will place it higher in the list. In between are distribution and transportation companies and a wide variety of other industries.
To continue recruitment and strong economic growth, the chamber has launched Grow Dothan, a three-year campaign to raise funds for economic development for the area.
Many of the things that the county has been able to accomplish have been done through a strong spirit of cooperation, not only among counties and cities in Alabama but even across state lines. For example, last October the Florida-Alabama Mega Team, formed by Houston and 11 other counties in northwest Florida and southeast Alabama, formally announced efforts to lure a large manufacturer to a 2, 240-acre industrial site in Campbellton, Florida.
“Our intent is to work together to lure a big fish, ” says Matt Parker, president of the Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce and the county’s top economic developer. “It’s a neat partnership. Jackson County, Florida is near us and it’s in the center of our tristate area. We know that this regional cooperation will help everyone around us.”
Partnerships are important in workforce development, as K-12 school systems work with colleges to provide students with more opportunities in career technical fields and dual enrollment, and in other projects around the county, from parks to new housing developments.
Adding to a very strong higher education and medical sector is the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine, affiliated with the Southeast Alabama Medical Center and the Houston County Health Care Authority. Opened in 2013, the first class is beginning clinical rotations and will graduate in 2017. ACOM has almost finished interviewing for the third class and is planning a research center. Again, partnerships with Troy University and other schools have helped ACOM students have dual degrees in public health and other areas.
“Our affiliation with SAMC is better than a good fit, ” says Dr. Craig Lenz, dean of ACOM. “It’s a top quality medical center, and the authority put up the financial risk for me to set everything up. We are an academic division of SAMC.” The school is expected to have an economic impact of $169 million by 2020, and 2, 000 direct jobs by 2030, he says.
Dothan is a progressive city that offers a lot of amenities to its residents, from parks to downtown festivals. Downtown also is increasingly becoming a destination for new companies and businesses, including a 3D printing company that plans to locate there.
Dothan also boasts facilities that attract sports tourism. The city is hosting the Alabama State Games for the next three years, also the result of partnerships among governments, as events will be held throughout the area, says Mark Culver, Houston County Commission chairman. About 5, 000 athletes participate in the games.
“We reach out to each other and become a team because it takes all of us to do these things, ” Parker says. “We all get it — and it is paying off.”
Lori Chandler Pruitt is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.
text by lori chandler pruitt