Jefferson County in central Alabama is the state’s most populous county, including the largest city in the state, Birmingham, and the sixth-largest city, Hoover. It is Alabama’s largest urban center, yet earns accolades for quality of life in several areas, from affordability to health care to education.
More than $1 billion in new capital investment was announced in 2015, including major expansions of existing companies, new companies and at least four new downtown hotels. Birmingham has invested heavily in downtown, with more than 1, 300 loft and condo units planned or under construction; Regions Field, home of the Birmingham Barons; Railroad Park, named by USA Today as “Ten Parks that Revived their Cities;” the Uptown entertainment district and more.
University of Alabama at Birmingham, the engine that powers the economy, is the county’s largest overall employer, with 23, 000 workers, followed by Regions Financial, with 7, 134 employees. Hospitals and utilities help round out the list. In manufacturing, Buffalo Rock, an independent Pepsi bottler, is the largest, with 2, 200 employees, followed by American Cast Iron Pipe Co. with 1, 600 employees, followed by more iron and steel producers and automotive suppliers.
The historical industrial center of the state, Jefferson County today thrives on a diverse economy powered by strengths in biotechnology, information technology, finance and insurance, health care, higher education and retail.
“We have so much going for us, and we just need to keep working together and keeping jobs here, ” says Jefferson County Commissioner David Carrington, who is in charge of economic and community development for the county. “Some of the industrial announcements we have had, along with the technology we are attracting, are helping provide excellent-paying jobs.”
Through city, county and private partnerships, the region is expanding its fiber optic network; revamping the Entrepreneurial District near UAB into the Innovation District, and working together on new industry announcements. “We have a regional focus, and technology is the key to all of it, ” says Birmingham Mayor William Bell. “We want to be at the forefront of it.”
The Innovation Depot, a high-tech incubator at the heart of the Innovation District, came off a record-setting 2015 and has had an economic impact on the state of nearly $1.4 billion in the past five years. Innovation Depot assists startup companies with business plans, accessing capital and low-cost office space. In 2015, there were 104 tenant companies, generating 809 jobs. “Renaming the district will be a catalyst for growth, ” says Devon Laney, CEO of Innovation Depot. “We not only want our incubator companies to succeed here but also decide to locate their companies in the district once they graduate.”
Reflecting on successes in 2015, the Birmingham Business Alliance announced that the economic development activity in its seven-county region resulted in 3, 509 new and future jobs, with nearly $1.1 billion in capital investment. Of that, 2, 464 jobs were in Jefferson County, and of the $1.1 billion invested, $900 million was in Jefferson County, says Brian Hilson, president and CEO of the Birmingham Business Alliance.
“Our industry growth in the county is situated in these primary areas: the Highway 79 corridor, with a wide variety of warehouse, distribution, metals, steel fabrication, food production; the Oxmoor Valley, with Oxford Pharmaceuticals and Evonik; McCalla, where distribution and automotive suppliers are healthy and growing, and areas near downtown, where quite a few companies are looking.”
A significant announcement in 2015 was auto supplier Kamtek’s $535 million expansion at its Birmingham manufacturing facility, which included a new, $80 million aluminum casting plant for lightweight parts. The project means 354 new jobs. Several expansions also boosted the economy: health insurer VIVA Health added 400 jobs; financial services company Wells Fargo added 300 jobs, and a new Publix Super Markets distribution center will create 200 jobs.
Growth at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport continues. In 2015, the airport posted its first annual increase in traffic since 2010.
Jefferson County has cultural attractions and events for all ages, making tourism a key economic driver. An entertainment district and a growing downtown residential presence have attracted additional retail and housing.
Lori Chandler Pruitt is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.
Text by Lori Chandler Pruitt