Lee and Russell counties are in east-central Alabama along the Alabama-Georgia border — a very felicitous location for both vacation travelers and economic developers. The metro area is one of the fastest growing in the state and nationwide, attracting people seeking high-tech and manufacturing jobs, college students, retirees and others.
Lee County is home to Auburn University, by far the county’s largest employer and a major economic, research and tourism draw. The Auburn/Opelika area has been cited as one of the best small cities for jobs in Forbes magazine.
Just to the south, Russell County is home to the longest urban whitewater rafting course in the nation. The whitewater course has already drawn far more visitors than expected. That, in turn, has boosted more growth, as Phenix City has reinvigorated its downtown with a new hotel and conference center and added features to attract visitors, including a pedestrian bridge over the Chattahoochee River.
Economies of both Lee and Russell counties have brightened with suppliers who are locating, expanding and serving nearby automotive manufacturing companies, as well as retail, distribution, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and other types of industry. The area is also close to Fort Benning, Georgia.
Lee County was ranked No. 1 in the state for new capital investment in 2014 with $482 million. One of the largest announcements was Baxter International’s decision to invest $300 million and add 200 jobs in Opelika.
The entrepreneurial spirit is strong here, with several incubators and support systems for young companies. Auburn Research Park, operating close to capacity, is planning for one new building now and three more in the future. The park includes a business incubator, and the first class of students at the new Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine began their studies this fall.
The city of Opelika has The Round House, a high-tech business incubator and a public-private partnership that benefits from the city’s high-speed Internet service.
“It’s truly an exciting time for us, ” says Lori Huguley, director of Opelika Economic Development. “We’re hopeful to continue the diversity of manufacturing we have here, and we intend to build on our fiber optic network in attracting jobs.”
Auburn University is working on expansions to its health sciences program and Southern Union State Community College is about to open its Center for Advanced Manufacturing.
In Russell County, Troy University just opened a new campus on the riverfront of Phenix City while neighboring Chattahoochee Valley Community College offers an array of career technical education at its workforce training center.
K-12 education is also active in workforce development. Lee County just opened a center for high school students who desire to enter the workforce as well as nontraditional students — working to prevent dropouts and expose students to career opportunities. The center offers a flexible schedule for students who work.
Auburn city schools are also offering a renewed emphasis on career technical education, with programs designed to lead straight to the workforce or to enhance success in college. Programs focus on manufacturing, agriculture, health sciences, engineering and finance. A new Auburn High School is under construction.
Opelika schools are looking to partner with Opelika Power Services to give students opportunities with fiber optic networks, and students have dual enrollment options with Southern Union.
The city of Auburn has its own workforce development division, which administers a nonprofit called the Auburn Training Connection, tailoring workforce training to the needs of local industry.
Phenix City schools recently implemented new programs in science, technology, engineering and math.
Lori Chandler Pruitt is a Birmingham-based freelancer for Business Alabama.
Text by Lori Chandler Pruitt