Tuscaloosa County, in west-central Alabama, is on the move in a big way. It is home to The University of Alabama – the county’s largest employer and home of national champion Crimson Tide football, has a diverse economy with the ever-expanding Mercedes-Benz U.S. International at its hub, and plans are rapidly unfolding that will revitalize a wide swath of the city of Tuscaloosa destroyed by a tornado in 2011.
According to the latest Alabama Department of Commerce report, in 2012 Tuscaloosa County attracted three new companies with 699 new jobs and new investment of $1.1 billion. Six more companies expanded, investing $253.1 million and adding 639 jobs.
In addition to UA and Mercedes, other large employers include DCH Regional Medical Center, Jim Walter Resources and city/county boards of education. Many of the county’s top industrial employers are related to the auto manufacturing industry, but there are others that make a big impact, including electronics manufacturers, plastics, wood products, food products and chemicals.
Tuscaloosa has a lot of good news — record enrollment and construction projects at the University of Alabama and throughout the city, multi-million-dollar federal grants for infrastructure and recovery, and many other collaborative efforts to help the city move forward.
One of the best examples of partnerships between entities is The Edge, Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, hailed as one of the most exciting entrepreneurial centers in the region. Located downtown and open only since last October, it’s a one-stop shop for aspiring business owners and students who wish to start a business, an incubator that provides assistance, mentoring and other services. It also is the home of the Alabama Entrepreneurship Institute, an initiative of UA’s Culverhouse College of Commerce.
The Edge is a collaboration among the University of Alabama and its Culverhouse College of Commerce, the city of Tuscaloosa and the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama.
The center is home to 15 businesses, including seven minority owners and a total of 59 employees. Those companies have projected revenues of about $3.7 million for 2013.
“All of us discussed how to put the pieces of the puzzle together for economic development, and we thought it would be a great idea to have a facility where students and others could get advice, rent space, etc. – like an incubator within an incubator, ” says Jim Page, president and CEO of the chamber. “We are already running out of room.”
The Edge is currently housed in a rent-free building owned by Regions and is considering a move to the former armory on 10th Avenue in downtown Tuscaloosa, Page says. Details are still being worked out.
The proposed new site would be about 50, 000 square feet and include 50 office spaces, three training rooms, five meeting rooms, two conference rooms, two co-working spaces, a dry and wet research lab, a food court and eight full-time employees. The proposed expansion of The Edge at a new site would help add 240 jobs a year, officials estimate.
In the meantime, The Edge is very busy, says Ron Davis, executive director of the AEI. “We have four student-owned companies here and 11 community-based companies, ” he says. “We really consider this a business resource center, to help someone build a business plan, marketing strategy, etc. Since it began, there have been 303 student visits to The Edge. The partnership between the city, chamber and UA is outstanding teamwork.”
J. Michael Hardin, dean of the UA Culverhouse College of Commerce, says The Edge has far-reaching effects. “The mission of The University of Alabama is to advance the intellectual and social condition of the people of the state of Alabama and the surrounding region through quality programs of teaching, research and service. The Edge will help us do that. It will provide university students with unique learning opportunities that go beyond the classroom and underscore the important role entrepreneurship has in today’s economic environment.”
Lori Chandler Pruitt is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.
Text by Lori Chandler Pruitt