Recreation, culture, activities are important parts of attracting businesses

This article is the third in a series on economic development efforts in Gadsden and Etowah County.

At first glance, the number of parks in a city and economic development might seem like two unrelated things.

What does a business looking to locate in an area have to do with the amount of green space or available playgrounds in a city?

A lot, actually.

While incentives, operating costs, taxes, available locations and other business factors play a large role in an industry’s decision to move to an area, there’s also a more personal aspect.

Things like recreation, shopping, cultural amenities, housing, education, community organizations and more are parts of overall quality of life, which companies also consider when choosing to expand.

Quality of life is an important enough facet of development that it warrants a prominent spot on the Gadsden-Etowah Industrial Development Authority’s website — "Business in Gadsden" and "Living in Gadsden" are side by side.

"To me, quality of life is really important," said David Hooks, the IDA’s executive director.

Hooks said one of the changes he made after taking the job last year was to put more of an emphasis on those parts of the recruitment process.

"The community as a whole is what makes businesses come here," said Frankie Davis, head of governmental affairs and economic development for the mayor’s office.

Natural resources

In Gadsden’s earliest days, the Coosa River was one of the city’s biggest assets.

Between personal transportation and the shipping of goods, it was an essential part of the growth of a place nicknamed "The Queen City of the Coosa."

Now, city officials say there’s a shift between thinking of the river in an industrial sense and thinking of it in a recreational sense.

While steamboats no longer paddle along the waterway, it’s a focal point for the city that can provide both quality of life for residents and a base for economic activity.

In recent years, the city has invested in Coosa Landing with work at the boat launch and bait shop, an important part of hosting numerous fishing tournaments that have impacts on local retailers, restaurants and hotels.

The city also approved $12.5 million in 2017 for The Venue at Coosa Landing, an event space that serves as both a replacement for Convention Hall and the centerpiece of the development that now includes trails and a boardwalk.

"I’ve lived here all my life, and I used to always wonder, ‘Why don’t we develop the river?’" Mayor Sherman Guyton said during a City Council meeting last fall. "Most cities would love to have a river running through downtown."

The focus on the riverfront is in line with what has been done in other places around the country.

Part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s mission includes work on community development, and in 2016, the agency published a document for small and mid-size cities "struggling because their economies were built largely on a single economic sector that has changed significantly."

As part of those development plans, cities are urged to focus on their unique assets, whether those are academic institutions, infrastructure or natural resources.

For example, Traverse City, Michigan, has put an emphasis on waterfront development because of its location on Lake Michigan, while Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, focuses on both its history and its position where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet.

A glance from the riverfront also will make it clear that the Coosa River isn’t Gadsden’s only natural feature as Lookout Mountain rises from the northwest.

Noccalula Falls is the crown jewel of local attractions, but the city has worked to make the park about more than just the waterfall.

Davis said that after Guyton was first elected to office, work began on expanding the Black Creek Trail system and other areas at the park.

"Investing in Christmas at the Falls and putting that money back into improvements at the falls has paid for a lot," he said.

Hooks said that when people come to Gadsden to meet with the IDA, they are shown what the city has to offer.

"We also point out that you’ve got the river and fishing, but within 15 miles, you’ve got some world-class rock climbing," he said.

Culture and education

Beyond capitalizing on nature, there are a number of other things that could come into play as a business considers where to locate.

Davis said two of the largest things companies look at are the stability of the local government and the stability of the community.

He commended Kay Moore and Downtown Gadsden Inc. for work in maintaining and building a strong downtown business base of local merchants.

Davis also listed other things that help make the city a well-rounded one: The Mary G. Hardin Center for Cultural Arts, dance studios, the Gadsden Symphony Orchestra, art galleries, community theater groups and more.

"You don’t see investment in art galleries in a town this size," he said.

Even the quality of local schools is a factor when recruiting businesses.

Davis said he couldn’t emphasize enough how important a two-year or four-year college is, and he said Gadsden State’s programs are some of the best, while Jacksonville State University is within easy driving distance.

He pointed out that the city also has worked with the school system over the past decade on career tech programs that help develop an educated and trained workforce.

Public-private partnerships and the future

"Government can’t make a big business locate," Davis said. "You’ve got to put government where it can support businesses."

Business and community groups have become involved in building on the city’s improvements.

Though the Barbarian Challenge at Noccalula Falls Park is now run by the city, it was started by a private group.

Davis also said groups like the Gadsden Runners Club, the Northeast Alabama Bikers Association and others have spent time, money and effort improving the Black Creek Trail system.

The outdoors doesn’t have a monopoly on activities, though, and other things are key to the growth of a city.

"How do you keep people between 24 and 35 years old in your community?" asked Hooks.

The answer, he said, is night life.

"Every city faces that," said Hooks, who also said that places like Birmingham and Huntsville saw positive benefits from adding bars and restaurants.

Hooks said some places like Chattanooga and Asheville, North Carolina, have focused on portraying a "hip" image in an effort to draw new residents.

"What I think we need to continue to work on is our marketing," he said.

The future also depends on continuing to build on available local resources while adapting to a world and an economy changed by the coronavirus.

Hooks said that before COVID-19, he would have said Gadsden needed a major downtown hotel with event space and a four-year university.

Florence, Alabama, is home to both the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa and the University of North Alabama, but no location is perfect.

"Florence has both of those, but they don’t have an interstate," he said. "You can’t recruit an interstate, but you can recruit a hotel."

While the immediate economic impact of the coronavirus is apparent, Hooks said it also will affect future choices and require a reassessment of what’s needed in a post-COVID-19 world.

It could also change companies’ strategies for locating, given the increase in the number of people working from home, and open the door to new possibilities.

"Companies look for a lifestyle that management feels comfortable with," Davis said. "We had one company looking for an outdoor lifestyle without a big city. And now, a lot of work can be done remotely, especially with the younger generation."

But no matter what the future holds, Davis said improving quality of life remains a part of the plan for bringing new businesses to the area.

"You’ve got to remake yourself while keeping your strong points," he said. "It’s got to be another spoke in the wheel of the overall economic development plan."

Read the original article on the Gasden Times here.

Local officials react to Goodyear closing

Dustin Fox @GT_DustinFox / Apr 24, 2020 at 6:40 PM
Donna Thornton @GT_DThornton / Apr 24, 2020 at 6:40 PM

The official word Thursday from Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. that its Gadsden plant will be closing felt like the other shoe dropping, after last year’s layoffs and the buyouts months ago had dropped the workforce to 411 employees.

For those who remember the days when the steel plant and Goodyear operated at full strength, employing thousands, it may feel like losing the last leg of the local economy.

But city and county leaders say they are continuing their work to bring new industry and more jobs to the region, to keep the loss of Goodyear from bringing the area economy to its knees. “Our hearts go out to the families of the Goodyear workers who have lost their jobs due to the imminent closing of the Gadsden plant,” Gadsden Mayor Sherman Guyton said. He noted that city officials learned of the closure through reported corporate filings and the media’s confirmation. “To date, Goodyear has not notified the City of Gadsden of their permanent closure of Goodyear-Gadsden, but it is clear that Goodyear has taken advantage of a global crisis to send production outside the United States,” Guyton said. Over the last year in conjunction with state leadership, the City of Gadsden has reached out to Goodyear about preserving jobs in Gadsden, the mayor said in a press release. Goodyear would not respond to these efforts to bring them to the table, he said. “Goodyear’s business decision to move the production of these tires to other locations and foreign countries is disappointing. The city, state and community have invested and partnered with Goodyear for decades,” Guyton said. He said the city’s leadership remains committed to bringing good-paying jobs to the community and “doing everything we can” for the workers laid off from Goodyear.

The Etowah County Commission echoed that commitment in a statement. “Even today as we receive reports of Goodyear’s decision, Etowah County, along with the State of Alabama and the Gadsden-Etowah Industrial Development Authority, is working with industrial prospects to bring new jobs to the area,” the statement said. County officials said Etowah County has been fortunate to have a plant like Goodyear as part of the community for more than 90 years, allowing generations of men and women to successfully raise families here because they were able to find good jobs at the Gadsden plant. “While we are thankful for that opportunity, we must now turn our attention to those people who have been negatively impacted by this long-anticipated closure,” the statement said, adding that county officials are praying for the employees and their families, specifically that they find work locally and are able to help the county and its municipalities as they transition through this difficult time. “We know that Goodyear people are highly skilled, have a strong work ethic and have always been dedicated employees, which will be vitally important as we work to further diversify the local economy,” they said. Marilyn Lott, economic development director for Etowah County, reiterated that the county is continuing to recruit industry to the area, specifically to the Little Canoe Creek Mega-Site within the county. “We’re continuing ongoing efforts to recruit industries to the Mega-Site and to make that site as competitive as possible, so that we can recruit high-quality, high-paying jobs to Etowah County,” she said.

She said she feels for the families who have lost jobs, noting that indications show a lot of manufacturing jobs will probably relocate from overseas because of the current disruption of the supply chain. “We must be vigilant in our efforts to recruit a variety of businesses, ranging from small companies to major industries, so that our economy will be stronger and more resilient than ever,” the commission’s statement read. A union source told The Times meetings with Goodyear employees will begin Monday. The plant closure was first reported in Rubber and Plastics News, after a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and confirmed by a Goodyear spokesperson. News of the closings had been circulating in the community for almost a week, without confirmation from the corporation. “We are disheartened at the news of the closure of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in Gadsden,” Heather New, president and CEO of The Chamber of Gadsden & Etowah County, said. “It has been a sustaining force in our community for the past 90 years. We appreciate their rich history and longevity and the impact they’ve had on our economy,” New said in a statement. “The employees and their families are among our greatest assets, ” she said. “We salute their years of service to the company and especially their generosity to our community.

“Our commitment to workforce development is unwavering, and we pledge our utmost support in new recruitment efforts as well,” New said. “Though we have many challenges ahead of us, amplified by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are proven to be a resilient community,” she said. According to the SEC filing, the company reached a tentative barganing agreement April 17, and subsequently approved a plan to permanently close the Gadsden plant, “as part of the Company’s strategy to strengthen the competitiveness of its manufacturing footprint by curtailing production of tires for declining, less profitable segments of the tire market.” The tentative bargaining agreement is subject to approval by the membership of the local union.

Click here to view the original Gadsden Times article.

Etowah County to let bids for megasite improvements

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Dustin Fox @GT_DustinFox / Apr 22, 2020 at 1:51 PM

The Etowah County Commission will soon begin accepting bids for a mass grading project at the Little Canoe Creek Megasite after passing a resolution during a virtual meeting held on Tuesday.

The bid would allow for a portion of the more than 1,000 acres to be cleared and made pad-ready as the county continues to seek industries to occupy the location.

That aligns with a $2.7 million site-improvement project announced in January that was funded through the state’s Growing Alabama Credit program and a donation from the Norfolk Southern Corporation.

That project includes grading part of the project to create a pad-ready rail-served site and adding a new railroad crossing to the industrial access road off U.S. Highway 11, as well as other improvements.

The bid will be let following the completion of plans created by engineering firm Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood.

“GMC is 100% complete with their plans and they are ready whenever the county approves to go out for bids,” said Marilyn Lott, economic development director for Etowah County.

While they are planning to remove trees and grade 60 acres of land, they will accept bids for a backup 50-acre plan. Lott said the bid would include both so that it would not need to be rebid if the 60-acre plan proved too expensive.

Chief Administrative Officer Shane Ellison said the county has consulted with GMC to see if contractors were still bidding during the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, and said the engineering firm recommended pushing back the bids to mid-May. Ellison said he expects it to be later in May before the bids actually go out.

Commissioner Tim Ramsey asked what the timeline for the project would be, and Lott said it should take about six months — meaning that if work began in June, it could be finished by December unless there were delays because of the coronavirus or weather.

Click here to view the original Gadsden Times article.