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.
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."