The Anniston City Council is considering hiring a full-time economic development consultant to help revitalize the city by bringing in retail and commercial business, creating jobs and tax revenue in the process. Leaders from other similarly sized Alabama cities with their own in-house economic developers say such personnel have been a boon for their municipalities – crediting them with luring millions of dollars in investment and creating hundreds of jobs to their regions in recent years.
During its last October meeting, the council gave City Manager Brian Johnson permission to search for an economic development consultant. Mayor Vaughn Stewart said the plan is to use a consulting firm on a temporary basis before having a full-time, in-house consultant by May. Stewart said as far as he knows, Anniston has never had a full-time economic developer.
Johnson said the council does not yet have a salary range for the economic developer.
"I'm having a compensation study being made to determine a salary range," Johnson said.
Stewart said he and the council hope to have an in-house economic development program that mirrors those used in other cities such as Auburn and Opelika – two areas that have prospered from retail and industrial development in recent years.
"The model we want to use is one that has served Auburn and Opelika well," Stewart said. "All that started with them being aggressive in economic development."
Stewart said the idea is for the economic consultant to focus on retail and commercial development that fits with Anniston and its resources. For example, with Regional Medical Center and Stringfellow Memorial Hospital, Anniston is a hub of medical care for much of the four-county area, and could be used to lure in medical technology-based industries, Stewart said.
"It's being proactive and building upon your strength," Stewart said.
Lori Huguley, director of Opelika's economic development department, said her department has had much success in recent years.
"We do retail, commercial and industrial recruitment and retention," Huguley said.
Huguley said that through the years, the department has helped build up the city's industrial park with tier-one automobile suppliers for Honda and Kia, and it has also helped lure medical device manufacturers to the area. Huguley said the department also was instrumental in the creation of Tiger Town, a retail outlet similar to the Oxford Exchange.
Huguley noted that Opelika's economic development model might not match up perfectly with Anniston’s and would likely need some adjustment. For instance, unlike Calhoun County, which has the Calhoun County Economic Development Council, Lee County does not have an organization that focuses solely on industrial development, Huguley said. Therefore, the cities in Lee County must pick up the slack, Huguley said.
"It's really individual in how it works and how it best works," Huguley said of economic development.
Stewart said the council does not want to replace the Calhoun County EDC, but instead wants its economic development consultant to act as a partner to the organization.
Steve Sewell, executive vice president for the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, which works to attract and maintain industry in the state, said similar partnerships have worked well in other state cities.
"That's where it seems to work best is to have that delineation – where one organization focuses on attracting wealth and industry and retention and the municipality focuses on retail and commercial development," Sewell said. "The city supplements traditional economic development."
Don Hopper, executive director of the Calhoun County Economic Development Council, said he was excited about the prospect of having more help with economic development in the area.
"From what I understand, they are not going to be duplicative – they're going to be working in tangent with us, working more on retail and commercial development," Hopper said. "The more ways you can find to create jobs, that makes it better for all of us and I'm looking forward to working with the city."
Cullman Mayor Max Townson said his city has benefitted greatly from its economic development department over the years and recently hired a person to focus just on retail development to continue that growth. Townson said Cullman's economic development department is credited with having an approximately $1 billion economic impact on the area in the last 10 years. In January, the department's efforts helped lead to a $115 million expansion of REHAU, a Mercedes-Benz supplier in Cullman, Townson said. Once complete, the expansion will create 200 jobs for Cullman.
Townson said part of Cullman's economic success has been due to its location, which is by Interstate 65, just a two-hour drive from Nashville and one-hour drive from Huntsville. However, the city would not have been nearly as prosperous without a focused, economic development department, Townson said.
"We believe in that strongly," he said. "You need an economic development department just like you need a water and street department."
Stewart said he is aware Anniston might not reach the success of Cullman or other Alabama cities with economic developers, but he believes the city must make the effort.
"It's a good model – am I 100 percent sure it's going to work," Stewart asked. "I don't know, but we're going to try."
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.