Economic development forum in Oxford focuses on regional cooperation
by Eddie Burkhalter
eburkhalter@annistonstar.com
Jan 23, 2014 | 3641 views |  0 comments | 54 54 recommendations | email to a friend | print
OXFORD — Seated at tables inside the Oxford Civic Center Thursday with local officials and business owners were executives from several of the largest companies in Alabama.

The purpose of the gathering, a forum organized by Alabama Power with help from Calhoun County’s Economic Development Council and Chamber of Commerce, was to discuss economic development and job creation through regional collaboration.

More than half of the 120 or so who attended came from outside Calhoun County, which spoke to the name of the forum: Connecting our Communities.

“When we work together, collaboration efforts pay off,” said Larry Deason, the Economic Development Council’s chairman and president of Farmers and Merchants Bank.

Deason pointed to the opening of the Honda plant in Lincoln, Oxford’s Kronospan plant and, more recently, the regional partnership to develop McClellan as examples of collaborative efforts that can create jobs.

Projects like those took regional cooperation and can have regional effects, said Greg Barker, senior vice president of marketing and economic development at Alabama Power.

“And don’t just think about mega-projects,” Barker said. “Every project is important, especially in today’s time, regardless of the amount of jobs or capital investment. This is still a risky economic environment that we’re facing.”

Charlie Waldrep, an attorney at Waldrep, Stewart and Kendrick, was involved with the deal that brought Mercedes-Benz to Alabama, and spoke to attendees Thursday about some little-known details of the project.

Waldrep said Alabama had submitted no proposal to the German auto manufacturer when the company sent out letters in 1993 to each of the 48 contiguous states. A letter from Mercedes-Benz asking about the possibility of opening a plant in Alabama sat unopened in a state office, he said, until the then newly-appointed head of the Alabama Development Office, Billy Joe Camp, opened it and began working to recruit the company.

“We knew it was a Hail Mary to get back into the game,” Waldrep said.

Ultimately Alabama did get the auto plant, but it came only after a combined effort of several municipalities, business leaders and elected officials working together, Waldrep said. Today, Mercedes-Benz pumps $1.5 billion into the state’s economy each year, he said.

But it didn’t come free of cost, Waldrep explained, with the state offering to train workers at no cost to the company, and a deal that took 5 percent of the workers’ pay and gave it to the company. The workers received a state tax credit to make up the difference in their pay, he said.

Mike Oatridge, vice president of manufacturing for Honda Manufacturing of Alabama, spoke about the importance of having the support of local communities.

As the Honda plant in Lincoln grew production, the need for more resources grew as well, Oatridge explained, and Anniston stepped up in 2011 to sell much-needed water to be used in the manufacturing process. Alabama Power supplied additional electricity as well, Oatridge said, and the outcome is that Honda vehicles made there are now shipped worldwide.

“We’ve always been able to rely on local and state communities … and as we expand further into the world we have that assurance that everyone here will always support Honda,” Oatridge said.

William Fielding, dean of Jacksonville State University’s College of Commerce and Business Administration, said during a break at the forum that north Alabama has all the ingredients needed to attract industry.

Speaking of the forum, Ken Grissom, government procurement specialist at the Small Business Development Center at JSU, said it was an opportunity to better understand the importance of regional participation in economic growth.

Grissom also pointed to the partnership of local municipalities and organizations working to develop McClellan as a good example of how working together can have good outcomes.

“It’s an asset,” Grissom said, adding he believes every community in the area ultimately will benefit from the effort.

The theme of regional collaboration continued during the chamber’s luncheon, also held at the Civic Center.

Serving as keynote speaker was Jo Bonner, former U.S. representative for a south Alabama district and vice chancellor for government relations and economic development for the University of Alabama.

Bonner reminded the chamber members that though Alabama is now known as a destination for auto manufacturers, that was not the case decades ago, when state officials worked to attract a Saturn plant to a site near Vance.

Despite that setback, he said, Alabama is now in a better place because leaders back then “made the unpopular decision of working together.”

After Bonner’s speech, Julia Segars, the outgoing chairwoman of the chamber, gave a review of all that the organization accomplished in 2013. She said that at the beginning of the year, area leaders had the idea of combining the efforts of chambers of commerce in the eight counties of northeastern Alabama. She said that the new collaboration has focused on workforce development as well as shop-local events and marketing and tourism campaigns.

Segars said Calhoun County’s chamber has grown to more than 1,000 members, a 30 percent increase in the last three years.

“Success through collaboration is a brilliant idea,” she said.

During Thursday’s lunch, Segars handed over her gavel to Jason Alderman, BB&T Bank market president for east central Alabama, based in Anniston.

“It has absolutely been my joy and privilege to have this job, and I’m leaving it in great hands,” she said.

Alderman said chamber members and local leaders worked hard in 2013 and this year the chamber will focus on making the most efficient use of that hard work.

In other business:

— Segars, who also serves as vice president for Alabama Power Company’s Eastern Division, brought JSU President Bill Meehan to the stage and announced the company will donate $300,000 to JSU’s robotics team.

Meehan said the donation will have a huge effect on the program, which aims to bring more students into the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

“We believe in investing in our kids, and we want them to stay here,” Segars said.

— Segars presented the chamber’s Brenda Dozier Hollis Chairman’s Cup to Deason, the chairman of the Calhoun County Economic Development Council. The award, which is the highest honor given by the chamber, goes to the top volunteer with organization.

“There’s many people that deserve this award more than me,” Deason said.

— Chamber officials also named Andrea Miller their Ambassador of the Year. Chamber ambassadors serve as representatives of the organization and work to enhance membership, according to the group’s website.

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.
Assistant Metro Editor Daniel Gaddy contributed to this report

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