BIRMINGHAM — Lawmakers, policy experts and economic developers from across the state joined together in Birmingham on Wednesday to host the first legislative summit on Alabama’s economy.
Leaders discussed Alabama’s ability to create high-quality jobs that meet the needs of the present landscape, while building an economy that stands the test of time. Their assessment and consensus is largely that, thanks to the package of economic incentives passed in 2015 known as the Alabama Jobs Act, the state has become highly competitive. But there’s pressing work to be done to stay ahead of the curve.
State Senator Garlan Gudger (R-Cullman), chairman of the Senate Economic Development Committee, expressed appreciation to those who attended for the “open communication and open dialogue” as lawmakers prepare for the 2023 legislative session, now under a month away. When it comes to collaborating on key decisions and economic development efforts, Gudger encourages “going forward as a team for Alabama’s economy.”
During conversations about building on the success of existing incentives, which maintain bipartisan consensus and are set to expire this year, a number of actionable priorities emerged. Including a focus on small and rural communities, Alabama’s workforce, and the availability of future sites.
The number of sites available in Alabama for a company to build on has narrowed to record lows as the program gains interest. During a panel discussion, Lt. Governor Will Ainsworth spoke to the need for increasing the state’s supply of shovel-ready sites through the Growing Alabama Credit: “Other states are investing a lot of money to make sure they have sites. If a company comes to Alabama and we don’t even have a site, we’re not going to be in the game.”
Ainsworth also conveyed feedback he’s received since the joint legislative study commission on renewing economic development incentives released their findings in December: “The feedback is that we have to get this done. Our business community needs it, our cities need, our counties need it,” he said. “Let’s keep the momentum going.”
Alongside Ainsworth on the panel was Helena Duncan, president of the Business Council of Alabama. She underscored that improving the quality of Alabama communities is directly related to the state’s ability to attract and retain businesses. “We can all see the impacts when we talk about the return on our investment and the things we’ve been able to accomplish, thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of investments across our state,” she said. “This program is undeniable.”
Many lawmakers in attendance represent rural communities that have benefitted from enhanced incentives to growth projects across Alabama’s 40 “targeted” counties.
Lee Lawson, president of the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance shared his experience being a part of the team responsible for bringing Novelis to the state — a $2.5 billion mega-site that became Alabama’s third largest investment in history.
“A lot of the tools that are on the books today helped us get to that point,” Lawson said. “Had Novelis come to us five years before, we wouldn’t have been ready.” As with all projects of that magnitude, he acknowledges, “They could’ve gone anywhere,” but “we were able to compete and win.”
While many exchanges between lawmakers and panelists involved the topic of growing rural areas, innovation was also a key feature. Strategically prioritizing modern, innovative business recruitment was a selling point of the Alabama Jobs Act years ago as it is again now. Cynthia Crutchfield, CEO of Innovate Alabama, shared her insight on how recent partnerships are modernizing the state economy and keeping it fiercely competitive with other states.
“The idea is to create an environment where we can build and grow technology-focused companies.” As a former Huntsville businesswoman, Crutchfield has firsthand experience with the factors that contribute to a high-tech company deciding to set up shop in Alabama. “We’re focused on technology because it is really a high-growth area,” she said.
Wednesday’s economic forum provided an opportunity for lawmakers to get up to speed on the latest facts and figures as they head to Montgomery next month. With the initial 2015 economic incentives package designed to expire in July, both houses are poised to be united on the premise of renewal — the question will be the extent to which they double down.
“Name a business that comes to Alabama and wants to leave,” Ainsworth said. “They love it when they get here. So we’ve got to continue to do our part to make sure they come here.”