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New Alabama Commerce secretary recruits heavy hitters for state economic development strategic plan

Alabama Commerce Secretary Ellen McNair has been on the job for barely a month but is already at work on a strategic plan that will shape economic development in the state for years to come.

McNair, formerly the chief economic development officer at the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce, took the helm at the Alabama Department of Commerce the first of this year. She replaced Greg Canfield, who stepped down as Commerce secretary at the end of 2023 after 12 years in the role.

McNair was completing her first month on the job when she sat down last week for an on-stage conversation with Greg Barker, president of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama (EDPA) at the Economic Development Association of Alabama’s 2024 Winter Conference.

“Alabama’s been blessed with a lot of great secretaries of Commerce and (Alabama Development Office) directors, but nobody has been more prepared than you to hit the ground running,” Barker told McNair.

McNair has had to hit the ground running, because in appointing her to the role, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey gave her a specific task.

“When I sat down with Gov. Ivey to talk to her about this position, the one thing she asked me to do was a new strategic plan,” McNair said.

The new strategic plan will guide economic development in the state for the coming years.

Under Canfield’s leadership, Commerce crafted a strategic plan, Accelerate Alabama, that was a huge success by most any measure.

“Accelerate Alabama was done in 2011, enacted in 2012 and updated in 2016, and that plan has been extremely successful – about 168,000 jobs have been created from that plan,” McNair told Alabama News Center. “So, obviously, it’s a big act to follow to come up with a new strategy, but it’s been eight years and obviously our world has changed, so we’ve got to really come up with a new strategy.”

Accelerate Alabama identified key industries for the state to target in its economic development efforts, helping it recognize shortfalls in incentives and job training initiatives. Those efforts are credited with bringing in $67 billion in capital investment to the state from new and expanding industries.

“What we’re hoping to do is be much more comprehensive in this strategy, so not only identifying those targeted industries, but really looking at all facets of economic development and how they work together,” McNair said.

From the outset, McNair said she expects the new plan to include:

  • sector-specific growth strategies,
  • project management processes and resources,
  • entrepreneurship,
  • technology and commercialization,
  • community preparedness,
  • rural development,
  • site and infrastructure development,
  • incentives, and
  • marketing and lead generation.

But McNair said she and the Department of Commerce are not developing the plan alone. She has tapped EDPA’s Barker, Innovate Alabama board member and Alabama Finance Director Bill Poole, and Retirement Systems of Alabama CEO David Bronner to help.

“We’ve got the initial small group to start – EDPA, Innovate Alabama and the Retirement Systems of Alabama, along with Commerce – to really sit down and map out how that strategy will unfold,” McNair said. “We want to be incredibly inclusive and diverse in getting input from all across the state as we develop the plan.”

McNair said the team will “try come up with the strategy to get to the strategy. I cannot think of three bigger thinkers, more strategic thinkers than that group.”

They will report to the governor’s office by the end of March on progress and next steps to move forward on developing the plan.

The plan will solicit input from diverse groups (state and local economic developers, trade associations, business leaders, state government, utilities, and universities), form working subcommittees, conduct focus group interviews to ensure inclusive buy-in, and compile and analyze applicable previous economic development strategies and studies to include those from other states.

“State economic development strategies are so much broader than they used to be,” Barker said.

The goal is to have the final plan delivered to the governor on Oct. 1. That amount of work and timeline will likely mean hiring an outside consultant to assist, McNair said.

“We do want to think outside the box and to bring all of the facets of economic development under this strategy,” she said.

RELATED: Alabama governor pledges to focus on labor participation in address to economic developers

While the new plan is an area of focus, there is the ongoing business of recruiting and expanding industry in the state.

McNair said thankfully Canfield and Ivey led the effort to renew, extend, and enhance an economic development incentives package – known as the Game Plan – during last year’s legislative session that make it easier to do that work.

“I’m so grateful for Greg and his team to have passed that legislation last year that really gave the local economic developers these amazing tools to work with for the next several years,” she said.

McNair noted that the strength of economic development in Alabama is the professionalism and teamwork of local economic developers. She said she sees Commerce’s role as supporting their efforts.

“The local area is where the rubber meets the road. The local economic developer has to develop the product and has to really build the team,” she said. “It really takes the elected officials, the private sector, the economic development organization to really come together. I just really believe that the role of the Department of Commerce in this state is to stand beside these locals and to support them and to provide them with the resources they need to be successful.”

Having come from the local ranks, McNair said she understands those needs.

“I would love that everybody sees the Department of Commerce as a great partner and I truly believe that we will continue to be a great partner to the locals and the regional economic development teams,” she said.

Courtesy of Alabama News Center.

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