- Associated Press - Saturday, December 20, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - More than 37,000 future industrial jobs from new and existing industries were announced in 2012 and 2013, according to the Alabama Department of Commerce.

About one-third of those were pledged to the state’s four largest metro areas. Five rural counties didn’t claim any of them.

That’s not surprising, officials say. Companies locate and expand - most of the new jobs were the result of expansions - where they have access to infrastructure and a pool of ready workers.

But some think the state should be doing more to create jobs in high-poverty, rural areas, especially if the state is offering incentives to create the jobs.

“I’m bothered that more of the jobs do not come to the rural areas. I’m bothered that vast areas of the state are left out,” said state Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma. “I know that it is a competitive world out there to get businesses … but if it is going to be done, the benefits need to be spread far wider than they are currently spread.”

Sanders represents several west Alabama counties that have had higher-than-average unemployment. Successful job creation impacts everything, he said.

“It affects the resources for local governments to be able to do things, it affects education, it affects roads,” Sanders said. “When you get left out of jobs, you get left out of everything.”

Gov. Robert Bentley said job creation is his No. 1 priority. And state Public Health Officer Don Williamson said last week that job creation is a key to curtailing the state’s rising Medicaid expenses. Getting people on private insurance offered through employers would get them off the government program, which is expected to cost the state nearly $700 million this year and another $100 million or so additional in fiscal 2016.

But recruiting jobs to rural areas can be challenging, said Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield.

“Often these areas don’t have an interstate connection, or they don’t have an available labor pool that’s large enough or skilled enough to meet company demands,” he said in a written response to questions. “Many times a rural area doesn’t have an available building. These are the disadvantages that must be overcome.”

Metro areas along the Interstate 65 corridor historically have been centers of job creation, Canfield said, and share certain advantages, including strong transportation networks, large labor pools, and universities and job-training networks.

And they have unique strengths.

“Huntsville, for instance, is a hub for high-tech, aerospace and defense companies,” Canfield said. “Birmingham has benefited from its growing bioscience sector. Montgomery continues to see auto industry expansion. Mobile’s shipyards are thriving, and the city will soon be home to an Airbus assembly plant.”

Businesses choosing metro areas isn’t surprising or unique to Alabama, said economist Keivan Deravi, a professor at Auburn University in Montgomery.

Besides infrastructure and potential workers, incentives are a factor, he said. Those are usually a combination of state and local resources. While the state can offer tax deductions, it is the local municipalities that offer infrastructure, such as ready-to-build sites.

“It is the major metros that can do that,” Deravi said.

Forrest Wright, executive director of the Shoals Economic Development Authority, said areas that are attracting jobs aren’t simply relying on the state.

“If you see a community being particularly successful, it is something it is doing in conjunction with the state,” he said. He said communities must make themselves marketable, and that includes having shovel-ready sites ready for potential companies.

Wright said it can be a challenge for individual communities to compete for projects. That’s why his group was created in 1986 to represent the region.

Local communities are being asked to do more to land jobs, he said. He is often up against an international site for the projects he is trying to bring to the Shoals.

“State government can only do so much, and there are fewer and fewer potential projects,” Wright said.

The Commerce Department couldn’t provide a total amount of incentives offered to companies because officials said it doesn’t track that number. But it must be substantial. For example, Remington Outdoor Co., the gunmaker that this year said it is coming to Huntsville, will receive up to $60 million in state and local incentives, including some tax breaks, if it reaches set hiring goals. The Morgan County Commission approved a $1 million incentive for the project. Limestone County and the city of Athens also contributed $1 million to the project.

“The biggest thing (against rural areas) is the lack of resources for incentives,” Deravi said.

Sanders, a lawmaker since 1983, said there needs to be more recruiting and resources and a concrete plan for attracting jobs to the state’s more remote areas.

“Until that happens, rural areas will be continued to be left out,” he said.

He thinks there are enough people and infrastructure to attract jobs to his and other less-populated counties.

“You can’t just say they go where they want to go. They go where you make it attractive,” Sanders said.

Canfield said this month that Commerce is working with the Economic Development Association of Alabama to launch a “multi-pronged initiative to help the state’s rural communities better compete for projects.”

Jim Searcy is the director of that organization.

“What we’re looking at is new legislation that would make Alabama more competitive than where we are now and where we can compete more successfully against other Southeastern states,” he said. “Part of that is allowing rural areas to be able to compete effectively for projects.”

Some suggest offering more money or a different type of incentive to companies willing to locate off the beaten path. Searcy isn’t sure that would work.

“I don’t think there is an incentive that could be created to entice a company to locate in rural areas if it was ultimately against its interest,” he said.

New industrial job numbers for 2014 aren’t yet available from Commerce. And the annual reports don’t account for job losses.

Having a site that already had roads and water was key for Lawrence County when it landed Brown-Forman’s Jack Daniel whiskey barrel factory in 2012, said Tony Stockton, executive director of that county’s industrial development board.

“They wouldn’t have come without that,” Stockton said about the first company to locate in Mallard-Fox West.

The $60 million plant has pledged to create at least 200 jobs by 2019. In exchange, the state and local area has pledged up to $63 million in incentives, including tax credits.

Stockton said the incentives weren’t key to landing the project - Brown-Forman could have gotten the same deal in Tennessee.

“The incentives were second to having a great working relationship with the community and state,” Stockton said. “They have to know you’re going to be there long-term for them, just like we want them to be here a long time.”


Information from: The Decatur Daily, https://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml

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