Spotlight on Shelby County
Anglers from 21 states competed in the 2011 Bassmasters Classic tournament on Lay Lake, a 12,000-acre reservoir about 35 miles south of Birmingham and 15 miles south of Columbiana.
Shelby County, located in the middle of the state, was established in 1818 and is one of seven counties in the Birmingham-Hoover metropolitan area. It has been the fastest-growing county in Alabama for many years and either ranks highest or very high in almost every demographic measure in the state and beyond, from quality of life to education.
The latest census shows Shelby County remains the fastest-growing in the state and is the fifth-largest county in the state. Two cities—Calera and Chelsea—more than doubled in size. Several other cities posted double-digit growth. It is consistently touted as the best place to raise children, and a national study says it has the healthiest residents in the state.
Shelby County is a desirable choice for economic/industrial development. It is strategically located on major air, train and interstate transportation routes. Its centrally-located airport has had major renovations and additions. The county partners with many private sector investors, along with other cities and chambers of commerce in the county on a myriad of projects.
With a labor force of about 92,000 within the county but many more who commute, economic developers strive to attract business that will allow its residents to work in the county. “We have a very desirable service sector economy, and we are looking for more light industrial companies, health care and distribution, along with automotive manufacturers,” says James Dedes, executive director of the Shelby County Economic and Industrial Authority.
Unemployment has been among the lowest in the state, with December 2011 levels at 5.2 percent, compared to a 2010 level of 7.7 percent. “We are seeing signs of economic stabilization and recovery through a decline in our unemployment rate and increased activity from companies looking for new sites and buildings,” Dedes says. “We are cautiously optimistic.”
Shelby County is projected to be one of the nation’s hot spots for job creation over the next five years. Washington, D.C.-based Woods & Poole Economics Inc. estimates that the county’s employment levels will expand at an average annual rate of 2.61 percent between this year and 2015. That’s more than double the U.S. rate of 1.15 percent. The firm ranked Shelby No. 8 among 3,000 counties across the nation for job growth during the period. That translates into 10,000 new jobs by 2015, according to Woods & Poole.
Shelby County’s government, pulling itself out of a near-bankruptcy years ago, operates on a “pay as you go” budget and finds new ways to deal with today’s economic reality, says Alex Dudchock, county manager. “All our elected officials worked through this recession and reduced more than $4 million out of our budget. We have lived within our means, with no lapse of services to residents.
“Prior to the recession, we consistently led the state in employment, and we still do, as we begin to climb out of this recession,” he says. “Even though we continued to lead in employment, we saw our unemployment rate more than triple during the recession. Even with our recently reported rate of 5.2 percent, we still have a way to go. Our residents show a high work ethic, and they have been able to climb out, even with a decrease in household income.”
Economic downturns have meant doing things a little differently, county officials say. For example, when building permits dropped from the once-thriving residential building sector from about 100 a month to about 23 a month, the county began contracting with cities to do their building inspections and planning work, such as helping with zoning ordinances, says Ray Hamilton, manager of the county’s development services department. “This not only helped us keep our people and save the cities money, it also helped all our cities become in step with the county’s comprehensive plan,” he says.
Shelby County also does many projects in-house, with its own professional planners and skilled craftspeople. Cooperation is key in this county, where the county partners with many entities for projects, such as building senior centers, park features, its airport and most recently, a fire museum in Calera, says Reed Prince, the county’s manager of facilities and general services. The county also is in a partnership with the University of Montevallo and the city of Montevallo to make several improvements to increase enrollment and other goals.
Shelby County, which recently took over operation of its airport, also recently made improvements at its airport, with a renovated terminal, new equipment and a new hangar with another one being planned, Prince says.
Efficiency carries over to the county’s website, where residents can conduct county business and research public records, including neighborhood crime statistics. That system allows economic developers to see the latest maps that show exactly where the county’s available parcels and buildings are.
The county’s water needs are well taken care of now, thanks to major projects that eliminated the county’s vulnerability in drought conditions. “We wanted to make sure we had the capacity to provide water far into the future,” says Charles Lay, the county’s water services manager.
Lori Chandler Pruitt is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.