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Spotlight on Coastal Gateway

The original Monroe County Courthouse, now the Monroe County Heritage Museum

The original Monroe County Courthouse, now the Monroe County Heritage Museum

Photo courtesy of Alabama Tourism Department/Jeff Greenberg

The Coastal Gateway region—Choctaw, Clarke, Conecuh, Escambia and Monroe counties—has an abundance of natural resources, a key location on the state’s metals corridor and a strong alliance to help individual counties work as a team for economic recruitment.

Long a major producer of lumber and wood products, the Gateway region has become part of the fast-growing metals corridor on U.S. 43 that is anchored by ThyssenKrupp Steel USA and has enjoyed success with other up-and-coming sectors to help it build a diversified economy.

The Coastal Gateway Economic Development Alliance, the region’s economic development conduit, is “a marketing organization now,” says Jim Searcy, executive director of CGEDA. “We don’t buy or develop property, and we no longer grant such things as abatements,” he says. “Each of our member counties has economic development organizations that can act in that capacity, so it made more sense for us to be an alliance and strongly represent this region as a whole.” CGEDA owns one industrial site but will be marketing it as it does the others, he says. 

Rikard’s Mill began operating on Flat Creek in 1845. The historic site is maintained by Monroe County Heritage Museum.

Photo courtesy of Alabama Tourism Department/Jeff Greenberg

“We are definitely into regionalism, and we work together, focusing on our existing businesses, and we have analyzed where we are as a region, with our assets and liabilities,” Searcy says. “We help identify sites and ensure they are ready for development. Economic development has changed. You used to wait for a call, but now people want you to send them detailed information and maps online.”

Monroeville, in Monroe County, was home to the first Alabama/China Partnership, a symposium that attracted about 60 Chinese businesses and some 300 people, says Monroeville Mayor Mike Kennedy. “There were speakers from China, as well as the United States and Alabama,” he says. “I am grateful for the exposure this gave our city and region and hope this will translate into more jobs. Our city welcomes the Chinese with open arms,” he says.

Thomasville Mayor Sheldon Day, with several recent successes in the metals industry, predicts that where industry goes, retail and residential will follow. “We seriously are looking at $50 million in new retail investment to come here in the next 24 months,” he says. “The metals corridor is going to be very important to development.”

Health care already is a healthy sector of the economy, and Choctaw County is the proud home of a new hospital—Choctaw General Hospital, a 25-bed critical access hospital in Butler built by Rush Health Systems, based in Meridian, Miss.

The city of Evergreen, in Conecuh County, with five interstate exits plus rail, is working with consultants to ensure a good business mix, says John Ralls, executive director of the Conecuh County Economic Development Office. “I think you will see very big changes here in the next four years,” he says. “We have the FedEx terminal that should be completed by 2012, and we are looking to increase our amount of retail.”

Bobby Skipper, director of the Evergreen-Conecuh Economic Development Office, says the city’s new mayor has worked diligently to bring in consultants who will help bring in more business. Among those: Jim Brown, an economic development veteran who helped bring Hyundai suppliers to Alabama; two Korean businessmen, known as the “Alabama Partners,” and Daryl Harper, former economic developer for Conecuh County.

Lori Chandler Pruitt is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.

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