Linked by the Birmingham-to-Memphis highway corridor, three counties have forged an alliance that’s been landing new industry and nurturing existing enterprises in a series of expansions.
Wrangler Plant Manager Wade Hagedorn (left) and C3 CEO David Thornell in the new Wrangler jeans plant in Hackleburg, one of the best success stories for C3, its partner agencies and state officials, too. When the 2011 tornadoes roared across Alabama, the Wrangler plant was among its commercial victims. Jeans turned up some 90 miles from the plant, which had been Hackleburg’s major employer. C3, working in concert with state agencies, local officials and even Gov. Robert Bentley, convinced Wrangler’s parent, Vanity Fair, not only to come back to Hackleburg, but to build a $30 million plant that employs 200 people — 50 more than before the storm.
Recruiting jobs and industry is vital business for city and county governments, and many find themselves competing with their neighbors for the same economic development projects. For the past three years, three counties in Northwest Alabama have taken a different approach. By joining forces and creating a shared economic development agency, Fayette, Lamar and Marion counties have a richer product to promote and a wider array of successes under their collective belt.
“Many [local leaders] recognized that our rural area already shares the same business and living environment, utility and transportation infrastructure, as well as workforce, so why not create a shared marketing effort,” says David Thornell, president and CEO of the partnership, C3 of Northwest Alabama Economic Development Alliance. “The founders of C3 also shared the viewpoint that economic development was too important and too big of a challenge to go it alone, pitting neighbor against neighbor.”
Local leaders, including William Oswalt, longtime probate judge of Fayette County; Johnny Rogers, Lamar County probate judge and County Commission chairman, and Bill Atkinson, former mayor of Winfield, in Marion County, began meeting together in 2009 to create a unified, professionally led organization and a planned approach to stimulate and assist in the creation of new jobs. That organization became the non-profit C3, representing the three county governments and 14 municipalities. C3 hired Thornell, a longtime economic development professional, as its leader in early 2010.
The Case for Cooperation
When it comes to economic development, smaller communities are often perceived to lack some component of the proverbial “full package,” which usually includes a capable workforce, transportation and necessary suppliers. By combining forces and resources, Thornell says the C3 region is better equipped to market the assets of the entire area to new and expanding businesses and to provide assistance to start-up companies.
“By working together, we create a bigger target for site selectors, consultants and business developers to see and recognize as a place worth considering,” Thornell says. “Since we have more to offer when we combine our assets and attractive features, this increases the odds of our having exactly what a company or investor is looking for. These prospects do not recognize or care about city or county lines, as they only want a business location and operating environment where they can be successful.”
A Valuable Product
Leaders’ timing in developing C3 was ideal, Thornell says, largely because the region was soon to begin welcoming travelers along 39 miles of the newly designated Interstate 22, a long-anticipated connecting highway between Memphis and Birmingham. The new highway runs through Marion County with nine exits, three of which are located next to publicly-owned industrial parks, which offer 1,000 acres of developed land ready for new and expanding industry.
“We are already seeing prospects that are often surprised that, except for the last mile, the roadway is operational and offers many advantages that this region has never had had before,” says Thornell.
Creating a marketable product did not happen overnight. Throughout the recent recession, C3 county governments made investments “to create the sites and facilities that companies would need once the recession eased,” Thornell says. As a result, the region is home to five certified AdvantageSites, as well as two 50,000-square-foot speculative buildings.
The first speculative building, located in Hamilton, was recently purchased by Tombigbee Electric Cooperative and will serve as the co-op’s new headquarters, just off I-22 at Exit 14. The second, located in Fayette, has drawn consistent interest, Thornell says.
Making It Work
Since its beginning, C3 has worked to build a foundation for success, starting with an award-winning strategic plan. Approximately 40 local leaders worked together to formulate the plan, focused on the three categories of recruitment, retention and renewal. Recently, C3 added another task force to improve communication and collaboration between employers and educators, so that the future workforce will be prepared to meet the needs of local industry.
One component of C3’s strategic plan was to hire a national site selection consultant to provide a professional review and evaluation of the region’s key industrial sites. After undertaking that process in 2012, the organization received recommendations for improvements, such as merging two community industrial parks to be marketed under a joint name. The communities of Winfield and Brilliant, which border each other, have adjacent land available along the new interstate. “Rather than outwardly competing, they have agreed to matching signage and marketing materials that promote all of the acreage as the I-22 Gateway Industrial Park, 460 acres in all,” Thornell says. “This cooperation is a great example of regional-minded teamwork.”
Creating a professional recruiting website was another important early step for C3. NorthwestAlabamaEDA.org features extensive demographics, a regional photo gallery, a community calendar and interactive mapping to provide thorough information and a positive impression. The Southern Economic Development Council recognized the site with a Superior award in its 17-state regional competition.
C3’s work has already paid off for the region. The organization has provided location and startup assistance to a number of new businesses to the area. For instance, C3 assisted Integrated Waste Solutions, which recently opened in Vernon, and Stone Canyon Cabins, which relocated to Brilliant. C3 also has worked with several retail and restaurant projects, including Tractor Supply Co., The Boar’s Butt restaurant, Goody’s and Hibbett Sports.
A number of existing industries also have undertaken expansions with assistance from C3. They include Tullahoma Industries, which was recently awarded $250 million in additional government contracts to make military uniforms; Joy Mining; Harden Manufacturing; 3M; Dal-Tile; Door Components; Steel Dust Recycling, and Sitel, a telecommunications contact center.
Planning for the Future
As C3 continues working to build a better economic environment for the people in Fayette, Lamar and Marion counties, Thornell encourages all residents to get involved. “You do not have to be on a board, in an elected position or own a business to grow the economy in and around your home. Simply shop local. Talk positively about your community to everyone you meet. Show pride in your home and workplace, because visitors are sizing us up every day and there is no second chance to make a positive first impression.”
Thornell also asks local residents to be on the lookout for businesses that may be interested in locating in the area, and to alert him or another local official. C3’s multi-county cooperation has shown that working together is vital for economic development success, and that includes every member of the community, he says. As the region looks to the future, “C3 will continue to strive to do things right, so that the right things may happen to benefit our region,” Thornell says.
Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville.