Diversifying The Economy

Etowah County’s reliance on industry as its revenue base is changing. Local leaders are bringing in more commercial and residential interests, and improving tourism attractions, all in an effort to build a more comprehensive economy.

Located in northeast Alabama, Etowah County’s beautiful setting and easy access to the interstate has attracted automotive suppliers to the county. Within the last two years, the Gadsden-Etowah County Industrial Development Authority has announced six new industries, as well as two expansions, and helped retain three existing industries.

Mike McCain, executive director of the IDA, says, “We are targeting automotive suppliers, as well as support industries. We are interested in attracting plastic injection molding, precision metal machining operations, regional distribution facilities and product development and research.”

McCain says the IDA has a three-pronged approach to attracting industries, which includes maintaining support industries, increasing the number of technically educated workers and providing attractive, competitive locations.

The county is home to six publicly owned industrial development parks, the newest of which is the Airport Industrial Park in Gadsden. At almost 1,000 acres, the park is being developed in phases, and has become home to three of the county’s newest industries, the NARMCO Group, Decatur Plastics and MS-2 LLC.

The NARMCO Group’s building in Gadsden is named Prince Metal Stampings and represents an investment of $15 million. The automotive stamping company was the first occupant of the Airport Industrial Park and will employ 80 workers. “They have already planned two expansions of the facility,” McCain says. Decatur Plastics is an automotive flocking plant that produces plastic dashboards for Mercedes’ Vance plant. It will employ 50 and represents an investment of $2 million. MS-2 is an automotive mold maintenance facility, with an expected 40 employees. The site currently is being prepared.

The Gadsden Commerce Center also landed three new tenants, Jay-Mid South LLC, a manufacturer of seat parts for Honda and Hyundai; Packaging Integrity, which will employ 50 and makes packaging material; and Wholesale Kitchens LLC, a manufacturer and distributor of kitchen cabinet components. At 200 acres in size, the commerce park only has 15 acres available.

The Gadsden Industrial Complex has 19.6 acres remaining, while the Attalla and Rainbow City industrial parks are full. The Deerfoot Industrial Park, located in Rainbow City, currently has a few small sites available.

While attracting new industries is important, retaining existing industries and helping those industries grow is vital to the county’s economy. Earlier this year, the county received news that one of its oldest and largest companies, Goodyear-Gadsden, would not only avoid closure, but help launch a new product, the Assurance tire.

“To have the Goodyear plant go from a swing plant, just making tires to fill orders, to a permanent production plant says a lot about the plant’s productivity and the skills of its workforce,” McCain says. “The members of the United Steelworkers of America Local 12 were actively involved in making it happen.”

The Goodyear-Gadsden plant will produce eight of the 20 sizes available of the Assurance tire line, which includes ComforTred Technology, a design that allows drivers to experience high-comfort and low-noise rides.

Retail development
While Etowah County has relied on industries to provide its economy in the past, local leaders are making strides to vary the job base. The city of Gadsden recently named a commercial development authority to assist in attracting retail and commercial growth to the area.

Gadsden Mayor Steve Means says, “We have devoted $425,000 annually to industrial development and we are seeing results. Now, we want to place an equal emphasis on commercial development.”

Several commercial developments currently are underway. According to Means, the Coosa Town Center in east Gadsden will bring Old Navy, TJ Maxx and a regional Wal-Mart to the area, while a 16-screen cinema has been added to Colonial Mall.

Across from Colonial Mall, Jason Stinson, of Stinson Enterprises Inc., along with Commercial Realty Services of Alabama Inc. and Coldwell Banker Commercial, is developing Lafferty’s Landing Shopping Center. Located along the Coosa River, Lafferty’s is a mixed-use retail development consisting of 65,000 square feet.

A third private development going up is Mango’s, a mixed-use retail center. According to Tom Quinn, president of The Chamber, Gadsden and Etowah County, the development calls for 7,500 square feet of retail space that will be leased to specialty shops, as well as a restaurant, which is currently under construction, and 18 condominium units that will cost approximately $225,000-$250,000 per unit.

Means says, “We are expecting from the new Coosa Town Center, Mango’s and Lafferty’s, a tremendous boost for the economy. Just one of those large projects is expected to bring in $4 million in tax revenue, so it would be a safe guess to say that these developments could bring in from $6 to $7 million in additional sales revenues.”

In addition to the new developments, The Chamber is helping small businesses market products to consumers. According to Quinn, Horizons 2012 is a joint partnership with the Industrial Development Authority to help the county continue its economic expansion. The Chamber’s portion of the 10-year program is to advise local businesses on how to improve marketing and customer relations to ensure the businesses’ success. This process is taking part through The Chamber’s Small Business Development Council.

“When big companies come into an area, they draw so many people from outlying areas and all over that sometimes it makes it difficult for the small businesses to succeed. We don’t want to see our small businesses go out. What we are telling our small business owners is we will help you identify the market better, encourage you to find the areas and the products and services you can provide. Remember, service is still a very important part of people and why they buy,” Quinn says. In addition to marketing, The Chamber also helps small businesses with research. The Chamber receives 50 percent of the proceeds of Horizons 2012, with the other half going to the Industrial Development Authority to be used in deal closings.

Residential growth
In Etowah County, most residential growth is occurring in Southside and Rainbow City, according to Quinn. “Southside is growing rapidly because they have a lot of property and a lot of subdivisions in the area. Rainbow City is growing. If you look at their location, they are very close to the new Honda plant. Southside is only about 13 miles from it, and with the availability of property that they have, they are outgrowing everyone in terms of houses being built,” Quinn says. “Hokes Bluff is growing some.”

Quinn adds that the city of Gadsden does not have a lot of land for residential growth. “Gadsden is looking at other areas to try to annex. Gadsden can grow north on (Highway) 411 and have some growth in east Gadsden,” Quinn says, adding, “We have to have a growth in population.”

In answer to this need for additional housing options, the city of Gadsden has recently purchased 500 acres at the airport for a planned community. Means says, “It was quite obvious to us that we needed to attract new residents, but the problem is that Gadsden is landlocked, so there was no place to put in new housing divisions. We are just now coming up with conceptual plans.”

Quinn says, “I think you will see with this planned community the city of Gadsden has got on the drawing board will change the mixture.”

Tourism increases
Attracting visitors to Etowah County is the job of the Gadsden-Etowah Tourism Board, headed by director Jerry Alford. According to Alford, revenue from tourism has increased over the last five years.

“We target fishermen to this area because of the great fishing here,” Alford says. “The Coosa River runs through the middle of the city (Gadsden), and Henry Neely Dam forms a very large backwater, which is very attractive to fishermen. We also host many professional fishing tournaments year round.”

The county’s largest tourism draw is Noccalula Falls Park, consisting of 250 acres and a 100-foot wide, 90-foot deep waterfall into a canyon. The park’s large campground, pioneer museum, botanical gardens, 1863 replica C.P. Huntington Train which travels over a mile through the park, large pavilions for picnics, carpet golf and other amenities make it attractive for people from many states, Alford says. “The average annual attendance is over 1 million.”

Means adds that the city has just invested $2.5 million into Noccalula Park for improvements. “Noccalula Falls is by far the largest falls within the corporate limits of a city. We currently are building rustic cabins and making railway improvements to make the park more attractive to visitors, who might want to stay one or several nights at the park.” The improvements are expected to be completed by March.

The park will hold its annual light show in December. During the event, which runs from Thanksgiving through New Year’s eve, 2 million lights decorate the park.

Quinn says another large event for the county is the annual Riverfest. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the festival will be held June 10 and 11 this year. “We bring in named entertainers, and it is family-oriented,” Quinn says. “It is right next to the Coosa River and we have a children’s festival right across the street. We have magicians, last year we had interactive robots, a variety of games and activities for them, and that part has really grown a great deal.”

In addition, the county has two golf courses, Silver Lakes and Twin Bridges, which brings in visiting golfers to the area. There also are several museums throughout the county that feature the arts.

Quinn says, “Those tourist dollars are very important, and especially important to us at this time because we are going through a transition. The North Alabama region is beautiful. It has all types of opportunities; we just haven’t worked together very well in the sense that we haven’t pulled them together, and we haven’t spent our marketing money, I don’t think, the way we could have to encourage people to come in. And I don’t think tourism has been as important in our county as it should have been.”

Changing focus
He adds that as the county changes its focus from strictly manufacturing to developing the county’s resources as a whole, more emphasis will be placed on tourism. “We are in a situation where we have to do something. And I think the governmental officials, as well as The Chamber and various development organizations, recognize that we don’t have any time to waste. We have to get some things done.”

Towards this end, the city of Gadsden has committed $12 million towards an expansion of the convention center. According to Means, the current convention center was a WPA project completed in the 1940s. “We are hoping to renovate the old convention hall, but we won’t know until we take off the concrete fa�ade whether we will be able to save the building. If we can’t, then we will have to tear it down,” Means says, adding that the goal of the new facility is to draw mid-size conventions to the area.

By Erica Joiner West, Associate Editor

Business Alabama