More than 900 people from municipal governments and area businesses crowded the Arthur Outlaw Convention Center Wednesday for the State of the City and County Luncheon hosted annually by the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce.
This year, officials with the chamber, the city of Mobile and Mobile County all praised the progress the Port City has seen over the past few years — highlighting a particularly productive 2016 for job creation, workforce development and industrial diversification.
Opening the ceremony, Chamber President Bill Sisson said the first five months of 2017 had brought 550 new jobs and $280 million in capital investment to the area, though he said that would only “scratch the surface” of what’s in store for the Mobile area this year.
“We’re going to continue working to recruit and expand our existing industry clusters,” Sisson said. “Those include aerospace, chemicals, maritime business, oil and gas, technology, healthcare, and of course, logistics and distribution. The WalMart distribution center is just the beginning, as this region has caught the attention of every big box retailer out there.”
The Wal-Mart distribution center — the source of the 550 jobs Sisson mentioned above — is expected to have an impact on the Port of Mobile where it’s projected to increase total activity by 10 percent as the distribution center becomes fully operational.
Wal-Mart received a $9.1 million cash incentive from the city, county and state, which helped sway the retail giant to place the distribution center in Mobile County, though Sisson and others have predicted the development could lure other companies to the area as well.
During his address, Sisson discussed the chamber’s Partners for Growth (PFG) initiative, which has guided the region’s economic development efforts since 2013. However, he also gave a broad overview of the upcoming five-year PFG, “Growing local, Investing local,” which will focus on five areas as the chamber works to carry its current momentum into next year and through 2022.
According to Sisson, Growing local, Investing Local” will focus on new business recruitment and investment attraction; existing industry support, innovation and entrepreneurship; workforce attraction, retention and development; diverse business development and business advocacy.
Of those, Sisson said Mobile’s biggest challenge ahead will likely be making sure there are enough qualified employees to fill jobs that will be created if growth continues at its current pace.
“We continue to enjoy some of the nation’s highest jobs growth, but yet we have an unemployment rate that continues to be higher than any of us would like to see,” he added. “Getting our citizens trained and ready for these jobs being created is absolutely vital to what we do as we move forward, but we’ll also have to be agile and ready to recruit new talent to the region to keep up with this aggressive pace of growth.”
In his prepared remarks, Mayor Sandy Stimpson said Mobile has momentum, describing it as “a more exciting city, one that is on the pathway to its destiny.”
Focusing on his initial campaign promises of a safe, business and family-friendly city, Stimpson mentioned the success of Airbus and the 19 aerospace suppliers that have located at the Brookley Aeroplex as well as the ongoing efforts to revitalize the city’s neighborhoods and infrastructure.
According to Stimpson, Mobile achieved a “12-percent reduction of blight in 2016,” while putting $21 million toward capital improvements to infrastructure and parks.As for safety, Stimpson brought up the pay raises that were approved for first responders, criminal justice reforms that punish criminals without “penalizing poverty,” and the appointment of a new chief for the Mobile Fire and Rescue Department.
He also talked about ways the city plans to diversify the types of industry that choose to set up shop in Mobile — calling innovation and technology “two of the key pillars in our plan to create high-paying jobs in Mobile.
“In this pursuit, city government will continue to be a facilitator and convener and work vigorously to create a city where smart, talented young people want to live,” Stimpson said. “We will embrace the culture of innovation just as we have embraced advanced manufacturing.”
While the accomplishments Stimpson focused on highlighted his first term in office, he directed a good deal of praise at others as well including the Mobile City Council, the Bloomberg Innovation Team and the citizens of Mobile “opening up new businesses, mentoring and hiring youth and cleaning up our city.”
Speaking to the city’s momentum, Stimpson said there are “no plans to slow down.”
“In fact, if anything, we’re picking up the pace. We have found strength in numbers, and as our momentum grows, so will our community,” he said. “As we do so, you will have opportunities that can’t even be envisioned. Your property values will increase, your businesses will grow and your children will start moving back home because this is where they choose to live.”
As for the county’s portion of the event, Mobile County Commission President Merceria Ludgood highlighted commissioners’ commitment to their individual districts but also to Mobile County as a whole.
With that in mind, Ludgood said: “the state of the county is sound.”“It is shaped daily by those brilliant ideas and by those employees who dedicate themselves to the service of their neighbors,” she said. “We are flourishing.”
Specifically, she brought up the 2016 Pay-As-You-Go infrastructure program that provided $110 million of road and bridge improvements throughout the area but also touted the $2 million allocated to educational programs and the $3 million in park upgrades the commission approved last year.
Ludgood said one of the ways those and other programs have been successful is by leveraging available federal funds. However, sounding a cautionary note, Ludgood spoke to the uncertainty that has surrounded some of those funding sources since President Donald Trump’s administration took the reigns in Washington, D.C.
“Mobile County does not survive alone. The vast majority of services to the elderly, low and moderate income communities, the homeless, persons with disabilities are funded with federal dollars [that] are now in jeopardy,” she said. “Significant portions of our infrastructure dollars are federal and state dollars as well. The federal portion may go to private industry, but will the private sector want to invest in Ducey Road in Creola? Or will they be looking for the more profitable projects in large, urban areas?”