Everyone knows about Alabama’s recent economic revival led by auto manufacturing over the past three decades.
In 1993, just as globalization took its toll on Alabama’s traditional manufacturing sector, Mercedes-Benz announced it would build a plant near Tuscaloosa. That announcement came with almost $250 million in incentives from the state of Alabama.
That moment was the turning point for manufacturing in Alabama, with Honda arriving in Lincoln a few years later and Hyundai building a plant just south of Montgomery after the turn of the millennium.
Long before the announcement of the massive $1.6 billion Toyota Mazda facility west of Huntsville last year, Toyota had a 17-year run in the Rocket City with its engine manufacturing facility.
In addition to the facilities themselves, other smaller manufacturers broke ground in the surrounding areas for parts, steel, raw materials, etc., which provided a bonus benefit to local economies.
Meanwhile, however, trade agreements like NAFTA decimated Alabama’s small towns. Textile manufacturers like Vanity Fair abandoned their southwest Alabama presence and chased cheap labor in Latin America and East Asia.
The state’s right-to-work status, which lured companies to Alabama from union strongholds north of the Mason-Dixon line throughout the 20th century, continued to be a benefit. Sadly, it was no longer enough to compete with cheap low-skill labor throughout developing parts of the world.
To its credit, some state policymakers realized this was the prevailing trend. It was much cheaper for companies to use foreign low-skill labor than domestic low-skill labor. If there were to be any sort of spark to rekindle local economies, it was time for rural counties and municipalities to upgrade their workforces’ skill sets.
The Alabama Two-Year College system recognized this need and responded. In an interview earlier this month, Demopolis Mayor John Laney praised two-year college system chancellor Jimmy Baker. What is in place now is regional cooperation of Demopolis and other Alabama Black Belt municipalities to teach and train their workforces, including high school students and continuing education for adults.
There’s one problem: Once they’re trained, they leave the small towns for the bright lights and higher pay of the big city. In essence, some small towns are training the future workforces of the big cities.
The brain drain continues. With no trained workforce, despite a town’s best effort to change the trends, companies do not locate in rural areas.
It is a classic chicken-egg problem, so to speak.
When you talk to local officials, be it in the top northeastern corner of Alabama in Jackson County, or as far south as where the Black Belt meets the coastal plains in Monroe County, they plead for the Alabama Department of Commerce, under the leadership of Greg Canfield, to maintain a focus beyond the so-called Big Five cities of Alabama — Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile, Montgomery and Tuscaloosa.
To be fair, those cities are better equipped for economic development, be it the port, interstate highway proximity, high-skilled workforce or top-notch quality of life amenities.
However, if we’re keeping score, it is the rural areas that need the most attention.
A favorite income inequality talking point left-wingers demagogue is the sewage sanitation situation in Lowndes County, just southwest of Montgomery. There, hookworm is making a comeback, apparently as a result of the county’s antiquated or nonexistent means of treating sewage.
The solution isn’t necessarily to pump federal dollars into Lowndes County for a sewer system. While that might help, a more permanent solution would be to figure out how to improve the county’s ailing economy.
If you improve the local economy, the county can raise tax revenue. That leads to viable public health and safety systems, like modern plumbing and sewer systems.
That’s the long game — help rural communities help themselves and not fall into a trap of giving a handout. Then the state isn’t making national headlines when media sensation and freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D, New York) decries Alabama as backward and indicative of the inequality crisis in America (all while mistaking ringworm for hookworm).
And besides, with our federalist system, should the federal government really be responsible for financing basic community necessities like a sewer system? I would argue it absolutely should not.
Economic development is the key to avoiding these embarrassments, and all that will take is a better sales pitch from the state of Alabama’s ambassadors, employed by the Department of Commerce.
The good news is Gov. Kay Ivey, a native of Camden in Wilcox County, is aware of what ails these dots on the map. Throughout the 2018 campaign (despite unfounded, opponent-generated rumors of her ill health), she made it part of her campaign.
“As long as I’m governor, you will have a true champion for rural Alabama in Montgomery,” Ivey said in a speech to the Choctaw County Chamber of Commerce in Butler last fall.
These days it seems as if there’s a ribbon-cutting or ceremonial groundbreaking every other week in Alabama’s metropolitan areas.
Now as Ivey embarks on a new term, hopefully, we’re on the cusp of seeing ribbon-cuttings in the rural areas as well.