A tale of two cities, or shall I say, two counties. Not in the Charles Dickens sense, as he described life in London and Paris during the dark days of the French Revolution in his famous work “A Tale of Two Cities.” Rather, a look at the trajectory of two of Alabama’s largest counties, Mobile and Madison.
Current projections put the two counties on a path to switch places in population rank by the year 2040. Among Alabama’s 67 counties, Madison is projected to add the greatest number of people — 40 percent more — while Mobile is looking at a modest 6 percent population growth. Anchored by the city of Huntsville, Madison County is on the move, not just demographically but economically as well. With the second-highest per-capita income in the state, home to a bevy of businesses and with Huntsville considered one of the leading technology centers in the Southeast, the future looks very bright for the county on the northern end of the state.
Interestingly, while speaking here in Mobile several months ago, renowned historian Dr. Wayne Flynt noted, “the future is Madison County, where one-third of all the engineers in Alabama live.” That’s a powerful statement, and one that gave me pause. Dr. Flynt’s statement seemed counter to the prevailing view of many Mobilians. Many locals would say, “Are we not the city that has landed Airbus, with all the latent economic potential that comes with such a large enterprise taking root here?” Also, what about the presence of Austal, the Alabama State Docks, etc. To say the least, I was quite intrigued by his comment.
In a subsequent email conversation with Dr. Flynt, he elaborated. “Mobile has experienced a renaissance in the past 20 years: government has become more diverse and representative of the entire community; Thyssen-Krupp and Airbus have, and will, bring high-tech manufacturing to the area; some low-income schools are performing far better than we have any right to expect given the investment we make,” Flynt said. “In some ways, Mobile is more progressive and prosperous than it has been since the end of the Civil War. But looking down the road, the manufacturing economy, which is already connected hip-to-leg to the global economy, is going to depend on the quality of a skilled technological labor force: think North Carolina’s ‘Research Triangle’ or Madison County’s research park; Austin, Texas; Silicon Valley; Seattle. That is the future.”
With Alabama having one of the lowest-skilled labor forces in the country, and long-range economic forecasts showing job growth in the state at the lowest skill levels, Flynt sees Madison County and the city of Huntsville in a better long-range strategic position than most places in Alabama.
I queried one of the foremost experts in this area on the topic, Dr. Semoon Chang, director of the Gulf Coast Center for Impact Studies. “There are two major differences between Madison County and Mobile County,” Chang said. “First of all, Madison County currently has Redstone Arsenal with about 35,000 employees who are on the federal government payroll and are heavily concentrated in science and engineering. Mobile County, on the other hand, lost its main federal employer, Brookley Air Force Base, with its 12,000 employees in the 1960s and had to rely on development of the private-sector employers. Mobile County did an excellent job of that by attracting Airbus, Austal and the AM/NS Calvert steel mill, among others. The other difference is that Mobile County is adjacent to Gulf waters, with its port facility, seafood industry and a more beautiful landscape than Madison County.”
There seems to be a consensus among local experts that although Mobile may lack the technological base and highly skilled workforce Madison County has, by focusing on what it does best, Mobile can thrive, albeit in a different fashion. As Dr. Donald Epley, professor at the University of South Alabama, and director of the Center for Real Estate and Economic Development Studies, observed, “A more meaningful approach is to examine the industrial structure of the local economy, and determine the clusters of firms that work together to produce local services and products. Examples for the Mobile and coastal areas could be tourism or fishing and fish production. The absolute number of engineers may not be as critical to each as skills in other specialties.”
Like Flynt, Chang and others I spoke with showed a deep concern for the lack of resources being committed to K-12 public education. The trajectory of any area is deeply tied to investment in this area. It’s a critical component in the growth and long-range vitality of any community. As the current school funding debacle in Baldwin County shows, getting citizens to realize this fact is hard work, but a must if an area is to stay economically viable. Mobile is making strides in this area but still has a ways to go.
Mobile is an area blessed with beauty and charm. Unfortunately, it has been more of a place where people are comfortable coming to work and play rather than live (evidenced by the population bleed from Mobile to Baldwin County). As leaders exploit opportunities to propel Mobile forward economically, may equal effort be invested in making it a place where people want to put down roots and stay. In this tale of two cities, may it be said that Mobile is just as much a magnet for people as it is for jobs.