Alabama’s new commerce chief has a new deadline. Here’s how she’ll meet it

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Today marks three months on the job for Alabama’s new Commerce Secretary Ellen McNair, and she’s already got a deadline.

Last week, Gov. Kay Ivey set Oct. 1 for the development of a new economic development strategy for the state, the first since 2016.

“It’s a very aggressive timeline,” McNair said, “but very doable.”

Former Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield launched Accelerate Alabama back in 2012, the state’s first-of-its-kind comprehensive plan, which worked at recruiting new business, retaining existing businesses and programs focused on job creation across 11 targeted areas. It led to more than $20 billion in new capital investment in Alabama, as well as 75,000 new and future jobs.

Its second iteration, Accelerate 2.0, focused on technologically-oriented, skill-based jobs to create long-term growth in aerospace/aviation, agricultural and food products, automotive, chemicals, forestry products, metals/advanced materials and bioscience.

But economic planning, like any forecast, has to deal with the unknown. Consider that in the two years it took to formulate the second Accelerate plan, nobody had even heard of COVID-19, which had a monumental effect on the world economy.

The first step in the planning process is assembling a team. McNair said the state is putting together consultants to look at several of Alabama’s key industries. Those consultants will bring knowledge about various industries – automotive, aerospace, etc. – to anticipate where the markets may be headed.

And state economic officials will consult with those at the local level, as well as key industry figures to get as many sides of the equation. Talks should continue into the summer, when the plan will take shape, she said.

“Once we get the consultants on board, we are definitely going to be very inclusive in bringing in experts around the world, reaching out to our own folks, and allowing a lot of folks to have input into this plan,” she said. “Sectors are changing themselves. Take the automotive industry, which is really moving to be a mobility industry. What are the challenges our state could face with that change? Where are the opportunities? We will be leaning on sector leaders and analysts to predict the future.

“It’s a tough job. You need really smart folks that can help you navigate this. But it’s really exciting at the same time to look at what opportunities we can enjoy in the future.”

In tapping McNair for the commerce post, as well as the economic plan, Ivey is relying on a familiar face. When McNair first entered economic development after attending graduate school at Auburn University, Ivey was the assistant director of the Alabama Development Office, Commerce’s predecessor agency.

McNair has been in economic development for 40 years, and this is her third stint at the state level, in addition to serving as chief economic development officer with the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce.

She said she was involved, albeit at the local level, in previous state-level plans.

“This process isn’t new,” she said. “It’s always important to go in with a fresh set of eyes. 2016 was a long time ago. A lot of things have happened and our world has really changed. We want to look at this not as an update, but we want to take a fresh look.”

During McNair’s tenure at the Montgomery Chamber, she worked on almost 600 national and international projects with a capital investment of over $8 billion, resulting in almost 30,000 new jobs for the Montgomery community. She was the senior project manager and a member of the negotiating team that brought Hyundai to Montgomery.

That project, in some ways, illustrates how McNair sees the state working in tandem with local and regional entities to bring about investment. Rural development has been a focus of Alabama’s economic development plans in recent years. But McNair points out that much of Hyundai’s supply chain located in rural areas, supplying jobs and investment.

Companies sometimes don’t pick states, as much as communities.

“So much of the work of economic development is done at the local level that no one ever sees,” she said. “Finding and preparing sites, working with the local community, getting infrastructure developed, all of that work takes months, if not years, to do, and no one ever sees it. Everyone sees the flashy announcement. It takes years of work to prepare your community to receive a project of significant magnitude.”

But putting together a plan is only part of the equation. The mindset behind the plan has to be about constant improvement.

“We’re always going to be looking at what we can do even better,” she said. “We’ve got these great incentives in place, but part of that strategy is asking, “what else?’ What can we do to enhance these incentives and make them competitive and better? We’re always looking to the future.”

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