Produced by a Texas consulting firm for the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce and the East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission, the plan is designed to help leaders deal with job losses at the Anniston Army Depot. The drawdowns of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars coupled with the ending of chemical weapons incineration in Anniston have placed potentially thousands of jobs at risk. The chamber and planning commission have therefore been working on a program to help the hundreds who already have been laid off.
The federally funded strategic plan cost approximately $350,000. It was paid for out of a $600,000 grant, the rest of which funded the chamber’s Operation 1st Rate program, which helps find new work for displaced depot workers and others. Written by TIP Strategies of Austin, Texas, the plan recommends a six-part approach to the area’s economic challenges that centers on its existing strengths.
The plan’s recommendations include creating retention strategies for current workers; increased marketing of the labor force; strengthen connections with higher education providers; encouraging entrepreneurship; focusing more development at McClellan and expanding existing business recruitment activities.
“I think all of the recommendations are good … I think they’re doable,” said Sherri Sumners, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce Foundation and overseer of Operation 1st Rate. “A lot of it we anecdotally know, but this gives us an implementation plan and some context.”
The plan: Help and education for workers
In regards to expanding worker retention efforts, the plan suggests increased use of Operation 1st Rate as a good first step. In recent months, the chamber has begun expanding the program to include hiring more personnel and opening an office in Quintard Mall. Sumners added that the program will soon provide more help in directing people to entrepreneurship programs.
“We’ve had some people come to us that have expressed interest in opening their own business,” Sumners said.
To keep people from leaving the county in search of work and to stimulate the economy, the plan suggests a greater emphasis on helping people start small businesses. The plan states that fostering entrepreneurship represents an opportunity for the area in that many depot workers have skills and experience that could be turned into new enterprises. The plan suggests supporting and expanding entrepreneurship programs, such as the small business development center at Jacksonville State University.
The development center offers classes, training and advice on how to effectively run a business, from business planning to how to secure a bank loan. Already, the development center has a partnership with the chamber, said Robbie Medders, associate director of the center.
“We do counseling there at the chamber twice a month … with prospective and existing businesses,” Medders said. “And we work closely with the staff of the chamber.”
Along with the development center, the county soon will have access to Gadsden State’s entrepreneurship program, which the community college plans to unveil in the spring. Gadsden State, which has two campuses in Anniston, will offer classes on how to be successful as a small-business owner.
As for Gadsden State, the plan recommends local leaders work more with the community college since it offers training for skilled labor jobs in demand among many manufacturers, such as welding. The plan notes that according to U.S. Census data, manufacturing is a key driver of the local economy. The statistics show that production workers make up 9 percent of the county’s workforce — a higher rate than the state average at 8 percent or the national average at 6 percent.
Mark Morrison, spokesman for Honda Manufacturing of Alabama in Lincoln, indicated such job skills fit into a variety of industries, saying that his company has recently hired workers laid off from the depot.
“We have hired folks from the depot in our production and maintenance areas and our business office,” Morrison said. “As we recruit and hire new associates, we certainly look for those candidates with high skill levels.”
The plan: McClellan and emergency preparedness
Also on the plan’s to-do list is for leaders to increase support of McClellan development, noting that the site remains one of the area’s greatest economic development assets. The plan states regional marketing and industry recruitment activities should encompass opportunities for attracting new employers, with emphasis on the Center for Domestic Preparedness at the site.
The plan recommends using the center as a way to lure new investment by the government and the private sector in the fields of security and emergency preparedness.
“That’s one of the markets the plan says we can target and we have been and definitely will continue to do so,” said Don Hopper, executive director of the Calhoun County Economic Development Council. “We want to make sure we capitalize on it.”
Robin Scott, executive director of the McClellan Development Authority, said the MDA does not make it a point to always emphasize the Center for Domestic Preparedness when talking with perspective industries, but will do so if necessary.
“If someone in the defense industry or related industry were to visit, we would certainly point it out,” Scott said.
Scott said McClellan’s industrial park is already 37 percent occupied. Alagasco is currently building a facility there, and the Calhoun County Economic Development Council recently bought 58 acres on which to erect a spec building to lure new industry.
Hopper said the plan will provide needed assistance on economic development in the area for years to come.
“There are lots of things we can do and it will help continue to keep us focused,” Hopper said.
Star staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.