Calhoun County pulls in nearly 5,000 workers from the surrounding area every day while the majority of its own workforce stays put, U.S. Census data shows, indicating economic strength and the potential to attract new industries. Economic experts say that with a strong health care industry, public institutions such as Jacksonville State University, multiple manufacturers and a healthy highway infrastructure, the county is on strong economic footing with the potential to lure in more industry.
According to 2010 Census data, the county's 117,149 population grows by 4.3 percent every workday due to commuting, ranking it fifth among the Alabama counties with the highest daily commuter growth. Meanwhile, of the county's total working population, 83.2 percent stay in the area to work, ranking it among the 10 Alabama counties with highest local workforce retention, the data show. The data have remained consistent, despite a decline in the local manufacturing sector in the past decade and more recent job losses in the defense industry due to the end of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
"We're fortunate that we have a pretty good industrial base where people can commute in ... and good transportation," said Don Hopper, executive director of the Calhoun County Economic Development Council. "It's easy for people to commute in here ... and we have a tremendous workforce."
Located by Interstate 20, the county is at about the midway point between Atlanta and Birmingham, making it a good spot for commerce and industry, Hopper said. The census data show other aspects of the county that could potentially lure in new industry, he said.
"When an industry is looking to locate here, they're not just looking at Calhoun County for the workforce, they are looking at the region," Hopper said. "The prospect of looking at commuting patterns and where we're drawing people from, it makes that decision-making process for them easier."
The data appear to show Calhoun County draws workers from all the surrounding counties, such as Etowah and Talladega counties.
Mark Hearn, professor in the department of management and marketing at Jacksonville State University, called the census data a good sign for the county.
"We're pulling from the surrounding rural areas as an employment center, expanding our labor force," Hearn said. "That meets the need of industry."
Hearn and Hopper said several factors are contributing to the county's economic strength, such as the health care industry, which includes three hospitals, Regional Medical Center, RMC Jacksonville and Stringfellow Memorial Hospital.
"Health care is the fastest growing industry in the U.S.," said Robert Robicheaux, chairman of the department of marketing, industrial distribution and economics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "The aging baby boomer generation is part of that ... but the nation is also providing more health care to more people now."
Hearn and Hopper also said the county still has a broad industrial base, from the Anniston Army Depot to various auto suppliers for the Honda automotive manufacturing plant in Lincoln. The auto industry has recovered considerably since the 2008 recession, with Honda reporting strong sales growth in recent months. JSU is also a large employer in the area, they said.
Robicheaux agreed with Hearn that the data suggest the county is in a good economic position.
"It suggests that the skeleton, the business infrastructure in the county is strong," Robicheaux said. "Employing a large number of people in the county and importing people in the county ... the fact that you have a healthy economy is all attractive to industries."
Robicheaux added that the daily commuters are good for the local economy.
"They are spending money, buying gas, but they don't have kids going to the schools or are using public services," Robicheaux said. "Every dollar they spend is equivalent to a tourist dollar."
Keivan Deravi, economist at Auburn University Montgomery, countered however, saying those commuters are not spending significant amounts of money on things like housing or even restaurants for dinner.
"They spend their money where they live," Deravi said.
Deravi said the census data does appear to show the county was an economic engine for the region.
"What's important is how many people come in to work," he said. "If that number is large, then that means the county is a magnet for jobs."
Still, Deravi was not convinced such statistics alone would be enough to lure in more industry to the county. Deravi said industry looks to see how close a potential location is to transportation, what the quality of the labor force is, the tax rate and the environment.
"They are looking to minimize cost and maximize mark-up," Deravi said. "But everything being equal, they are attracted to interstates, rail services, workers and people."
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.