Opp partners with Troy to improve city’s economy

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 8, 2012

Troy University’s Center for International Business and Economic Development is part of a community effort in Opp that will pave the way for future economic growth and set a standard for small cities when it comes to strategic planning.

The Center is partnering with the City of Opp, PowerSouth, Covington Electric Cooperative, the Covington County Economic Development Commission, and the Janus Institute to develop the city’s first 10-year strategic plan in an effort spearheaded by local business people.

The membership of the Opp Economic Development Committee consists of business people and no elected officials – although the committee’s chair, Southern Independent Bank senior vice president Brett Ballard, said city officials have been supportive of its efforts.

“We want it to be a committee that will stand the test of time regardless of changes in elected officials,” Ballard said. “With that said, Mayor H.D. Edgar has been involved with this since the very beginning and has been instrumental in us putting it together.”

Edgar, who has been mayor for nearly two terms said the prospects of a long-range strategy were exciting.

“We have had some success (in the past), but it’s really been a flying-by-the-seat-of-our-pants situation,” he said, indicating that more than seven years after a community-wide meeting drew only 100 people, the city managed to see some success in new job creation and retention.

“This group stepped up and wanted to take part in building a future for the city of Opp. I’m excited and I welcome the help,” he said.

The committee’s long-term goal is simple: to ensure a future for Opp, and provide a place where children and grandchildren will have opportunity.

“Skip (Spurlin) and I have told people we have five very selfish reasons for starting this process: our five kids,” Ballard said. “I think growing up with my grandparents (in Opp) meant as much to me as my parents – my two granddaddies are who shaped me in how to deal with my customers, with the public, with my family. I want my children’s children to have that same opportunity.”

Spurlin, the committee’s co-chair, is a commercial and industrial accounts executive with PowerSouth Energy who has deeps roots in Opp and is working with the committee to develop the strategic plan and bringing partners such as Troy into the process to assist in the planning process.

“We listened to what this committee of community leaders – from government to the private sector – said and we’re concentrating on retail and industrial development,” said Wiley Blankenship, the Center’s director. “We are at a starting point to develop their overall plan and we will help target and fine tune the committee’s goals.”

Blankenship said the process will set Opp squarely in the center of Gov. Robert Bentley’s “Accelerate Alabama” economic development initiative and others say that the city of about 6,500 residents will likely emerge as the trailblazing local government.

“They’re taking a proactive approach to control their own future,” said Tucson Roberts, president and chief executive officer of the Covington County Economic Development Commission.

“The town knows where they want to go and the best road for them to get there. That helps everyone around them and I think they will set the example for small cities in doing this,” he said. “This effort is led by a lot of people and it’s an example of a city really coming together.”

Roberts’ group will assist the PowerSouth-led consortium in supplying data, writing and other support of the strategic planning process.

“We recognized the importance of bringing in regional partners to develop a comprehensive economic development plan for the City of Opp. The Center’s expertise and research capabilities will be a tremendous asset as we move forward,” said Taylor Williams, economic and community development representative for PowerSouth in Alabama.

Troy’s Center will focus on retail and commercial development areas of the planning process, while the Janus Institute, based in Atlanta, will work on industrial development planning.

“Our problem has been that we knew what we wanted to become as a city, but we didn’t know how to get there,” Edgar said. “The desire has been there but we’ve needed some structure. Wiley Blankenship and the other folks are providing that for us. It’s a great thing for the city of Opp.

“It’s wonderful that we have a university willing to help us and it’s unique that Troy is reaching out to small communities,” he said. “It’s exciting the university is willing to help these smaller communities get started improving the quality of life for the folks who live in them, and that’s what this is really about: improving the quality of life.”

While the specific steps in the roadmap will come at the end of the strategic planning process, Ballard said the end result is ending the downward spiral begun by the loss of textiles.

“We got very comfortable with cotton and, for 50 or 60 years, we didn’t have to do anything. Then (the textile industry) left and we started going down. Maybe we’re plateaued right now – we stopped the downward trend – but we have to get going upward. We have to get jobs back in Opp,” he said.