Relationships key to economic development

Published 12:59 am Saturday, July 20, 2013

Writing for CNBC this week, the chairman of Airbus Americas said several key factors affected the decision Airbus made last summer to build an aircraft assembly line in Mobile.

But the most important was relationships.

The first was the relationships Airbus had built with people in Alabama over the course of several years. The second was that people at all levels in Alabama worked together to make the site work for Airbus and for Mobile.

“A differentiator for Alabama was the unity and supportive purpose shown by every entity in the state supporting Mobile,” Allan McArtor, chairman of Airbus Americas, wrote. “City, state and federal representatives (Republicans and Democrats alike) came together with one goal: Show the Airbus team that Alabama would be its partner for the long term.”

McArtor’s message was perfectly timed, and brought home an interesting point, Covington County Economic Development Commission CEO Rick Clifton said. He’s just back from an intense economic development class at Auburn at which every speaker emphasized two things: The importance of building relationships over the long haul, and importance of a community working together.

Site selectors for companies wishing to expand look for reasons to eliminate potential sites, just as Airbus eliminated a number of sites that also met the specs for the plant they’ll build in South Alabama.

“It’s like jury selection, when you eliminate the ones you don’t want on there,” Clifton said. “It’s very interesting. When a prospect comes to look at you, they know more about you than you do.”

Those involved in economic development and recruitment must work to build relationships that sometimes take years to pay off, he explained.

For instance, CCEDC has been represented – first by then CEO Tucson Roberts and now by Clifton – at a huge retail show in Las Vegas every year for several years.

“Every year we go to see a hotel group for Florala,” he said. “Every year, they’ve told us, ‘It’s not a good time, there’s not much going on.’

“This year, they gold us, ‘Things are opening up, we’re ready to start looking.’

“Literally, it took five years for us to get to that point,” Clifton said. “Is it worth the cost? Yes. Unless you think we’d have gotten the same response if we hadn’t had those relationships.”

A number of local officials attended the Paris Air Show in June, as did Gov. Robert Bentley and other state officials.

“People are criticizing (government) for spending money to go to these things, like the Paris Air Show,” Clifton said. “The governor has been criticized for going. But it makes a lot of difference if you’re meeting with (a company), and the governor is with you.”

Clifton explained that when he travels to shows, he is promoting the airport and Covington County.

“I’ve been to shows and events with Mayor Earl Johnson) before and Earl is selling Andalusia 24-7,” he said.

Similarly, he said, Ed Short is promoting territories served by Covington Electric Cooperative, and Greg Henderson is promoting territory served by Southeast Alabama Gas District.

Clifton also attended a Heli-Expo earlier this year.

“I was at a reception and there were thousand of people there,” he said. He started a conversation with someone sitting near him and found himself talking with a representative of the company that provides contract laborers for Vector, DRS, and other aircraft-related industries in the area.

“I asked him what we could do for them and he immediately said, ‘housing,’ ” Clifton said. “He said it’s a real issue for employees. They wind up living in a hotel room and can’t bring their families.”

The first offer they get in a place where the families can go, the workers leave, he explained.

As a result of the conversation, the company official wrote a letter detailing the need for housing that supported a market survey done on that very issue. In the long run, he said, that contact will help get apartments built in Andalusia.