Summary of Economic Panel Discussion
Citizens For Montevallo hosted an Economic Panel Discussion on development and revitalization in small towns on 12-5-06. Panel participants included James Dedes, Executive Director of Shelby County Economic & Industrial Development Authority; Chad Newell, Executive Vice President of the Birmingham Metropolitan Development Board; and Shelton Day, Mayor of Thomasville, Alabama.
Mr. Dedes began the discussion by complimenting the city in its efforts with the creation of the Ad Hoc Economic Development Committee and the Downtown Revitalization Committee. He also noted the importance of citizens group, such as Citizens For Montevallo, in providing support and energy to cities’ efforts towards progress.
Mr. Dedes felt that tourism would be a great source of potential growth in revenue for Montevallo. He noted the historical, environmental and educational strengths and draws of our city. He hopes to have a tourism board or committee for Shelby County in the future. This would allow our area to become more focused in tourism efforts. Currently all efforts are handled through the Birmingham Regional Tourism group.
Mr.Dedes cautioned the crowd not to forget existing businesses, which can be a real source of new businesses and ideas. The cost of bringing in a new business is very large, so it’s important to make sure the existing businesses’ needs are being met.
Mr. Dedes also expressed a need for industrial sites. Given Montevallo’s location (relatively far from the interstate), this might not be as important as for other cities.
Mr. Newell discussed his organization, the Birmingham Metropolitan Development Authority ($2.5 million budget, 65% private funding and 35% public support, 96 different units of government), and the area’s economy. He noted that $153 million in new development occurred in 2006 in the Birmingham area, with 42 new companies and 42,000 in new jobs created.
He pointed out that Montevallo’s strengths are: it’s in the (or one of the fastest) fastest growing counties in the state and it has the University of Montevallo.
From 2000-2005, the population of Shelby County grew by over 19%. The competition for business development is fierce and local efforts are well-funded. He advised developing strong leaders and matching your city’s strengths with business needs. You must build relationships and trust. There must be competence and follow-up.
Mayor Day began his discussion by emphasizing that Montevallo must be the best of who we are. No one can decide what or who we want to be except us. He complimented the city on its strengths. He stressed the need to build partnerships, especially with the University and the American Village. He expressed his envy that Montevallo has a beautiful stream running through its downtown. Thomasville has a ditch. He suggested that all marketing material contain something about all three: the city, the University and the American Village.
He said that the city must develop leadership throughout the community. You must find people with passion for their issues and people who believe in community.
He advised that you must develop relationships, network and form consensus. Do not be afraid to put someone opposed to an idea on that committee. You need to hear all sides.
He advised asking for double the amount of money you need when you try to get government support and grants.
He talked about how he sent a letter to all Boards and Committees when he took office. He thanked them all for their service, talked about a new era and knew the city could do better and more. He then asked if they wanted to remain on their respective Boards and many resigned (70% of his Industrial Development Board) and that was okay. It was their decision and he made sure he had people passionate and committed to getting the work done.
He said he started his job by reading all the old City Council minutes. He originally thought his job was to get everyone funneled in one way, but soon found out that his job was to put people passionate about their task in charge and keeping the ‘plates spinning’. His job was to make sure all the plates were spinning and generally in the same direction.
He felt Montevallo has a great opportunity with tourism dollars.
He gave examples of creative ideas for attracting people to the downtown area like the Ghost Walk and Christmas Stroll.
When questioned about finances, Mayor Day responded that Thomasville has a budget of around $7 million (Montevallo’s is less than $4 million). They have about $14 million in debt, most of that is Water and Sewer and Schools (Thomasville has a city school system) and about $2 million is other. He did say that they passed a 1% food tax on restaurants and business licenses to raise money to build a $3.7 million Civic Center. There was no opposition to the tax expressed at the public meeting.
He described how Thomasville supports its existing businesses by organizing a National Supplier Conference. He said the most successful idea has been “Business After Hours”. This is a monthly event held at various local businesses and is a networking opportunity. He described examples of how local businesses did not know their neighbor provided certain services that they had been filling outside of Thomasville. They also try to host ‘Roundtable’ events where similar industry businesses can get together.
Mayor Day strongly advised that new development should be multi-use (Thomasville has been doing multi-use since the early ‘90’s). Much of the new development in Thomasville is in the downtown area (where they’ve gone from 80% vacancy to 80-85% occupancy in 10 years) with retail on the ground floor and lofts or town homes on the top floors. He noted that the highest rent is in the downtown area ($850/month, with the average rent in Thomasville at $500/month).
When asked about Wal-Marts, Mayor Day (who used to manage a local Wal-Mart) responded that the area that gets a Wal-Mart obviously has a huge tax revenue in-flow. He said Thomasville’s local small businesses learned to cope by doing something Wal-Mart does not do. He said the businesses truly hurt by a Wal-Mart are the small businesses in the surrounding (10-20 miles) areas, not the businesses in the same town.
Thomasville is a WIFI city and he felt that Montevallo should be too. Thomasville partnered with the city schools in this effort. Again, he emphasized partnerships.
Mayor Day ended the meeting with the idea of dream big and being who you want to be. Understand that everything takes time and you must think long-term which is why planning is so crucial.