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Still Room To Grow: State’s growth not as evident in region

DEMOPOLIS – Gov. Bob Riley’s announcement June 9 that Alabama had been named the 2004 State of the Year from Southern Business and Development magazine heralded a positive message about growth, job creation and stability in the state’s economy.

It is the second year Alabama has garnered the honor.

“Our ranking as number one is a monumental accomplishment recognizing that Alabama is the place where there are more jobs, more prosperity and more opportunity,” Riley said.

“When I came into office, our state had been experiencing growth primarily in the automobile sector.

I instructed the Alabama Development Office to widen the playing field to all parts of the state and to other industries so we could give more Alabamians opportunities for better jobs,” Governor Riley said.

“We’ve accomplished this mission, while maintaining remarkable growth in the auto sector. From the Tennessee border to the Gulf of Mexico, and all points in-between, the job opportunities and the prosperity they create have been spread across Alabama as never before.”

Riley noted that since January 2003, 19,000 new jobs have been created statewide by more than 500 companies either expanding or locating in Alabama.

The Black Belt, however, hasn’t seen much of that growth, although local economic developer Jay Shows says the Demopolis area has held its own in the past year.

“We haven’t seen job growth, but we’ve held our own and that’s important,” he said.

Unemployment figures released this month by the state support that suggestion.

In Marengo County, that boasts three industrial parks

– one on Highway 43 just south of Demopolis, one at the Demopolis Municipal Airport and other at Linden – rates have stayed close to the 4 percent mark since April of 2003, although April 2004’s 4.4 percent is up from 3.7 percent a year ago.

Translated into numbers, that rate means 490 Marengo countians are out of work, down from 20 people from the March reports.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean that all of those people are employable,” Shows said.

Some may choose not to work for whatever reason, he said.

The county’s employable civilian workforce stood at 11,220 people in April, the latest month for which statistics are available from the state’s Department of Industrial Relations.

Across the region, Sumter County, among the highest in unemployment in the state, had a 12.7 percent unemployment rate in April, up one-tenth of a point from a year ago and up 2.7 percent from March.

Greene County’s unemployment stands at 9.7 percent, and Perry County’s stands is 9.1 percent. Hale County had an April unemployment rate of 8.7 percent.

For Shows, industrial development isn’t hinged around the automotive industry Riley credits for the state’s success over the past two years., and Riley now says that diversity has played a key role in the state’s economic success.

“When Alabama previously won this award, it was due primarily to one automobile plant announcement.

Our more recent economic growth has been more diverse.

We have created new jobs in virtually every sector of our economy, from telecommunications and aerospace to plastics and agribusiness,” Riley said.

“These are industries that have tremendous capacity to expand and create even more jobs.”

Shows believes targeting “the best fit” industries for the Demopolis area is a more practical approach to industrial recruitment, and believes the labor force here is a trainable, efficient one.

“Most of our workforce is educatable and trainable. Most are literate and we have a high percentage of high school graduates and high percentage of people that have some college or vocational school training,” he said. “We’re capable of adapting to any type of industry.”

But the best fit for the region is in the paper and wood products area, and to that end, Shows is making an effort to jumpstart the process with his Industrial Development Board.

Earlier this week, for example, he paid a visit to an Auburn University center that specializes in the wood products industry in an effort to develop contacts that could help market the area.

“Any progress, whether in Demopolis or Marengo County helps the entire region,” he said.

Through the efforts of the Industrial Development Board in Demopolis, a cold-call list is being developed and worked to introduce companies to the area.

“That helps us attract companies that have a logical fit for our region and that benefit by being located near our existing industries,” he said.