IDB updates city leaders

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 27, 2007

DEMOPOLIS &8212; John Laney, the president of the Industrial Development Board told city leaders the key to economic development in the area is the formation of the Marengo County Economic Development Authority.

Laney&8217;s comments came during an update to the city council presented at a luncheon yesterday. Laney said the update is a regular part of the board&8217;s commitment to keeping city leaders informed about their projects.

Regionalism must be reality

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Laney said a regional approach to drawing businesses to Demopolis and Marengo County is absolutely necessary. He said the work of a steering committee to form the county-wide authority has been promising thus far, and he encouraged city leaders to support and champion the effort.

The committee, Laney said, is &8220;comprised of a cross section of people throughout the county.&8221; He said the diverse nature of the committee should help in the development of the authority.

In addition to a regional push, Laney said it is important for city leaders to all be in agreement when it comes to talking to prospective businesses. To illustrate the point, Laney discussed efforts in Mobile and Huntsville and how they differed from what is happening in Birmingham.

Developing new business key component

City leaders also listened to an overview of the IDB&8217;s work. Laney said the board has worked on 23 inquiries in the past two years. Of those inquiries, 11 were for heavy industry, five were for wood product companies, five were agricultural ventures and two were plastics companies. Laney said only three projects &8212; all for heavy industry &8212; are still active.

The IDB has also begun looking at recruiting retail development and marketing the City of Demopolis as a destination for retirees. Both ventures are led by committees made up of people both from the IDB and from the general public.

The retail committee is preparing for a trip to Las Vegas where they will attend the largest retail conference in the world.

The retirement committee grew from a trend that is taking place in other cities where retirees who lived on or near coastal parts of Alabama and Mississippi are moving more inland because of the rising costs of real estate and house insurance. Laney said people on fixed incomes are searching for more affordable places to live, and that Demopolis could capitalize on this trend.

Sticker shock, opportunities obstacles

Laney warned city leaders that luring businesses to the area was becoming more and more expensive. His best piece of advice in being successful in landing the businesses here was to &8220;not be scared by sticker shock.&8221;

Laney gave examples of tax incentives that cities were offering businesses, in addition to state incentives. Councilman Jack Cooley, one of two councilmen present at the meeting, spoke out in favor of the tax incentives but said that the IDB had to be ready to back the venture.

Mayor Cecil Williamson said she learned from a recent meeting where Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom said Louisiana is out of the running for the steel plant that is looking to relocate near Mobile. The mayor said that project would put Demopolis and Marengo County in line for a tier-one or tier-two supplier for the plant.

Laney said several current projects in surrounding areas bode well for the city. He describe it as a a ripple effect.

In the meantime, the area is also trying to deal with obstacles for current industries and their well-being or expansion.

Laney said the IDB visited 19 industries in the area over the last several month. During the visits, he said industries that dealt with catfish or the housing market were facing tough times due to overseas competition. However, he said they are not sitting back fretting but &8220;addressing the issues with enthusiasm.&8221;

Another common concern that Laney said the IDB hears is about the availability of affordable housing. He said most businesses have been surprised at the lack of good, affordable housing under $200,000, especially in the $90,000 to $125,000 range.

Councilman Thomas Moore, who also chairs the Community and Economic Development Committee for the Alabama League of Municipalities, said he has heard the same complaints. In addition to housing, he said, finding rental property is also a challenge.

Laney said rental property &8212; especially apartment complexes &8212; are often attractive to single young business people who move into the area and are not ready to purchase a home.