Getting the jobs done

on June 10, 2015

Chambers County's dramatic improvement in unemployment rate — the best performance in the nation since 2009 — should be a matter of pride

By Cy Wood, Publisher/Editor

Chambers County's dramatic improvement in unemployment rate — the best performance in the nation since
2009 — should be a matter of pride for all county residents. It's not easy to climb out of a hole where better than one of every five willing workers in the county lacked a job, and that was the situation here in 2009. Today, Chambers County has a better unemployment rate than Alabama or the United States, but it didn't just happen. The Chambers County Development Authority has had its shoulder to the wheel all during those six years of job growth. The county got lucky, yes. Having Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia locate an automotive assembly plant in West Point, less than six miles from Chambers County, was a godsend. A lot of the jobs that helped to lower the county's unemployment rate are at supplier plants for the KMMG plant. But not all of them. The success story in Chambers transcends the serendipity of Kia. Chambers County got serious about diversifying its industrial base a long time ago — back in the 1980s. It wasn't that visionary leaders here foresaw the end of the textile industry in the county — they just knew the wisdom of not putting all your eggs in one basket. Since that great awakening, other industries have come to Chambers County — Knauf, MeadWestvaco and Norbord, to name some of the more familiar ones. In the aftermath of the Great Recession and the housing meltdown, both Knauf and Norbord shuttered their facilities here. Knauf has already reopened and is expanding its production capabilities, and Norbord is committed to reopening its oriented strand board plant in the near future. MeadWestvaco is currently expanding, and could grow even more due to a recent merger. Most of the automotive suppliers in Chambers County have expanded since opening plants here. Just how strong is the job market in Chambers County? Let's look at two recent situations. The Economic Development Partnership of Alabama recently released its 2015 first quarter report on industry expansions in the state. The report listed 25 announced projects, and seven of them were in Chambers County. Montgomery had four, Morgan three, Baldwin two, Jefferson one — and Chambers seven. It won't necessarily be that way every quarter, but that's the atmosphere prevailing in the county. Each of those expansions involves jobs. It may be just a handful, but when multiple plants are expanding and creating new positions, a handful here and a handful there addup to a lot of jobs and a rapidly declining unemployment rate. The CCDA isn't content to sit back and wait for jobs to come to Chambers County. It recently commissioned a workforce analysis for the county. So why would such a study be of any use to Chambers County? It enables the county, specifically the CCDA staff but
also other entities that are interested in promoting economic development in the county, to tell site selectors and companies looking for a new location that Chambers County can provide the whole package — land, incentives and a suitable workforce. It offers existing industries the assurance that if they need to grow, Chambers County is the place where they should grow. The county is getting a lot of positive news on the economic front, and it's encouraging, especially for those who had to endure the hard times of the past couple of decades. But the news is not all good. While Chambers County is creating jobs and providing a welcoming attitude toward business and industry, the county is not growing in population. It is, in effect, getting half a loaf from its economic development successes. The industries are coming here and they are prospering here, but they aren't bringing a lot of people into the county. Chambers County's population would have to increase by 20 percent to get back to where it was three decades ago. As the CCDA does its stellar job of bringing jobs to the county, the rest of us need to be working on bringing people here to help fill those jobs.

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