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June 2020
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What will success look like with new economic developer?

Unless something unexpected occurs, Pickens County and the city of Jasper will welcome Green B. Suttles III in mid-January to head joint economic development efforts between the city and county.

Suttles, whose name sounds like something straight out of a Disney movie, will officially become the president and CEO of The Development Authority of Pickens County.

The development authority under both city and county have worked to develop a new approach, in terms of how the office is structured, and who-answers-to-who approach. The glaring weaknesses in our old approach was clearly seen in the debacle of the outgoing economic developer when it became unclear who could relieve him of duty.

Now they are back with a “proven model” of economic development used across the nation, which, in itself, is a big step in the right direction.

We are encouraged that the county/city have created a clear path to succeed and a chain of command and better oversight tools, and have brought in someone with experience. The next steps will not be easy. Mr. Suttles will begin work in an office that has been empty for almost two years, and hasn’t brought home any bacon in many years.

To use a sports metaphor this would be like bringing in a new coach and then telling him to go find players and develop his own facilities. Mr. Suttles comes with plenty of experience from work in and around Mobile, AL but one has to wonder what peach state connections he can draw from?

Before we get too excited to see what revived economic development will do, there is one simple question the community members need to answer or be given an opportunity to chime in on: What do we want?

What kind of economic development prospects should our new rainmaker target? What are realistic projects/goals to go after? And what would success look like?

It’s hard to gauge what the community is seeking. In covering numerous forums over the past few years, there is never a clear consensus on how the community  views growth. 

There are always calls for more businesses here - people who point out that a broader commercial tax base would open the door for more government services and lower taxes.

And there are a good number of people who say that the best thing we can do is maintain the small town feel and rural lifestyle.

It’s hard to see how you could have both, feasibly. Ideally, it would be nice to see better jobs in more diverse industries that would appeal to younger people and allow more of our recent graduates to find work here.

But this smacks up against the fact that there is already such a low employment rate that local business leaders routinely cite finding a qualified work force as a chief hurdle.

And this goes back one step further to lack of affordable housing, preventing people from moving here.

With the status quo, we’ve seen a VA clinic, large assisted living/commercial area and new businesses in downtown all arrive with the economic developer post vacant.

When you look at what’s coming already (“inbound” as sales people call it) and the lack of unemployment, we are clearly not desperate. We’re not an area where just any new jobs would be welcome. No one will applaud minimum wage positions with  disruptive, noisy or polluting industries.

But there is the reality that we are in a cycle limited residential growth with people itching for more commercial opportunities and young people migrating out of Pickens County. A middle ground might look like this - not necessarily more but better. What can we do to strengthen what is already here – bring in some low-impact new businesses that will hire people at higher wages, but do not demand throngs of new workers.

Trying to walk the tightrope of better but not much bigger won’t be easy. And it starts with open conversations with the community as a whole.