HAMILTON - C3 of Northwest Alabama Economic Development Alliance Executive Director David Thornell stood before the Marion County Commission on Monday, Dec. 10, to address concerns the commission had regarding a future vote to pay the yearly alliance member fee.
It was Thornell’s first appearance before the newly-seated commission since their swearing-in on Nov. 14. The commission wanted to hear from Thornell to clear up any issues before the commission votes on whether to pay the $30,000 fee to the C3 alliance.
C3 markets the regional strengths to national and international companies looking to establish themselves in northwest Alabama. The C3 serves Marion, Fayette and Lamar counties and the municipalities within those counties.
Thornell’s appearance at the regularly scheduled meeting served as an opportunity for the C3 director to brief the commission on current and future projects and as an opportunity for new commission members to ask questions about the inner-workings of the alliance.
Thornell congratulated the commission on their recent election success and thanked them for their continued support.
“Congratulations and I’m proud to see you in these commission seats and I’m looking forward to working with you as we have the entire history of C3, since the alliance was formed in 2010,” Thornell said to the five-member county commission.
Thornell said the alliance was formed to serve as a driver for economic development in the three-county area. The C3 board is composed of representatives from each of the dues-paying members, he said.
“In Marion County your attorney Scott Hunt (seated in the audience) is the voting member and then Matt LeDuke here,” Thornell said, introducing the Guin city judge, who was also seated in the audience, “is the ex-officio member and we appreciate them. They bring a lot to the board in terms of ideas and looking over your investment to make sure we do the right things.” An ex-officio member is a non-voting member of the board that offers advice and ideas to the C3, Thornell said.
Thornell also mentioned other board members in Marion County including Bill Atkinson and Phillip Harrod.
Thornell introduced the incoming board chair, former Sulligent Mayor Al Elbert, seated in the audience next to Tombigbee Electric Cooperative president, Steve Foshee. Elbert is the former mayor of Sulligent who moved to Sulligent in 1970 to help establish the, then new, Hyster-Yale forklift truck manufacturing facility. Thornell took the opportunity to say that a subsidiary of Hyster-Yale, the Italian company called Balzoni-Auroma, that makes forklift attachments, is moving its United States headquarters from Illinois to Sulligent.
“That will bring about a $70 million investment and more than 50 jobs to Sulligent,” Thornell said.
Thornell told the commission that when C3 began, the average unemployment rate for the county was 13.2 percent. “That was in the fall of 2010 and the unemployment rates, as you look now, are at about 4 percent or less. Marion County is less than Walker County and Jasper. Marion county is less than Colbert County and less than Mobile county and many other counties. When you look around you think, ‘Well certainly they are doing better, we read more about them.’ The thing is we’ve been under the radar and had a lot of good things going on in our area because we don’t have the major media coverage that they do in larger cities. But from 2015 to 2017 we have had 1,914 jobs announced and $328 million in investment through 2017.
This year it’s going to be close to a hundred million and an additional 500 jobs. The thing about these companies that are growing and even moving in, they want to control that publicity because, first of all, maybe they are going to be scrutinized from what they are doing from a competitive standpoint. They want to make sure they are just making a dollar and making a product and that’s the most important thing to them rather than publicity.
“So we don’t have a lot of companies that share information about their comings and going, but they do call us if they are looking for incentives.”
Thornell offered Tiffin Motor Homes and Hamilton Home Builders as two companies contributing to local job growth. Tiffin opened a production facility in Winfield in 2016 and Hamilton Home Builders established a facility in Hamilton in 2017.
“Tiffin is doing really well. They’re probably at close to 250 employees right now. It’s really hard to keep up, they are growing so fast. And the same thing is happening at Hamilton Home Builders right now in Hamilton. Those guys had a history at Riverbirch Homes, but they have come to Hamilton with a brand new business. They now have exceeded 200 employees and are doing really well in the old Buccaneer building. And the same goes for other local manufactured home companies.”
Thornell said C3 works with the companies in the area of workforce development.
“We have worked with the mobile home companies in recent weeks at a meeting at Bevill to come up with an agreement for them to look at the Ready to Work Program for their employees. Ready to Work is a program just for soft skills. Companies are saying, ‘We can train anybody on the technical side of our business, if they’ll show up and be responsible for themselves and exhibit the right behavior to listen and learn, then we’ll teach them the job and give them the job if they’re going through this Ready to Work program. That’s the agreement that we developed with several of these mobile home manufacturers and Tiffin,” Thornell said.
District 2 commissioner Kenneth Cochran asked Thornell about the C3’s connection to the manufacturers in the three-county area.
“What is the direct connection C3 has got with Sulligent, Winfield, and Hamilton Homebuilders? What is the direct connection that C3 enticed these people to expand their business? What is the connection when you are telling me the unemployment rate has gone down? A lot of this is due to President Trump and his restrictions are lifted. What is the direct connection that C3 has got with these three because I know I’ve dealt with some of these,” Cochran asked.
“It’s interesting,” Thornell responded, “that you mention President Trump, because some of the things with the trade tariffs immediately led to calls to our office from some of the international companies—Japanese companies, Canadian companies that we deal with—saying that hurts us. The case is that every one of those companies we talk to, they have an interest in making the most of their investments. They need the people to be trained; they need all of these dots to be connected. We formed C3 to have a group that’s daily looking at all aspects of our business environment—what it is that makes us competitive. Are we promoting those things? Are we getting the word out that this is a place that will welcome them. It’s a process that’s always behind the scenes but it always happens when companies have these things that come up as opportunities, or come up as problems, then we’re going to be involved,” Thornell said.
“I guess what I’m asking,” Cochran said, “is what can you show me that you’ve contacted these people to show we’re spending our money wisely? What can you show me that C3 has been involved with these companies that have expanded their businesses and why should the county spend their money with C3? That’s what I’m trying to ask,” Cochran said.
Thornell said that C3 is the contact for industries and retail businesses possibly looking to locate in Marion, Fayette or Lamar counties. The businesses approach C3 asking about possible incentives, Thornell said.
“It’s smart for them to ask, ‘What’s the best that you can do for me?’ So that question is being asked of the counties and of the cities of this area, ‘What can you do for me?’ And so that leads to these conversations about local resources and we are going to provide that information to make sure they are taking advantages of these things. We tell them the programs were created for your advantage. So, we get calls and emails and we invite them to meetings. Because of our marketing people, they know that we are the contact. People know that we’re the ones that work through the issues— that we can pull together to make this possible and we’re the ones to do that.”
“I understand that,”Cochran said, “but I was on the city council when Hamilton Home Builders came to us for tax incentives and we wasn’t on the C3. I want to know how you are connected with them and these other companies,” Cochran asked.
“Well, I did the tax abatement forms,” Thornell said. “I did all that up here at the coffee shop with the folks at Hamilton Home Builders. I helped them to get all the I’s dotted and the T’s crossed to bring to the council. No, I didn’t come to the council meeting to present it, but it was their request,” Thornell said.
Thornell said C3 also makes sure local industries have their paperwork in order to present to the state of Alabama revenue department, “to make sure they are in line legally.”
“You need to show that you’re registered with the secretary of state to show that you are a new company. You need to show that your place and service time matches your start-up date and that your investment matches what’s eligible for tax abatements,” Thornell said.
“I think a lot of what our people is looking for,” District 1 commissioner Keith Nichols said, “in the county is a spin-off job out of Mercedes where we could create some jobs around here that people can drive local and make 20 or 25 bucks an hour instead of driving to Tupelo, Huntsville or to Tuscaloosa and keeping our kids local.”
“Spin-off jobs from those companies are here,” Thornell said. “And it is the case that over half our employees drive outside of their home county, but that just may be next door to the next county. In our case it comes through our business-retention efforts—just in visiting companies and talking to companies. There is never a week that there is not two or three contacts with whom we are working on specific things with the companies that come up,” Thornell said.
Commission chairman Bob Burleson asked Thornell if anyone beside C3 could do the work.
“I don’t know how you could do it. Certainly you couldn’t do it on your own in terms of effective, efficient use of dollars to say ‘Here is an organization in place to represent us,’ that can wave the flag and get the banner out there and make sure that we’re in the fight for all these things. We wrote letters and had conversations with consultants from Toyota and Mazda to the point that they said, ‘We’ve already got our place.’ So we always want to make sure that we’ve got somebody, somewhere in place employed by you guys to see if we can’t get in the hunt. We’re going to be on the lookout for, and making sure we’ve got the relationships to be a part of this process. This process is always going to be behind the scenes. A lot happens under the radar that this commission and others that pay for our organization maybe don’t realize. But the good thing is that at the end of the day we see success and we celebrate that success in terms of jobs,” Thornell said.
Burleson asked Thornell where companies get their information about the counties and cities when a company wants to expand or an existing company wants to relocate to the area.
“Well, it could come from us,” Thornell said, “certainly from our website. We are fortunate to have gotten the domain name northwestalabamaeda.org…”
“So it could come or it does come?” Cochran interjected. “Why ain’t it already coming if we are paying you? That’s my question. My problem is, how much money do you get from all three counties and all the towns? That’s the question I’ve been asked. We’re to keep up with our money, to keep an itemized statement of everything we spend. We want to know what we are getting for our money. And it all boils down to money,” Cochran said.
Thornell said the C3 budget is just over $400,000. Winfield, Hamilton and Fayette pay $25,000 to be a member of C3 and smaller communities pay $500. The counties of Marion, Fayette and Lamar pay $30,000 each in yearly dues to C3.
“If you’ve got a $400,000 a year budget, do you have anything in reserve?” Cochran asked.
“We do have some money in reserve, but that’s for a future office. We’d love to have an office that’s a little higher profile out on the interstate. We’re not trying to build a bank account,” Thornell said.
“How is your account handled and who’s oversight?” Cochran asked.
“We’re audited each year by Rick McCabe of McCabe and Associates in Fayette,” Thornell said. “Each year Rick presents the statements and the audit to the board. We’ve got some good guys on that board that are looking at that each month or every other month when we meet.”
“When you mention the cities and counties that’s paying up, are all those cities that you mentioned, are they still in it?” Nichols asked.
“No, Mr. Cochran can tell you that Hamilton is not in,” Thornell said referring to the Hamilton City Council’s March 2017 vote to discontinue paying dues to the C3. Cochran was a member of that council that voted 6-0 to no longer be a member of C3.
“Well, I gave you a year to give us something in Hamilton and I said I would come back and vote you back in. Did I not say that?” Cochran said. “Did I not say a year? And as far as I know Hamilton has not got anything. And I ain’t got nothing against you personally, I just want to know where the money is going. We’re all held accountable for our money.”
Nichols asked how many municipalities besides Hamilton are not in C3.
“In Marion County, most of the communities are in,” Thornell said. “We talked to them (Hamilton) just recently about coming back in. They tried some different avenues that didn’t work,” Thornell said, referring to Hamilton’s short-lived contract with Retail Strategies, “and they (Hamilton) are thinking they need to come back and be a part of C3 to show that unity, to make sure that this area is working together.”
“Well, I agree,” Cochran said, “that we need somebody to represent these counties and us but my thing is, why can’t we hire an individual to represent us for Marion County? If for eight year now, we’ve been paying this and we haven’t seen—and you can say you’ve talked to some people, and I’m not doubting you ain’t talked to people—what I’m saying, where’s the fruit at? What are we getting for our money?” Cochran asked.
“How can you get one person set up and established to have that type of marketing impact?” Thornell responded.
“Well I’m sort of weighing it out and what have I got now?” Cochran asked.
“Well, you’ve got plenty. I just mentioned some things,” Thornell responded.
“But I don’t. You’ve got a $400,000 a year budget. That’s more than we’ve got in each district to run on and we have to show where our money goes,” Cochran said.
Thornell said C3 is competing with other economic development organizations with larger budgets and staffs across the state. “They have specialists in every part of what we do. There is a way to spend more, there is a way to spend less,” he said.
“But what I’m getting at is, where is the statements at—the itemized statements of where our money is going? I asked this when I was on the city council. I asked where is the money going and to this day, I haven’t gotten anything,” Cochran said.
Thornell invited Cochran to the C3 office located in Gu-Win.
“We’re paying you. You should bring it to us. See what I’m getting at,” Cochran said. “We shouldn’t have to chase you down and ask where these itemized statements are at.”
“It’s no problem,” Thornell said, “we’ll share that, but you are going to need some explanation of what this is in terms of other economic development organizations or the type of money that you would put into certain aspects of economic development.”
“I’m not saying I don’t trust you,” Cochran said. “It’s just that you don’t trust anybody when it comes to money. You see what I’m saying?”
“Well yeah, I’d be happy to share it with you,” Thornell said.
Tombigbee Electric’s Steve Foshee stood and asked if he could help answer a few questions about local economic development. Foshee said that these same issues had arisen with various local economic development organizations that existed before C3. Foshee said that the commission paid more to those organizations than they are currently paying into C3. Foshee said C3 was formed to lower costs and market the three counties to industry.
“The whole issue tothe growth of our county and the well-being of our county is marketing—going to these trade shows and knocking on the doors. I’ve been involved in economic development for 35 years, and let’s just be honest about Northwest Alabama. We’re not thought of very much, especially out of Montgomery. If we’re not out there marketing and picking ourselves up out of the ditch and doing what we are supposed to be doing ourselves, nobody is going to save us, that’s what we’re involved in,” Foshee said.
Foshee also said that he has served on the C3 board that oversees how the development authority’s money is spent.
“There are all kinds of attorneys on the board and there are all kinds of accountants on the board. They oversee the money. There is a detailed budget and every penny is accounted for. It’s properly spent. They go through proper procedures every other month,” Foshee said.
“How are we supposed to know that when we ain’t got nothing in front of us to look at?” Cochran asked.
“There is a communication issue,” Foshee said, “and obviously everybody who serves on that board, they are professionals, too. They are very busy, just like you all are very busy, and David is very busy. The hardest thing in our communities, our organizations and churches is communication.”
“I agree,” Cochran said. “I’m not disputing anything you’re saying or what he (Thornell) is saying. What my problem is, is where is the money trail? Where is the money going?”
“There is an audit,” Foshee said, “and what he needs to do is get you that so you can both see the budget and the audit. There are audits done by a professional accounting firm and they’ve always been audited. The whole thing is there, he just needs to share that with you so you can look at it. But I promise you at the end of the day, this is the best value you can humanly expect to get. Yeah, you can go hire somebody but if you want to hire somebody, and then spend years developing relationships, it’s going to cost you some serious money if you want to just deal with Marion County. And the reality is that’s already been tried, and guess what everybody did? They didn’t want to try it very much longer because of the money it was taking,” Foshee said.
“I’ve got a question,” Nichols said. “Is (commission attorney) Scott (Hunt) a member of this board? Ok. I had an issue with that just myself over the weekend. I wanted to contact Scott, he’s the county commission lawyer, right? I wanted to contact him and talk to him about C3. He’s a board member. I think, through the ethics, I don’t need to do that. How can he give me advice on what the commission thinks on C3 and him being a board member and drawing a check off C3 with his board membership? Who can explain that? Scott may can explain that to me.”
Nichols said he wanted to contact Hunt and ask his advice on paying the C3 dues. “How am I going to get a straight answer out of that and how are you tied to that? That’s my question,” Nichols said.
“Couple things,” Hunt replied. “One: As board members, we don’t get paid, unless I have missed my checks somewhere. Also, I’m the commission’s appointee and if you all want someone else, then you all can replace me if you feel like there is a conflict.”
“Do you understand what I’m saying though?” Nichols asked. “How would I come to you and ask you (about C3) when you are on their board? You’re on both sides.”
“Well, I represent you all on that board,” Hunt explained.
“When is the contract due? When does it expire,” Cochran asked Thornell.
“Our fiscal year is from October to the end of September. That’s sort of like what we were dealing with in Hamilton when they were deciding whether to pay later in the year versus earlier in the year,” Thornell said referring to an issue the Hamilton City Council had with an early invoice the night it voted to opt out of C3. “But our members pay at any point in time. Some pay by the month and some pay quarterly and some just pay a single check.”
“How long do we have to pay up?” Cochran asked.
“Anytime, there is no rush at all,” Thornell said.
Thornell then briefed the commission on a few projects, tasks and meetings the C3 had coming up for the week. Thornell thanked the commission for the opportunity to speak and said he would get the information that had been requested.
“Mr. Thornell, I do appreciate you coming,” Burleson said. “I do know that there’s never been a time that I’ve been serving on this commission that you can drive down the road here and see help wanted signs out. I’ve heard that 80 percent of jobs come from existing companies and I think we are expanding some of these. And, also, I think we’ll always have a hard time growing in this area when you have the I-65 pipeline—Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery to Mobile, that can elect your governors and top officials, you’re always going to have to compete against those larger places to get recognition over here in northwest Alabama, but I do think it’s coming.”
“And speaking of signs,” Cochran said, “your billboard is in pitiful shape,” he said referring to a billboard on Interstate 22.
Thornell said he would look into having the billboard replaced.
“It looks bad,” Cochran said.
“Thank you, Mr. Thornell for coming,” Burleson said. “We appreciate the information.”
Moving on to other business, the commission voted unanimously to approve the commission’s yearly financial statement that ended on Sept. 30, 2018.
Also, Stephanie Plunkett with the Marion County Emergency Management Agency appeared before the commission to notify them that a vote was needed on whether to stay in a hazardous mitigation group composed of Marion, Franklin, Colbert and Winston counties.
Remaining in the group and updating the group’s five-year plan will allow Northwest Alabama Council Of Local Governments to apply for grants and funding in the event of a hazardous mitigation situation, Plunkett said. The commission voted unanimously to remain in the group.
See complete story in the Journal Record.