Mayoral candidates discuss employment

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 18, 2004

In 1992, then challenger Bill Clinton rode a wave of support past the first President Bush with a simple campaign reminder: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Though local politicians have much less control over the state of the economy, that motto still applies.

J-O-B. Three simple letters add up to one complex issue for the quartet running for Selma’s mayoral office this summer.

Fighting a national job market and an economy that has been sluggish at best, Selma incumbent Mayor James Perkins Jr. is proud of his administration’s record and Dallas County’s shrinking unemployment.

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The other three candidates, State Representative Yusef Salaam, the Rev. Glenn King and businessman Gene Hisel, believe Selma deserves better.

“The rapid creation of jobs is a blessing that is the result of faith and hard work.

We are seeing the results of the hard work done by capable and competent men of faith, Team Selma,” Perkins said. “We have put together an awesome industry recruiting and retention team that is relentless in its efforts to create jobs. The number of new businesses that have opened and existing business expansions are what the young people say is ‘off the chain.'”

Salaam points out that the unemployment numbers for the City of Selma itself aren’t as rosy as those for Dallas County. He says that only a rational community development strategy will bring the kind of

“mega jobs” to the area that will build Selma.

He says that Selma’s other problems and governmental bickering have stopped the top-notch industries from coming to Selma and Dallas County.

“In evaluating Selma, there are certain negative indicators such as poor housing, to preclude us from being chosen as potential location sites,” he said. “They way you’re going to get jobs is that you have to demonstrate that you have a community development strategy in place that’s designed to mitigate the negatives.

If people look at your community and see the problems and they don’t see the strategy or the plan, why take the risk?”

Like, Salaam, local businessman Gene Hisel sees industry and business hesitant to come to Selma because of local problems. He says the atmosphere hanging over the city has been impeding the growth of Selma.

He believes a change in the way local government responds to each other will make a difference.

“Bringing quality job opportunities to the citizens of Selma is of the utmost importance. However, we have made this a complex problem,” Hisel said. “Industry hesitates to locate in Selma due to high crime, controversy and other negative traits we have put on display.

In order to instill the spirit of pride, worst and fiscal well being in our citizens we must have job opportunities.

Until we can cooperate in improving our image that causes these barriers, we must concentrate on keeping our workforce, present businesses and jobs that we have.”

The Rev. Glenn King also says he believes Selma can attract bigger industries with bigger numbers of jobs to the area and that he’s the man to get that job done.

“Selma needs a go-getter, a hunter, a fisherman, a lion, a bull and an eagle.

One that will bring the dinner home for Selma, for everybody,” he said. “I mean top of the line, porterhouse steak.

The present administration is banking on what the Hyundai plant (in Hope Hull) can do, that’s not good enough for Selma.

We need to focus on new jobs, not the scraps that come out of Montgomery.”

Even without those jobs from Montgomery hitting the employment market, Dallas County has seen improving numbers.

The arrival of Renesol (a Tier II Hyundai supplier) jobs early next year as well as impending expansions at other local businesses means the county’s unemployment rate has been steadily falling.

That is, until June.

The latest unemployment numbers have Dallas County at a 13.4 percent for June up from 10.3 percent in May.

The June numbers are misleading. They factor in seasonal unemployment like teachers and other school employees.

Last June, for example the number was 15.2 percent.

Many pundits expect Dallas County to continue to fall and close in on single digits, a barrier that hasn’t been breached for at least a decade.

But is that good enough?

So far Selma and Dallas County have watched as surrounding areas land industries related the Hyundai Plant in Hope Hull. Dallas County recently landed Renesol Corp. and its 120 jobs.

Team Selma promises more jobs, but Salaam points to Luverne and wonders why they were able to beat Selma to two of the premier industries.

“In this 21st century competitive global economy business and industrial interests have many options in the environment of any potential site location, they have specialists to (research) that.

Many have seen the blatant discord in Selma and simply refused to locate here,” Salaam said. “Let’s look south to Luverne, Alabama, a small town without the sophisticated infrastructure development on the level of a Craig Field but who has a reputation for civic harmony and peace.

We will find that they got two of the largest spin-offs of any area in this state.

In all honesty, Selma was the last choice and like many last choice losers, had to settle take the crumbs even though we had the best physical infrastructure in the state in the form of Craig Field.”

Hisel thinks one of the areas Selma can continue to improve is in the growing tourism industry. The owner of two BP Stations on Highland Avenue says the influx of out-of-town dollars can make a big difference in Selma’s economic standing.

“Amplifying our efforts to further one of our greatest industries, tourism and history will help support us until the changes we need can be put in place,” Hisel said. “As long as the atmosphere of controversy remains, industry is not going to be knocking on our door and coming to our city. In speaking to many of the leadership, I have found that they want unity and peace in Selma that would be the starting point for all of the positive things that Selma should be.”

King, however, believes the automotive industry holds the key to Selma’s future.

He just doesn’t believe the future is tied up in Hyundai.

The United Auto Worker’s representative still makes bi-monthly trips to Detroit and meets with union and auto leaders.

He believes if elected, he can attract some American auto business to the south.

“If I’m elected mayor, I guarantee we will move forward,” he said. “Companies don’t have time to train people today. They put money, federal money set up for that, grant money. I’m constantly traveling back to Detroit, getting information so we can get set up here.

I want to see every man, boy, woman and girl working if they want to work. I’m talking about going out and getting the jobs myself.”

Perkins says attracting businesses to town is easier said than done.

Like Salaam, he says Selma needs a comprehensive plan, to get their share of the pie in a competitive market.

“Some people seem to think that we can just invite businesses into our area and they will come.

The challenge is much greater than that and the process is fiercely competitive.

Selma is competing with communities all over the world for every job created,” Perkins said. “During a time when the nation has really been hit hard economically, we have really been blessed.

In Dallas County, we have created more jobs than we have lost.

There are not too many communities that can say that, especially in the Black Belt.”

King advocates exploring other avenues as well.

He said he’d like to see a hospital returned to the old Vaughan building.

“I’m shopping in other big areas, too. You can’t just depend on Hyundai because Hyundai can’t supply everybody,” he said.

However, he added, auto industry jobs will be the best for Selma.

“I’m strictly a working union man and what it’s going to take to move Selma forward is those good auto industry jobs.”

Whether Selma’s future industry is in the auto industry or not, Perkins said it’s important the area’s transportation systems are improved and maintained. “Even though we have Highway 80, over 20 miles are still two lane. Even though we have the Alabama River, each year we have had to go to Washington to save needed funding to maintain the river channel depth and dams,” Perkins said. “Without these two things, we could lose this transportation and recreation resource.

Even though we are working on Selma’s Riverfront Development, you would be surprised as to how much time has been spent over the past three years just to maintain the river channel.” The riverfront development project, which would turn the Water Avenue area into a park-filled, aquatic showplace for the town, is a project that Hisel is behind as well.

“This would be a great draw for our greatest industry, certainly all emphasis should be put on tourism,” he said.

The difference in attracting top-notch industry to Selma may come down to showing them the city has a plan in place to take care of its problems.

“(Then) they can come in and say, ‘you do have these problems, but I like what you’ve got in place.

It looks like it’s effective. We’re going to take a chance and invest in Selma,'” Salaam said.