Column/Selling Dallas County Selma

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 29, 2006

Wayne Vardaman is a salesman. That was evident to me from the first time we shook hands before a lunch meeting to discuss economic development in Selma and Dallas County. Vardaman, whose former job was as senior vice president of operations with American Candy Company, is now president of the Selma and Dallas County Centre for Commerce, and entity that is comprised of the Economic Development Authority, Chamber of Commerce, Tourism and Leadership program.

The building the Centre for Commerce is housed in, which used to be the Carnegie Library building before falling into disrepair, is, to me, a microcosm of economic development in Dallas County. With much local investment in dollars and sweat equity, something that was once negative, a building that had become an eyesore, was turned into something positive, a first class, one-stop-shop for economic diversity application.

“I wanted a place where we can give a presentation and people say ‘wow,'” Vardaman said, sitting at the head of the Centre of Commerce’s elegant conference room table, flipping through a PowerPoint presentation used to help lure jobs to Dallas County. “We’ve had the big boys here. The president of Lockheed Martin has been here and everybody from the state (Alabama Development Office) that comes here says ‘Wayne, this is really nice.'”

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During our conversation Vardaman, a lifelong Dallas Countian, gave me a short history of economic development in Dallas County as he knew it.

“Early on our strategic plan was wood and food related industries,” he said. “But you take what comes along and automotive came along. Most of the activity the last several years has been in the automotive industry, directly related to the Hyundai plant.”

On the heels of that comment, Vardaman was quick to point out that he doesn’t sit around and wait for industrial prospects to ring his phone.

“We don’t sit back and wait for (projects) to come along,” he said. “They can come from ADO, word of mouth and other sources, but what we’ve learned to do is fight for what we’ve got.”

And while Vardaman says there have been those that criticized the county for not getting enough Hyundai suppliers, he says the county actually has done pretty well luring Lear, Renosol and Hanil E-Hwa to the Dallas County Industrial Park, netting approximately 500 automotive related jobs.

He also hinted at several announcements on the horizon. Announcements that would mean more jobs to an economy that, after taking a drive around Selma and seeing a busy manufacturing environment, would make an improving economic situation better.

He’s also a realist that understands, from having lived the life of a manufacturer, that sometimes business conditions force layoffs and closures. Such was seen this week with the temporary closure of Louisiana Pacific, idling some 35 workers until after the first of the year.

Being someone who has covered industrial announcements in the past, both good and bad, I understand where he’s coming from. Such is the natural progression of a business lifecycle. The good times don’t last forever and there are always bumps in the road, but the important thing is how you respond.

Such was the basis of the question I posed to him regarding the city’s recent brush with Lockheed Martin, which, Vardaman says, picked Selma for a flight training school, but wound up not getting picked by the Air Force for the project.

“Losing that project did more for the EDA than anything,” he said.

Confused, I pressed him as to what he meant.

“It forced us to be better salespeople, to build libraries of information that we can now use to lure others to our four industrial parks.”

Being one who closely watched the process from afar, I understood the impact winning such a project could have had on the people of Dallas County.

“Sen. (Hank) Sanders put it well when he said people associate the economic demise of Selma with the closing of Craig Field (1978) so this would have been a symbolic victory for Selma,” Vardaman said. “If we’d have gotten it, it would have polarized this community, but we didn’t. But you have to move on and that’s what we’ve done.”

Overall, Vardaman thinks the future is bright for Selma and I agree with him. According to the Alabama Department of Industrial Relations, which tracks labor market information for the state, unemployment rates for Dallas County have remained somewhat steady during the last six years. After spiking to nearly 13 percent in 2002, rates are now, as of September’s report, hovering around 8 percent, the same level they were at in 2000-2001. So the detractors that say Selma is dying are misinformed, or simply not basing their opinion on the readily accessible facts.

“Sure, we’ve had some bumps, but we’re still ahead of where we were just a few years ago,” Vardaman said. “If you look at the indices we’re doing pretty good. I mean, talk to the realtors in town. Business is as good as its ever been.”

After spending three hours with Vardaman it was obvious to me he takes his job very seriously, and personally, especially given the amount of criticism that comes with the paycheck. If you’re in economic development, and your unemployment rates are higher than nil, people throw darts at you for not doing a good job, something that doesn’t sit well with Vardaman.

“This job is a little more public than I would like it to be,” he said, comparing what he does to that of an elected official. “I’ll be real honest; I don’t like that because water doesn’t roll of my back easily.”

He also said that economic development is a 24-7 gig.

“Sometimes my wife gets mad at me when my cell phone rings, but you can’t not take the call. It may be (a project) we can win.”

Dennis Palmer is publisher of The Times-Journal.