Are we betting on the wrong horse, in the wrong race?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 9, 2009

The recent industrial announcements certainly have put about as optimistic spin as possible on the current state of employment in Dallas County. The announcements that Meadowcraft was indeed sold [instead of liquidated], that Hanil E Hwa had purchased a building for expansion and that ground had been broken on a new “green” industry that could possibly employ 130 people took somewhat of an edge off the recent report that Dallas County was suffering from 20 percent unemployment — the second highest in the state.

Industrial recruitment is important to Dallas County, no doubt. And we have to take the “wins” where we can get them. But as I heard in a recent EDA meeting, the majority of the industrial candidates we get are entrepreneural in nature. In other words, don’t expect a Hyundai, Kia or some other major industry to land in our backyard.

There are many opinions why this is the reality [or challenge] we face. Some say it’s a lack of a qualified workforce. Others speculate that because we have a Republican governor that the Alabama Development Office won’t steer major projects here — or in some cases steers them away from here. Still others say it’s due to poor leadership.

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I say it’s because we’re focused on the wrong thing. My contention is that industrial growth isn’t going to be the engine that drives this county forward or the answer to the unemployment and quality of life issues we face. Industrial development certainly plays a role, but it’s dwarfed by the potential of another engine of growth that is grossly underdeveloped. Tourism.

According to an April 2009 report from the Alabama Department of Tourism, in 2008 1,115 jobs in Dallas County were directly related to tourism. And while the growth rate over 2007 was a mere .4 percent, no other contiguous county experienced growth of jobs related to tourism. As a matter of fact, tourism job growth statewide fell.

Putting the tourism factor into dollars and “sense,” Dallas County experienced a 3 percent gain in tourism related earnings [direct and indirect] with the county raking in $36.9 million in 2008, up from $34 million in 2006. Lodging tax also experienced measurable gains from $245,000 in 2006 to $272,000 in 2008 — a 7 percent increase.

Consider for a moment what those numbers could be if the tangible tourism assets this community has in place were fully developed. What could be achieved if a “rifle shot focus” were placed on fully developing the proposed river walk, which is long on vision and short on cash. Or the historic buildings that are crumbling around us that have vast historical tourism potential. Or the Alabama River, rich in recreational promise, but like many promises remains unfulfilled.

There is not one person or group of people that is responsible or has the capacity to change the focus in this area. It’s going to take all of us. And a good place to start is by cleaning this city up so when visitors do come to spend their hard earned money, they aren’t visually appalled by the sight of trashy streets, broken windows, graffiti-covered walls, unkempt grass in the medians and property owners who defy city ordinances related to maintenance.

Until this city, this community gets serious about focusing on what really does have the potential to change things for the better, it will never get done. And when it doesn’t get done, we’ll have nobody to blame but ourselves.