Chamber behind Mobile success

May 23, 2009

Commissioner Gene Valentino and his PR person, Jane Birdwell, make much of the Mobile success story. Mobile outshines Pensacola in the economic development arena.

I wouldn’t want to live there but there is no disputing that Mobile has been tremendously successful over the past 20 years. We wrote about the most recent successes last year (Gulf Coast Unite).

Mobile County is a big client of Birdwell, Photography and Multimedia (BPM). Last month, she was awarded $63,500 to train county employees to run the Web site and develop an advertising campaign promoting career and technical training for jobs associated with the aerospace, defense, shipbuilding, engineering and other high-paying industries.

Since September 2007, BPM has been paid nearly $250,000 by Mobile County to build and maintain that web site and manage the marketing campaign to bring the tanker plant to Mobile. Birdwell is very familiar with the recent successes of Mobile County.

However, the real turnaround of Mobile began in the 1980s when Mike Dow, a three-tour Vietnam veteran and co-founder of a successful tech company, QMS, led an effort with the Mobile Chamber of Commerce to develop an economic development strategy for the city. In 1989, Dow was elected Mayor of Mobile using that strategy, called the “String of Pearls,” as his platform. For the next 16 years, he worked on implementing that plan.

Interestingly, Dow was only the city’s second strong mayor since 1911. Four years earlier the city had switched from it city manager-weak mayor form of government.

I interviewed Dow for IN Your Head Radio last year. Dow said, “You have got to have leadership on a number of fronts. Mobile was blessed back in the mid-eighties to get a bunch of people to together and figure out what we wanted to be.”

“We went through a strategic plan process with the business community and the Chamber. I was the volunteer vice president for the Chamber at the time.”

Dow went on to say the planning process led to about 100 goals.

“Then ‘Boom,’ I am elected mayor and I have this phenomenal set of plans to work with. The city government, county government, state, feds and our community organizations came together and put together a real partnership.”

“The Chamber and city and county leaders would sit down regularly over 16 years and see where we were on that plan.”

The plan included such projects as the downtown convention center, Explorium museum, Mobile Government Plaza, the Mobile Bay Bears stadium, Alabama Cruise Ship Terminal and the RSA Tower. Dow also annexed several adjacent areas into the city limits. In his last term he began courting Thyssen-Krupp, that was looking to build a steel mill, and Boeing, that was looking for a site to build their Dreamliner plane. The Boeing site is where Northrup Grumman wanted to build its air tanker.

Dow stressed the importance of the public and private sector working together–something that Valentino and Birdwell omit from their presentations.

However, to be fair, neither of them may really know the history of Mobile and how it got where it is. They see the recent successes and the efforts of Mobile County Commissioner Stephen Nodine and don’t know about the two decades of work needed for the recent successes to occur.

Mobile’s long string of successes didn’t begin with Mike Dow attacking the Mobile Chamber of Commerce. It began with the business community and public officials working together.

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  • Anony May 26, 2009 at 11:05 am

    AnonCG says:
    May 26, 2009 at 12:44 am
    Yes, this is chicken and egg.

    In a nutshess, er eggshell, yes. Any ED here will be piecemeal. Publicaly funded private development.
    This area has always been promoted for it’s cheap labor, and it likely always will be. State, federal and local government subsidy funds have gone primarily to line the pockets of the planners and the well connected few. It should be called The Water Oak Community, deeply rooted but can’t withstand the winds, and eventually becomes nothing more than a green snag depriving the local environment of water, and nothing flourishes.
    Nothing new here, folks.

  • go figure May 26, 2009 at 5:57 am

    yep – and we hope to be able to cram more of them on the beach by building a parking garage

  • AnonCG May 26, 2009 at 12:44 am

    Anony, I really love your thoughts and I’m not being sracstic even if I disagree. We spend our money making a wonderful community of people via education, infratructure and libraries. Everyone here is ready and capable to make their own Hubble Telescope and all the roads are freshly paved with flowers in the median. The library is filled with philosophers and studious high school grads of industry. It is so ideal.

    But c’mon. That isn’t reality. The first “catch” in your plan is kids know the deal. If you are a teen in a basically poor trap, you know you are in it. If there isn’t anything here to strive for (and there isn’t!!!!), your hope is to get at 4.8 gpa and get to Atlanta and fight that hell, no matter how much you love P’cola and hate to leave.

    I can only imagine the number of kids who drop out (no matter how silly we think they are for doing it) because they see no hope here. Why graduate? What will they do here exactly? Hope to change light bulbs in a local hospital if some old man dies? Marry a “money woman” who works 3 tourist motels for $1,400/mnth (our tourist dollars at work)?

    Yes, this is chicken and egg.

    I hate that the scene requires us to fight (with money and incentives) for jobs just as much as you do. I really do. I think the whole thing is unreal and absurd! But you are kidding yourself with idealism if you think we can find millions of dollars to invest in the things you say we need (and I agree with those needs, btw) and just wait for the economic benifits to come.

    I wished it worked that way. I really do. But that is so far off from reality it almost doesn’t desrve a response. I only respond because I’d like to keep my humanity and I agree you are right in a wonderful world. The real world doesn’t give a damned about any of that and Bama will buy the next business you think “higher educated” people here should get. How the heck do you think Mississippi, the lowest per-capita education system since Jesus was born, gets new industry? Education? Libraries? Art?

    Let’s get realistic. Or starve to death being idealistic.

  • ho hum May 25, 2009 at 10:18 am

    great thoughts here. The glut of empty commercial space in Escambia is huge but owners are still unrealistic about prices. We need to get over our dirty industrial past and talk about the realistic opportunities for Escambia and Pensacola. Might want to start by maximizing one of our biggest assets – the waterfront. Seems this is sorely underutilized as evidenced by the concrete plant, sand piles and sea of red ink flowing out of the port.

  • Reality Check May 25, 2009 at 7:52 am

    Rick – your post about Mobile raising $10M in private funds last year is exactly the problem with Pensacola Chamber. We just don’t HAVE that kind of money in the private sector here. And what little money the Chamber does raise (from members) is obviously influenced by the donors as far as how it is spent.

    Which is why you need a) more money, which will have to be public dollars in our small economy, and b) more accountability for where those dollars are going to be spent.

  • Anony May 24, 2009 at 11:40 pm

    ;) Wul, I was wondering if Anonymous was actually agreeing with me, or if there was a new, second Anonymous.

    Public funds should be spent on education, infrastructure, libraries and schools built like you mean it, public transportation that’s worthy of the title, and creating a functional community because that attracts corporate interest and creates business opportunity. Create a place where manufacturers’ infrastructure needs are met, where their human resource needs already exist. You’ve gotta be a place where people want and need to be. Why keep doing no more than finding people you have to bribe to come here? We need people that come with an opportunity to offer this community, not someone looking for their own opportunity to collect taxpayer funded incentives for THEMSELVES. Those people leave. They come for the incentives, stay long enough to collect the tax breaks and run out the depreciation, then they fold and move on the the next town to do it again. Charm and a beer won’t keep them here. You can find somebody with a good idea and a business plan that just needs funding on every other bar stool in town. Why not seek those who have revenue and need to be in this geographical area?

  • escambiamom May 24, 2009 at 9:55 pm

    (sorry, the 9:52 pm post was mine, someone cleared my browser memory when I wasn’t looking. ;)

  • Anonymous May 24, 2009 at 9:52 pm

    “What should happen first is to require any ED projects to utilize derelict commercial or industrial property. And they should be required to BUY that property, and in doing so invest in their own project first. If they aren’t able or willing to buy property for their own project then aren’t we just looking to get more of what we have?”

    I agree with this. Let’s use/clean up all the empty or abandoned or eyesore lots before we keep spreading out into the northern part of Escambia County. Let’s make incentives for people who want to develop companies/businesses or housing where we already have the infrastructure. I would like to see that as a priority in an ED plan.

  • Anony May 24, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    ..and you have to have infrastructure on which they can plant seeds. Should taxpayer dollars fund private business development? Absolutely not. What should happen first is to require any ED projects to utilize derelict commercial or industrial property. And they should be required to BUY that property, and in doing so invest in their own project first. If they aren’t able or willing to buy property for their own project then aren’t we just looking to get more of what we have? We don’t need to fund or incentivize or give publically owned property to anyone else to experiment with development. The Microsofts of the world arent born of public/private projects, they come from homeowner’s garages. The county needs to make Escambia county a desirable place to live, so that the place appeals to those who have something to offer. The stop-gap infrastructure projects need to stop, it’s a waste of money and it gets us nowhere. Those waste ponds all over the place are a real OMG vision for those who come here from communities with infrastructure. Enter downtown via 29. That’s a real eyeopener. Meander through Escambia county by not utilizing Scenic Hwy, Airport Road,I-10, I-110, Hwy 90 or Hwy 98. Ya really gotta see the place. And, no, closing the exit ramps is not the solution.

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