Electrifying Economic Efforts

Posted: September 1, 2020, 12:00 am

Wiregrass Electric invests in wide array of development programs

Key economic, government, and education leaders participated in a Grow Dothan meeting at Wiregrass Electric Cooperative’s Hartford headquarters in early February.

Thousands of acres of forests and farmland greet travelers on Alabama Highway 167 as they approach Hartford from the north. There’s only one industry — the Air Performance manufacturing facility in the Geneva County Industrial Park — before you reach the Wiregrass Electric Cooperative (WEC) headquarters.

The manufacturing facility has supplied skyscrapers in New York City, Miami, and Washington, D.C., with fixtures like louvers and sunshades, and it has served as a reminder of the area’s potential for growth.

By early 2021, a new facility will join Air Performance in the industrial park. Through a few partnerships, including one with PowerSouth Energy Cooperative, WEC has initiated a project to build a 45,000-square-foot speculative building that aims to attract a new industry. The goal is to increase the number of jobs and tax revenue in one of Alabama’s most rural areas.

Gilstrap Drugs of Geneva has benefited from Wiregrass Electric Cooperative’s revolving loan fund.

“We’ve got to let people know we have a product, and we’ve got to let people know Geneva County is open for business,” says Toby Seay, Geneva County probate judge and commission chairman.

The spec building represents just one of the ways WEC invests in economic development. Other efforts include participation in Grow Dothan and other economic development groups and the implementation of its own revolving loan fund program.

“Our No. 1 priority is our members — their health, welfare, and well-being,” says Brad Kimbro, WEC’s chief operating officer. “We want our rural areas to grow and prosper. We want our children to grow up, stay here, and find jobs. We do that by investing in economic development.”

If You Build It

Dental practices like Geneva Family Dentistry have established themselves in rural towns in southeastern Alabama thanks to WEC’s revolving loan fund.

While the new building has no designated occupant, economic developers say its mere existence will provide a major boost to Geneva and surrounding counties.

“Eighty to 90% of businesses seeking to expand or relocate are looking for existing spaces and buildings,” says Matt Parker, Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce president. “The timing in launching a business is so much different than it used to be. It’s better if you can save 12 months by not building a facility.”

The Wiregrass needs additional infrastructure to be competitive with other communities working to attract employers.

“There was a company that came to Geneva looking at a potential site in 2018,” Seay says. “I was there for the walkthrough, and I realized that if that site didn’t work out, the only thing we had to offer was a cotton field. We didn’t have anything to market. We had an industrial park, we had some land, but we didn’t have a product.”

WEC officials, along with local economic and governmental leaders, break ground in August on a new speculative building in hopes of luring another manufacturer to the Geneva County Industrial Park in Hartford.

WEC is providing a solution thanks in part to a program PowerSouth, WEC’s energy distributor, created to help its 20 members spur economic development. PowerSouth provides four-year, no-interest loans for the construction of speculative buildings to cover 50% of a building’s cost. In order to participate in the loan program, WEC must provide 25% of the building costs, while other community interests like city and county governments must contribute the remainder.

“We like to partner,” Kimbro says. “PowerSouth wants to see its members grow and prosper.”

Veronica Crock, president of the Grow Southeast Alabama board, says the program reflects the value of electric cooperatives in their communities.

“Electric cooperatives such as Wiregrass Electric Cooperative are key members of a comprehensive economic development team. As valued and well-respected members of their communities, they have a vested interest in the overall success of the community and the region as a whole,” she says. “Electric cooperatives like WEC provide much more than just the availability of services and viability of a particular site. They work collaboratively and provide significant contributions of time, funding, and resources — resulting in positive outcomes for the local and regional economy.”

Cooperation Makes it Happen

Two men in a discussion
Houston County District 4 Commissioner Brandon Shoupe, back, talks with a fellow attendee of a Grow Dothan meeting at Wiregrass Electric Cooperative’s headquarters in February.

Ideas for projects like the speculative building often stem from economic development meetings, which WEC strongly supports. Several members of WEC’s senior leadership hold positions on various economic development and workforce development boards.

But one of WEC’s greatest contributions is to the Grow Dothan initiative. Through key financial contributions from participating organizations, Grow Dothan has played a vital role in attracting industries to our Wiregrass area like fixed-wing flight trainer CAE, Commercial Jet, and a Gateway Tire distribution facility, Parker says.

Since 2015, WEC’s corporate headquarters served as the quarterly meeting place for Grow Dothan — events that attract officials from business, education, and several levels of government. Having the event at WEC’s headquarters office in Hartford further promotes a vital regional approach to economic development.

“Regionalism is increasingly critical in rural areas such as the Wiregrass given our limited individual resources,” Crock says. “Challenges and opportunities don’t stop at city and county borders, and citizens don’t stop at city and county lines when looking for jobs, housing, and goods.”

The creation of the Geneva Regional Career Technical Center, known as G-Tech, represents one of the earliest developments to arise out of the Hartford-based Grow Dothan meetings. G-Tech is a cog in local workforce development, with students from every high school in Geneva County learning trades in industries like health care, aviation, and automotive in classes at a former Alabama National Guard armory.

People at and around a table in a meeting room
From left, standing, WEC Chief Operating Officer Brad Kimbro, WEC Vice President of Engineering and Operations, and WEC CEO Les Moreland chat with participants of the February Grow Dothan meeting.

G-Tech’s existence proves regional collaborative meetings work, says state Sen. Donnie Chesteen of Geneva.

“It’s a matter of everyone sitting around the table, discussing issues that are important to them, and how we can collaboratively work together to make something happen,” Chesteen says. “We expanded our conversations about workforce development and the need for it in a rural county. Two years later in 2017, we opened the doors.”

Economic and workforce development accomplishments like G-Tech benefit multiple counties, Seay says.

“When Geneva County grows, it also benefits Coffee and Houston counties because those larger areas have things we can’t provide as a county as far as retail shopping,” Seay says. “We encourage shopping within the county, but the fact is the developments are already there. We appreciate WEC for hosting Grow Dothan meetings in Hartford, further inspiring a regional approach to development.”

Other Efforts

Members of WEC around a table as documents are signed
Pictured are WEC and Troy Cable senior staff signing an agreement to help bring broadband to the Wiregrass in 2018. Front row, from left: Les Moreland, WEC Chief Executive Officer; Jake Cowen, Troy Cable General Manager and Chief Financial Officer. Back row, from left: Lisa Lenoir, WEC Chief Financial Officer; Jason Thrash, WEC VP of Engineering and Operations; Brad Kimbro, WEC Chief Operating Officer; state Sen. Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva; Chad Copeland, Troy Cable VP of Engineering and Jimmy Copeland, Troy Cable Director of Special Projects.

WEC also contributes to economic development efforts in other ways. It operates a revolving loan fund program that assists businesses and municipalities with projects that create or retain jobs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture-backed program has made an impact with several municipal projects, Kimbro says. It also has spurred some business development, such as helping dentists establish their valuable practices in small towns.

Additionally, WEC has partnered with Troy Cable to form Broadband for the Wiregrass, an effort that seeks to expand high-speed internet accessibility across the region. Broadband internet access remains one of the top recruiting tools for economic developers, and Broadband for the Wiregrass has landed a major state grant in each of the past two years.

Businesses also evaluate the quality of life their employees can expect should they relocate to an area. Charitable organizations like WEC’s Operation Round Up Charitable Foundation ensure several community needs are met, making the Wiregrass an attractive place to live, Kimbro says.

“I’m as pleased as I can be at our partnerships. We have great relationships with our civic leaders,” he says. “We are always searching for ways to do more for our members. We are always striving to go the extra mile for them.”