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Successful State Strategies & 1967 Report Clash with Bentley’s Job-Growth Agenda

  |   By: Wesley Vaughn     |   Opinion

Gov. Robert Bentley’s focus on Wilcox County, which cited as the poorest county in the country, has attracted media attention to the state’s portion of the Black Belt. Already, John Archibald and Alex Walsh of AL.com traveled to the area for a series on poverty.

Bentley mentioned Wilcox County’s poverty and economic stagnation to tout the state’s successful attraction of a Golden Dragon copper tubing plant and its 500 potential jobs. The $100 million plant will come at a cost of $200 million to the state — a prime example of corporate welfare that I wrote about a few weeks ago.

Bentley’s economic development strategy runs counter to the 21st Century strategies used by states that are performing better economically. South Carolina, which surpassed Alabama’s job totals last year despite an equally sized labor force, has shunned the very tools used by Alabama to draw Golden Dragon to Wilcox County.

“[Incentive packages and cheap land] served us well in the 20th century,” said Don Herriott of South Carolina’s Council on Competitiveness at the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama annual meeting this week. If only Gov. Bentley was there to hear that. Oh wait, he was.

Wayne Flynt’s AL.com op-ed earlier this week recounts how Alabama has relied on the “incentive packages and cheap land” strategy since the late 1800s, but a 1967 report on Wilcox County specifically recommends against a “bringing in industry” strategy that Gov. Bentley so highly touted in his State of the State.

The 1967 report, which followed an investigation of racial firings in the county school system, looks at the county’s poor economy,  segregated culture and underfunded schools. The report’s findings align perfectly with the economic and demographic trends in rural Southern areas as covered brilliantly in The Warmth of Other Suns.

In terms of economic development, even then, it was apparent that a new strategy was needed.

“The calculated policy of ‘bringing in industry,’ a refrain which the business associations chorus insistently, may be thoroughly questioned in Wilcox County, Alabama,” the report states on page 103. “In an area dependent upon land taxes, corporate exemption from taxation is poor policy. [Tax benefits and free infrastructure] granted to relocating industries generally in Alabama at this stage of development might better be used for developing public schools.”

The report notes that two industrial developments could create up to 1,800 jobs in the coming years (pages 78-79) — more than three times the potential of the present-day Golden Dragon Plant — but it’s obvious in hindsight that they weren’t the long-term boon the county needed.

Bribing corporations to locate in Alabama hasn’t worked statewide since before 1900, hadn’t worked in Wilcox County by 1967 and since, and has been discarded as a strategy by more successful states. Maybe it’s time to rethink it already.

Follow Wesley on Twitter at @WesleyVaughn

Wesley Vaughn has a master's in city planning. He believes in Birmingham, Nick Saban, and his foreseeable marriage to Anna Kendrick.