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Job-poor Maury County gets new visionary

January 17, 2010

Job-poor Maury County gets new visionary

Maury Alliance leader focuses on area’s assets

Brandom Gengelbach, the new president of the Maury Alliance and a Tennessee Volunteers football fan, has been at his desk in Middle Tennessee less than 10 days as chief economic development officer in Maury County, an area buffeted by the partial closure of">General Motors’ Spring Hill auto plant.

That move put about 1,000 auto-workers into the">ranks of the unemployed and resulted in about 700 others being shifted to competing GM plants in Lansing, Mich., and elsewhere to retain a full paycheck.

Maury County’s unemployment rate stood at 11.8 percent around Thanksgiving last year as the plant went on standby. That’s higher than the state and national jobless averages and up 3 percentage points from November 2008.

Besides the GM losses, the county also is dealing with hundreds of layoffs by automotive suppliers that once provided parts to the Spring Hill plant. Gengelbach, who comes here from a similar position with the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, is charged with recruiting new companies to help end that downward spiral in jobs.

Gengelbach discussed that task and lessons learned in his economic development career with Tennessean business writer G. Chambers Williams III last week.

We are losing manufacturing jobs all across Tennessee, and have been for some time. The cuts at GM in Spring Hill are particularly devastating because so many local workers were affected. How do you go about replacing the lost manufacturing jobs?

It’s not one answer. There is a variety of different approaches. One thing is to be able to retrain workers to do other things. The career center here is doing training and development for displaced workers so they can … do different things. Another approach is to look at the types of manufacturing and job growth that’s starting to happen around renewable energy and clean technology.

How do you market Maury County on a national level?

There are a variety of ways. One is to work with real estate companies or other organizations that are doing corporate or industrial real estate, dealing with their marketing departments to feature sites and buildings you have available to their clients. There are national publications and databases that we can use.

The other component is making sure that we talk every single day with Nashville, with the state, with TVA, and with all the Middle Tennessee industrial development agencies so that people have an understanding of what we have to offer, and we can find out what the opportunities are.

Economic development leads come through so many different sources. Phone calls may come through our office directly, but someone might get a phone call at the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, too, and they need to know that there’s a 300,000-square-foot available (industrial) space right next to General Motors. We need to do a good job letting people know what Maury County has to offer, what our strengths are.

What do you see as the area’s greatest assets?

We have three exits off Interstate 65 in Maury County. I think those offer some real possibilities. We have the Maury Regional Medical Center, which is growing. We have one of 13 of the state’s community colleges, and those are going to be even more important going forward.

Maury County has suffered through the loss of two large employers over the past 25 years, first the phosphate industry and now GM, which at one time had more than 8,000 workers. How important will diversification be going forward?

We must be able to develop in other areas so that we can survive when there are difficult times. It’s something we’ve learned the hard way. It’s great to have large employers in town, but if you don’t have plans to develop other industries, it’s going to be hard to sustain the economy during difficult times.

Nashville has been able to do quite well in this recession because of its diverse economy, compared to a place such as Detroit that is so focused on one industry.

What goals have you set for yourself, and what do you want to accomplish in your first year here?

Right now, my focus is on the first 90 days. I’m coming in and immersing myself in the community and having as many conversations as I can with all of the levels of government here and all levels of business.

(I want) to get an understanding of where we are and what the issues, concerns and challenges are, and what opportunities are available. From there, I will put together a strategy with some objectives for the year ahead and beyond.

I’m someone who is very strategic and very focused, but we can’t be all things to all people. So, whatever we decide as an organization and as a community, it’s not just about Brandom or the Maury Alliance; it has to be a collaborative effort. And we have to concentrate on where we have the best chance for success.

Why did you leave Indianapolis and take this job?

It was both a professional and a personal interest. We have a 6-month-old baby, and my wife’s family (lives) in Alabama about an hour away. We wanted to be closer to family. I have worked for the Nashville Chamber in the past, doing economic development there, and definitely was interested in coming back to the Nashville area.

Professionally, it was just a great opportunity for me to run an organization and play a role in an area that has a lot of wonderful assets and opportunities.

What did you learn in your previous job that could be applied here?

We’re always a combination of our past experiences. I learned not only from Indianapolis, but I also spent some time in Australia working on economic development in Brisbane, and spent some time doing the same thing in Nashville earlier in my career.

I think all of that has played a role in preparing me for this challenge. I have learned to be very strategic and proactive about economic development. In a smaller community like Maury, it’s important to be able to give people an understanding of the cities we have here and our assets on a regional, state and even national level.

Is a regional approach to economic growth important, or are the various communities too much in competition to ever work well together?

A regional approach is vitally important. Look at the success achieved … with such projects as the solar facility in Clarksville, Tenn. We’re much stronger when we’re working together as a region than by ourselves.

A case in point for us is Spring Hill. It’s half in Williamson County and half in Maury County. You can’t say that development along that area isn’t going to benefit everybody involved.

The other point is that within the region, we all have different assets, and the way I approach economic development is to focus on our core assets and to promote those. But I’ll work with other communities to make sure a project comes somewhere to Middle Tennessee rather than losing it to East Tennessee or Kentucky or Alabama.

With transportation costs rising, is there a danger that people may be less able to afford long commutes? How does that affect rural economic development?

People need and want to work, and for the time being, I believe they will do what they need to do to be able to have a job. But I think the days of trying to focus on landing a Volkswagen or some other big employer for a huge mega-site are mostly gone.

Deals that involve 5,000 employees are few and far between. Therefore, the focus should be on smaller deals that make more sense for the community.

Would it be great to land a big deal? Sure. But you can’t just sit around and wait for those to happen. When you have hard times, the strategy of attracting a variety of smaller companies and more diversification is going to help us more than anything.

What about recruiting call centers and other types of service sector jobs to replace the generally higher-paying — but disappearing — manufacturing base in Tennessee?

I’m not a proponent of being aggressive about … getting call centers. In the short term, it’s a good thing from a job standpoint, but from an incentive standpoint, it’s easy to get companies that come in and want all these incentives.

But they move on in a few years. Are there conversations that I would entertain? Absolutely, because it is ultimately about jobs. But it has to make sense for our community, and it has to be a win-win situation. It can’t just be something where somebody’s going to come in and then leave in two years. We’re looking for sustainable jobs.

What possibilities do you see for "green" jobs, renewable energy for Tennessee?

I certainly think that there will be opportunities for us. I do know that we need to be in that arena. That’s something I will be looking at during my assessment of our strengths.

How much outside pressure is there to find solutions or land new jobs as fast as possible?

There’s no doubt we have some problems. But I think it’s a great opportunity. That’s why I took the job. We definitely have some challenges ahead, but during challenging times, you come together.

Not only is this a fabulous community — my wife and I both fell in love with it — but the people here are excited. They want to grow and take Maury County forward. I think they are working together like never before. We need to put our differences aside, create a strategy, and move forward as a community. Business is happening; it hasn’t ground to a screeching halt.

This isn’t about one person; it’s not about somebody coming in here and doing everything. When you don’t work together, you’re going to fail. I hope to bring people together, to collaborate, and create a vision; and I hope the Maury Alliance can be the catalyst to help move the community forward.

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