By Mark Kelly
“The assets and resources we have in rural Alabama are tremendous,” Brian Hilson declares. “But there’s also a tremendous need to be more proactive about rural economic development than we have in the past.”
Hilson is the rural development strategist for the Economic Development Association of Alabama (EDAA). Long one of Alabama’s most respected economic development practitioners — among other roles, he has served as President and CEO of both the Birmingham Business Alliance and the Chamber of Commerce of Huntsville/Madison County — Hilson has been in the newly-created position with EDAA since the spring of 2019.
Despite his background in large cities and metropolitan regions, Hilson is quick to proclaim his affinity for the task before him and his excitement about taking it on.
“I’ve always loved small towns and rural areas, the atmosphere you find in places all across Alabama,” Hilson says. “I’m pleased to take on this initiative and excited about the opportunities we have to make a real difference in the lives of our rural communities and the people who call them home.”
Hilson recently sat for an interview with Amazing Alabama. The following is excerpted from that conversation.
Why is EDAA placing this new emphasis on rural economic development?
Hilson: Our rural communities have always been an asset to Alabama. They have a lot to offer, but as a whole, they’ve underperformed in terms of economic development. Historically, the state has depended on the metropolitan areas to achieve net prosperity. EDAA recognizes the importance of rural economies to the future of Alabama. We believe strongly in rural Alabama, and we also believe that we’re in a window of time where we have real opportunities to effect change. This effort reflects that.
Can you say a little more about the “window of time” you’re talking about? What factors into that?
Hilson: As a state, our economic opportunities are evolving rapidly. Here and nationwide, the economy is changing, the workforce is changing, the geography of opportunity is changing. If we don’t do all we can to make sure we’re positioned to take advantage of those opportunities, they’re going to be lost to us for good. The clock is ticking.
With that in mind, how does the effort you’re heading up differ from what has been done before?
Hilson: I’ve spent the past several months — and am still in the process of — talking to leaders in communities across Alabama. What you find is that they have similar concerns but have taken different approaches to addressing those concerns. For various reasons, some have been more successful than others. We want to help everybody be more successful.
To answer your question, this is different in two ways. First, we’re preparing rural communities for economic development success through strategic planning. Second, our focus is regional, as opposed to planning for each individual community. As you might imagine, we’re encountering some valid questions about that approach. We want those questions to be asked, because if we’re going to be successful, we need clarity about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.
We want everyone to understand that our goal is to change the view of Alabama’s rural communities, individually and collectively. To the extent that we’re better prepared, we’re going to get shots at projects that we haven’t had a shot at before. It’s our job to help rural Alabama prepare, succeed and build off success — person-by-person, business-by-business, job-by-job.
So, how does it work? First, how do you define a “rural” county?
Hilson: We use the same definition adopted by the Alabama Department of Commerce, which says a county with a population of fewer than 50,000 is rural. Of Alabama’s 67 counties, 40 fit that definition.
Last year, after a careful evaluation process, we selected 17 counties that will be invited to participate in what we’re calling our Rural Development Initiative. Those 17 counties have been organized into five regions, representing locations throughout the state, and we’re staging implementation of our process. We started our first region — which includes Cleburne, Clay and Randolph Counties — last November, and will be starting the next one soon.
What is the process you’ll be carrying out in each region?
Hilson: It starts with an intensive assessment of issues and the assets, both available and needed, to address those issues in each region. We’re looking at a pretty comprehensive range of issues, including business growth, local government revenue, personal income, population change, successful grant applications, sites and infrastructure and effectiveness of local and county economic development organizations. We’re also looking at implementation of Opportunity Zones. Ultimately, we’ll be completing a strategic development plan for each region, with specific steps for executing the plan.
As you’ve pointed out, some individual communities and counties have been more successful than others. Given that, how is the idea of a regional approach being received?
Hilson: From the start, our thought has been that close regional cooperation will help us be more effective in achieving regional results — things like workforce development and delivery and grant awards, where cooperation can help each county achieve more than they would on their own.
There’s a lot of boots on the ground at the community and county levels, and we think providing a larger focal point and open communication about challenges and opportunities helps everybody. We understand that if you’re a local or county elected official or someone who works in government, you have to think about boundaries. But if you’re a regular citizen, you cross those boundaries every day — to work, to shop, for entertainment, whatever.
What has the response been from those elected officials and economic developers you’re talking about?
Hilson: The initial response ranges from curiosity to enthusiasm to skepticism. And that’s understandable. We’re trying to confirm that community leaders can agree on priorities with a regional mindset.
From our perspective, we’re not asking you to take off your city or county hat. You need to be concerned about those things. We believe there’s also room to join your neighbors within a defined area to address issues — roads, workforce, training and education, access to healthcare — that everybody has in common.
When all’s said and done, what does success look like?
Hilson: Certainly, we’ll be looking at quantitative performance measures, things like more jobs, higher incomes, population growth and increased tax revenues. But even more important from a community level is the question, How does it feel to live and work in your community? Are kids staying there when they graduate? Are workers being retrained for new jobs and opportunities? Have things improved in terms of things like housing, education, transportation, healthcare and broadband access? There are obstacles to those things, but we think the approach we’re taking is going to help remove, or at least reduce, them.
It’s a process, and it’s going to take time and work. We’re learning as we go, and we always will be. But if we get it done, we’re going to look back and realize how much it was all worthwhile.