THANK YOU: Valerie Gray sets her sights on retirement from CCDA

Published 8:25 pm Friday, August 18, 2023

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For over two decades, Valerie Gray has led the business and industrial growth of Chambers County. That face is about change as Gray retires from the Chambers County Development Authority at the end of August. 

Gray jumped feet first into economic development years before being employed. While attending the University of Alabama, Gray said she fell in love with site development after taking a course in aerial photography and mapping cartography. During that time, Gray says Mercedes-Benz announced it was building a plant near Tuscaloosa. While driving back and forth from Tuscaloosa to home, she watched the evolution of the plant from the ground up. She realized someone was responsible for bringing that industry to Tuscaloosa, peaking her curiosity.

“I watched the evolution of that, and I was like, somebody had to be responsible for that,” Gray said. “So then, I started doing a little bit of research. And I found out it was a team. It was a huge team effort in Alabama.”

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In her senior year at Alabama, Gray took economic development courses and interned with the Greater Valley Area Chamber of Commerce, which also housed the economic development authority. During the internship, she learned all aspects of community development.

During her internship, the EDA Director at the time accepted a position in Arizona, and Gray decided to interview for the job simply to improve her interviewing skills.

Little did she know, the first interview would lead to a second and, ultimately, landing the top spot at the CCDA.

“In November, they published for an executive director, and I said, well, you know what, I’m just going to interview just to get experience and ask the board members, post-interview, what do I need to brush up on my skills on because I mean, I was just naive and scared to death,” Gray said. “So, I interviewed with him, and I think there were three other people that they interviewed, and they called me back for a second interview, and my jaw hit the ground when they called me back.”

Not only did Gray have to overcome being fresh out of college and not as seasoned as her colleagues from other communities, but in the male-dominated world of economic development, Gray says there were challenges of being a woman.

“There are two points in time where I faced challenges. Number one during that time dealing with a lot of older white men,” Gray said. “But I guess from some of the perspectives of some of the elected officials at the time, and I can’t even remember how far back it goes. It was challenging.”

Although this was a difficult challenge, Gray says she never let it bother her or hinder the job she set out to do.

“It was just that stigma, but I can’t say that it was something that really hurt my feelings at the time,” Gray said. “Because it wasn’t hard. It was just something challenging that I dealt with.”

Not only did Gray have to battle the stigma of being a young female in a male-dominated profession, but she also faced the challenge of the mill closures. 

During this time, Gray faced criticism and questions about whether she was the right person for the job.

“I probably developed the thickest skin of my life between 1998 and 2002 because that’s when we lost tons of textile jobs, tons,” Gray said. “Thousands of jobs, and people were like, she’s not cut out for it. We need a heavy hitter. That was when people would write negative letters to the editor in the newspaper, you know, and my biggest critics were older white men. It wasn’t the elected officials. It was your average everyday citizen here.”

Jim Searcy, executive director of the Economic Development Association of Alabama (EDAA), said at the time Chambers County had some of the lowest unemployment in the country and likened taking over the CCDA to becoming the captain of the Titanic right as it set sail.

“I don’t know a lot of folks that would have jumped into that,” Searcy said. “I mean, that’s like taking over the Titanic right after it set sail.” 

But Gray did, and Searcy says what she could do in a relatively short period has been remarkable.

“I think what’s more remarkable, and it’s kind of legend. [Chambers County] had some of the highest unemployment in the country,” Searcy said. “And, what they’ve been able to do over what is a relatively short period of time. I mean, she was able to affect change, significant change in a relatively short period of time.”

At home, community leaders also credit her for the drastic reduction in county unemployment. 

“Valerie Gray has been such an asset to our community,” Valley Mayor Leonard Riley said in a statement to VTN. “Under her leadership, Chambers County has secured multiple industrial projects involving $1 billion in capital investment, and our unemployment was at 22%, down to 2.1% since 2008. Gray has always worked to secure a better quality of life for the residents of Chambers County. It has been an honor and pleasure to work with Valerie, and I wish her all the best with all the good things to come.”

Lanett City Manager Deborah Gilbert credits Gray as a key player and advisor for the City of Lanett.

“Valerie Gray has been a true blessing to the City of Lanett, and its citizens for so many years,” Gilbert said in an email to VTN. “It is almost hard to list the many ways that she has either assisted with or taken the lead on because the times are so numerous.” 

“Throughout the years, she has played a key role in drafting letters, providing articles, assisting with retail incentives, assisting with FEMA issues, sending out industry surveys, helping with public hearings, offering comprehensive updates, assisting with ALDOT projects, offering ethics updates, communicated with engineers and contractors on behalf of the city, provided summaries on immigration laws, helped with intersection modification plans, offered training opportunities to officials, assisted with the city website design, helped to launch a county-wide ‘Shop Where I Live’ initiative, worked with the 2020 Census, helped with the City of Lanett Christmas Tree lighting, and most recently, Valerie has worked tirelessly on many facets of opening up the Lanett Regional Airport.”

Former colleague, current CCDA Board President, and longtime friend Bruce Emfinger said he is not sure Chambers County would be where it is today without Gray at the head of the development authority.

“I dare say, and I can’t back this up with data, but I can back it up with the fact that I’ve lived here and lived through all that and worked through all that, but I don’t think our community would be where it is now had she not been in the position,” Emfinger said. “And I’m not saying somebody’s in position. I’m saying if she had not been in that position. I don’t think our community would even come close to being what it is now.”

As for why he feels that way, Emfinger says her love for Chambers County and the desire to see her community be a place people wanted to live and work fueled her will to succeed.

“She probably wouldn’t tell you this, but I will,” Emfinger said. “She could have left here an untold number of times for a better job at both the state level and even higher. The Office of Commerce, project managers for the state, they recruited her constantly. They wanted her to be at the state level, being a project manager. She never left. It was all about Chambers County.”

Gray is not only revered within the confines of Chambers County but the homegrown girl is revered throughout the state of Alabama.

That reputation is evident when speaking with State Representative Debbie Wood, who worked with Gray as a commissioner and private business owner before being elected to serve Alabama’s 38th District in the Alabama State House of Representatives.

“Coming to the state level, I always knew she was respected,” Wood said. “But coming to the state level, mentioning her name and hearing all the positive comments about how fortunate we are in a small rural county to have such talent and someone that has worked so hard to genuinely create a vision not only for herself but for us, as the people who live here in Chambers County.”

Angela Till, deputy secretary with the Alabama Department of Commerce Business Develop Division, who considers Gray a friend, says her commitment to her family is as strong as her commitment to improving Chambers County and the state of Alabama.

“I think her dedication and commitment to Chambers County is surpassed only by her dedication and commitment to her family,” Till said. “Her family has always come first, and yet she still works tirelessly for the community and the area. But working at the state level over the years, I’ve seen firsthand the impact she’s made on the entire state. She’s truly committed to improving the state as a whole and not just Chambers County.”

When talking about her impact, Alabama’s Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield credits Gray for her leadership in rural strategy across the state and for opening doors for women in economic development.

“I think that when you talk about Valerie and her impact not only in Chambers County but in the state, she has been one of those individuals that not only has opened up the doors by leading by example for women who are thinking about entering the economic development,” Canfield said. “She’s also been a great leader in championing rural economic development issues. And her leadership has really gone a long way to help us formulate rural strategy across the state. And that makes her pretty unique in the economic development space across our state. I think her body of work also speaks for itself pretty clearly.”

With the textile industry pulling out of town and watching many in the community losing jobs, Gray focused on rebuilding.

Her first official project was an international project bringing the Canadian-based Norbord, now West Fraser, to Chambers County.

Because of the nature of its business, Norbord utilized one of the county’s most vital resources, wood, and put many in the community back to work.

“It put a lot of our loggers back to work,” Gray said. “And a lot of our skilled maintenance people got a job they are making more money than they had ever seen. It was great. It was an international project. I cut my teeth on that.”

That project was nearly ten years in the making and spoke to Gray’s tenacity and desire to win and prove she was the only choice for the position of executive director.

“It [Norbord] was her first project, and it was 10 years old or longer, and she continued to dog that project and wouldn’t let it go,” Emfinger said. “And now look at what that company has done for this community.” 

In March 2009, the company closed the Lanett plant, leaving over 100 people without jobs. Still, Gray continued to cultivate the relationship with the company, and eight years later, the company reopened the Barton Mill location, a move Emfinger said wouldn’t have happened without Gray in position.

“If you don’t have a Valerie Gray in place to be the buffer for both the community and the company, that doesn’t happen,” he said.

From Norbord to John Soules Foods, Gray and her team at CCDA logged many significant victories for the county that led to a July 2023 unemployment rate of 2.5%, but another project Gray went to battle for took her up to the nation’s capital. 

The airport in Lanett was sitting dormant, and the property quickly became dilapidated. With a big vision from Lanett leaders, the airport’s revival began.

“We had some visionaries in Lanett that [said] we need to build infrastructure,” Gray said. “What can we bring to the table? Valley has all of this land that’s food and beverage certified. What can we bring to the table? We’ve got this airport. Let’s go after it. And by gosh, we went after it.”

An $8.7 million funding request for the final 1,000 feet of the runway was one Gray found herself taking a flight to Washington D.C. to lobby for, hoping to get a few million dollars. Instead, when she left, that phase of the project was fully funded. 

“The last round for the last 1,000 feet was an $8.7 million funding request that was put in,” Gray said. “I don’t mind saying that I went to Washington D.C., and I lobbied for it, and I begged for it, and we thought we would get just a few million, and we got 100% of the funding. It was because of the vision that my office laid out to Senator [Richard] Shelby that this is the growth hub. When you come into Alabama, this is what you see.”

Gray believes everything in her career has had a purpose, even the losses. 

“I think everything in my career has had a purpose and has happened for a reason, the good stuff and the bad stuff, the losses, the public losses,” Gray said. “The losses outweigh the wins.”

According to Gray, the toughest losses are those that are out of personal control. At one time, she was working with a Kohl’s distribution center. The project was lost to Macon, Georgia, due to location.

“The reasons for Kohl’s was because of location and proximity to all their stores,” Gray said. “And I think those losses are harder because you’ve done nothing to deserve the loss other than we wish we could pick up your site and put it over here.”

Aside from her tenacity and will to win, her leadership traits set her apart and catapulted Chambers County to where it is today.

In 2003, Gray found out she was pregnant with her first child, Sydney, which presented another set of challenges for her and her husband, Shawn. Shawn had just started his own business. 

“He [Shawn] started his own business in 2003. The end of 2003 is when I found out I was pregnant. Literally like within days of him starting his own business,” Gray said.

In a time when many women left the workforce to raise their children, Valerie leaned on her husband, family and friends to help when needed. 

“My mother and my mother-in-law would pick Sydney up from daycare,” Valerie said. “They went above and beyond.”

With her position came many business trips for Valerie, and she credits Shawn for being a supportive husband and a hands-on father.

“Sydney was six months old when I went on my first business trip and left her with Shawn, and he was like, I got this,” Valerie said. “I was like, well, my mama is here, and he’s like, I got this. He’s always been a hands-on dad, and he is a hard worker, and he has always been supportive. He has always been my sounding board.”

Her support system has been a critical piece of her success, and she hopes she can take a few steps back and enjoy that support system a little more from right here in Chambers County. 

“My mother-in-law lives behind me, my brother next door to me, my mother across the pasture,” she said. “We’re not going anywhere.”

Countless families have stuck around Chambers County because of Valerie’s work with the CCDA. None know that better than Emfinger. Emfinger worked for a bank in West Point that closed and declined a job opportunity in Carrolton, Georgia, to work for Valerie at the CCDA. He later returned to banking when AuburnBank built a branch in Valley, where he is a senior vice president. He said without Gray’s work, he would not be where he is today.

“Had she not made this community what it is and had played a huge part of that, AuburnBank would not have a branch here,” Emfinger said. “If Valerie Gray had not been successful and done what she’s done in this community … I’m not sitting in this seat.”

While she did not say what was next, newly appointed executive director Chris Busby and the CCDA Board of Directors can still pick up the phone and call her for advice.