Busby reflects on first 30 days as CCDA director

Published 8:30 am Thursday, September 21, 2023

VALLEY — At the Monday meeting of the Valley Lions Club, Chris Busby talked about his first month as the executive director of the Chambers County Development Authority (CCDA). He succeeded Valerie Gray in that role following her retirement in August.

“I have some incredibly big shoes to fill,” he said, making the point that Gray accomplished much for Chambers County in her 25 years on the job. “It’s up to me and my staff to keep the ship afloat and heading in the right direction.”

That staff includes Senior Project Manager Ansley Emfinger, Project Manager Andie Roberts and Office Manager Erica McCullough. All are young, enthusiastic and eager to promote Chambers County. All are natives of the local area. “They are from Chambers County and want to have a part in the county’s growth and development,” Busby said. “I just hope I can keep them here.”

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Busby and his staff are currently working on 35 industrial and commercial projects.

“Over the past year, new and expanding companies have announced and/or added 140 new manufacturing jobs in our local economy, and more are expected before the end of the current fiscal year,” he said.

The past year has seen more than $185 million in capital investments in Chambers County. There are some other good economic figures to report. The county’s unemployment rate has averaged only 2.4 percent over the past 12 months. It’s a far cry from where it was in February 2009, when local unemployment topped 22 percent. That was taking place following the final shutdown of the local textile industry and plant closures at Knauf and Norbord. Knauf and Norbord (a.k.a. West Frazer) are now running strong as are WestRock and John Soules Foods. The Chambers County Industrial Park at Exit 70 off I-85 has become a major employment center for the area. An estimated 2,000 people are working at companies such as Ajin USA, Wooshin USA, Leehan, Daedong Hi-Lex, and Hantal.

Having good local employment numbers usually translates into some strong sales tax collections. People have money to spend and are spending it in the local community. “Chambers County saw a 6.1 percent increase in sales tax collections in fiscal year 2022 and preliminary numbers indicate that they will be even higher in the current fiscal year,” Busby said. “Chambers County was one of the leaders in the State of Alabama in terms of rising income levels. We saw an 8.7 percent increase in the median household, up to $47,688 for the county.”

“If you are looking for a job in Chambers County right now and can’t find one, you aren’t looking very hard,” Busby said. “Jobs are plentiful here.”

Busby is upbeat about a planned expansion at the Village Square Shopping Center in Valley. It’s a $15 million project that could create a new major shopping area. Busby expects more traffic along Highway 29 in Valley because of it.

Contracts have been signed for at least five new tenants. When a formal announcement is made, people in the local area should be well pleased with what’s on the way.

In looking to the future, Busby said that site and infrastructure development along with expansions in local industrial parks will be important to maximize the local area’s potential. “Of particular importance are site development and acquisition, utility buildout and stabilizations, broadband expansion and transportation network improvements,” he said.

Busby said there’s a continuing need for workforce development.

“It’s critical that we prepare our next generation of workers for the labor force,” he said. “We will continue to be heavily involved with the local school systems and partner organizations to expose our students and labor pool to the opportunities that will be available here. In addition, we will continue our human capital recruitment efforts to grow our population and labor force. This includes single-family and multi-family housing developments, community development and quality of life initiatives.”

Busby added that diversification has been a priority for many years at the CCDA.

“These efforts include targeting companies that can support our existing industries in several areas including supply chain and resource utilization,” he said. “We are aware that we need to attract companies that will not strain our existing workforce capabilities. We want to bring in companies that will be partners in our community, ones that will be a boost for the local economy in more ways than providing jobs.”

The CCDA is engaging with a full-time lobbyist who fights for the county’s needs in the highly competitive environment of Washington, D.C. “

There’s a lot of grant money out there,” Busby said. “If you don’t get your share, someone else will.”

The organization is currently working with the University of Alabama on tracking local high school students once they graduate. An estimated 80 percent of them either go on to college, join the military or enter the local workforce. The goal of the study is to track what happens to the other 20 percent.

“We want to find out what happens to them,” Busby said.

This is a pilot study that could expand statewide.

The CCDA has good partnerships with Southern Union State Community College and Point University. All are in agreement that the local community needs to have a good wage scale in order to have an improved quality of life.

“High wages are critical in having a good living standard,” Busby said. “We feel we are one or two companies away from shifting away from everything we do.”

“I love Chambers County and want to raise my family here,” he said. “My parents moved here two months before I was born, and I have lived here all my life. I want to make a meaningful impact on the place that made me who I am.”

Busby said he’s pleased with the success of the new John Soules Foods plant in Valley and would like to see a couple of more major projects coming this way.

“Getting new industry is good for the community, but it’s also very important to appreciate what you have. It’s important to us to show appreciation for our existing industries,” Busby said. “We are big on having Existing Industries Appreciation Days. It’s a good networking opportunity for them. They can share ideas with each other on what works for them.”