Workers at Glasstream Boats sand the hull of a newly formed boat at the facility in 2018.

The Dothan area has seen the ebb and flow of the economy affect local businesses, industries and employment over the last 10 years.

Local leaders noted Dothan escaping the clutches of the Great Recession later than the rest of the country, bottoming out in December 2009, based on economic indicators.

Dothan’s unemployment reached a peak of 10.4% in January 2010, and housing sales dipped to 52 in January, according to the Alabama Center for Real Estate. In December 2009, the median sale price of a home in the Dothan area was $121,750, according to the Southeast Alabama Association of Realtors.

By August 2010, leaders started seeing slight job growth and local entities quickly started working to build back the economy.

Matt Parker, Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce president, encouraged residents to look onward.

“Focus on the future, because the future is looking up for us,” Parker said in an August 2010 interview with the Dothan Eagle. “If we look at the fundamentals of our economy, we’re addressing education and improving our infrastructure to prepare for growth. As a region, we’re taking control of our own destiny, and that’s really what we’ve got to do.”

Laying plans for success

Even as the local economy was creeping out of a recession, some key players were making big plans for long-term growth.

In March 2010, the former Southeast Alabama Medical Center, now Southeast Health, began planning for a new medical school, which is now known as the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine. The idea was to create a college that would cultivate doctors, specialists and other health-care providers in part to replace an aging population of primary-care physicians in the area.

That same year, several retail and restaurant developments were announced, and the Dothan City Commission extended the Dothan Downtown Redevelopment Authority, allowing it to participate in a tax-free bond issue of up to $13 million to help fund the renovation and redevelopment of the Northside Mall, the home of the city’s third Publix shopping center.

Promising signs

While the local economy still had dips here and there, the overall trend has shown significant gains that show better prospects than the pre-recession economy held.

At a recent City Commission meeting, Parker presented numbers that paint a picture of the current state of the Dothan metropolitan area’s economy.

In 2019, Dothan saw 801 more residents employed than the year before based on numbers from the Alabama Department of Labor and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in December. Houston County saw 1,517 more in total, and the entire Dothan Metropolitan Statistical Area, which encompasses Houston, Geneva and Henry counties, gained 2,216 people employed from December 2018 to November 2019.

The unemployment rate in Dothan has dipped to an all-time-record low at 2.5% by the end of 2019, slightly below the state average of 2.7% and below the U.S. rate of 3.5%. The percentage dip between 2018’s year-end rates to 2019’s was the sharpest in a decade.

Parker attributes the Dothan area’s success to proactive government and business leaders.

“They have a forward-thinking outlook and approach,” he said. “They don’t dwell on things that don’t work. “They run the full gambit on it, so to speak. It’s a good thing for our area.”

The Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce, which focuses on economic development in the MSA, tracks the market value of all goods and services produced in a specific period as reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Tracking data runs behind, but numbers from 2013 to 2018 shows steady, year-to-year growth resulting in a total 10% increase.

In 2018, GDP for the Dothan MSA was $5.2 billion — 84% of which was from Houston County.

Cooperative effort

Parker pointed to many relationships that have paved the way for increased production and healthy employment opportunities among government, business and educational leaders.

“They unify to make something happen. That’s huge,” he said.

The city and county governments have made, and continue to make, infrastructure improvements on roads and sewer systems. Both parties have relationships with legislators, who try to help the area meet the needs that arise for certain projects.

Past leaders, Parker said, laid a solid foundation with health care, the military and utilities — all sustaining sectors that drive the economy.

“You try to grow where you’re strong in and grow diversity in the economy,” he said. “You definitely don’t want to rely on one specific sector.”

In the last year, capital investments via expansion and redevelopment projects have helped add jobs to the area’s portfolio. Highlights include:

» Abbeville Fiber Sawmill created 105 jobs with a $34 million investment.

» MRS BPO, a customer-care facility in Taylor, expanded, creating 100 jobs.

» Next Level Apparel Distribution in Ashford completed its expansion, adding 30 to 40 jobs.

» Glasstream Powerboats in Dothan added additional facilities and 25 positions.

» Agricel-AFC in Dothan added investment in the $7 million to $8 million range for upgraded warehousing and rail infrastructure.

» Wayne Farms made a $9 million investment in facilities and continues to grow in Enterprise and Dothan.

» SmartLam North America Dothan Division acquired International Beam.

» MidSouth Bank invested $5 million in a new financial-processing center in Dothan beside its West Main Street branch, creating around 20 jobs.

» Dothan Warehouse Investors completed the first phase of a refrigerated warehouse at Westgate Industrial Park, which was a $20 million investment. When the second phase is completed, it will add 70 jobs.

» Tri-Delta Systems in Abbeville completed a $2.3 million expansion project with 30 added jobs.

There also were about 140 new or expanded retail, commercial, health-care, financial-services and other professional-service developments.

Finding workers

With a shrinking number of unemployed people and a growing number of retiring professionals in the area, businesses are eyeing younger talent to fill positions.

Workforce development efforts seek to meet local industry and business training needs with vocational and job-skills training at Wallace Community College, Troy University-Dothan, Alabama Industrial Development Training, Dothan Technology Center, Houston County Career Academy and Dothan Area Career Center. They work hand in hand with Southeast Alabama Works and the Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce to grow jobs and opportunity in local markets.

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