What You’ll Learn

Wiregrass Electric Cooperative is heavily involved in economic development in its service terroritory. COO Brad Kimbro joined the podcast to discuss how partnerships drive economic development and a few important milestones that have occurred in the Wiregrass community.

Guest Speaker

Brad Kimbro

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

Andy Johns: Hello, StoryConnect listeners. This is your host, Andy Johns. I have an apology here. We recorded the next three episodes that we’re releasing live at our StoryConnect Conference in Gatlinburg. And, you know, when you do things live, sometimes things go sideways. The audio quality of the next three episodes is not what you are used to hearing. We work really hard with a great team to make it happen, but unfortunately, some of the equipment that we had there on site, the levels were off and so the quality is not going to be what you’re used to. We felt like the content from our three guests was important enough where we still wanted to go ahead and send these out for you to listen to. But I just wanted to apologize that the audio quality is not as good. But thanks for listening and keep telling your story.

Intro: A production of WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. StoryConnect: The Podcast. Helping communicators discover ideas to shape their stories and connect with their customers.

Andy Johns: What kind of economic development story are you telling? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns. I’m your host with WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. And we’re recording this session LIVE in front of a real life audience here at StoryConnect. (applause) Excellent. All right. And my guest today is Brad Kimbro, who is chief operating officer at Wiregrass Electric Cooperative down in Alabama. So, Brad, thanks for joining me.

Brad Kimbro: Absolutely. Happy to be here.

Andy Johns: There’s a couple of times that Brad has been on with us for these live podcast sessions that we’re doing at StoryConnect. But in this one, we’re going to be talking about economic development. And as we’re getting into it, let’s go ahead and just tell me a little bit about some of the efforts that you guys are making with the economic development there in the Wiregrass.

Brad Kimbro: Right. Okay. Well, I guess first thing I will say is you can’t have a successful economic development program really without (1) having relationships, positive relationships and (2) infrastructure. You have to have those two things. And in positive relationships, they’re not (inaudible) necessarily overnight. It takes an effort to do that. And one of the things that I think has helped us really is, is the relationship we have with you, Pioneer and WordSouth, because it allows us, we our cooperative, to be out in things, in ways that that we can be in the community, building those relationships, being on chamber boards, being on economic development boards, working with our legislators and building that coalition and not necessarily having to worry about a lot of things that you guys can help us do. Jeremy Wise was here, our account rep, he does a lot to help in that arena.

Andy Johns: We appreciate that.

Brad Kimbro: And so, you know, it helps to have those relationships. Again, you got to have an infrastructure. You know, and it’s not just the electric infrastructure now. It’s broadband, equally is important. Businesses aren’t going to be in an area that they don’t have a reliable flow of electricity, and of course, the high speed broadband access.

Brad Kimbro: So you’ve got to have those things. But it’s more than just those two things as well. You got to have you know, you have to have product. Something to have for a business to want to be building, spec building, things like that. Highways, roads, you know, four lane roads and those type things. And I guess we started back in 2015 intentionally focusing on building coalitions and helping to foster and build relationships in our in our area. And one of the ways in which we did that is we began to host a quarterly meeting in our area, and we invited all the economic developers in our region and also invited the the legislatures, both at the federal level and the state level. And of course, the local mayors and things like that, council members. And also included the education profession. We have Troy University in our service area and a junior college. So we included those and then all the high school, the superintendents and career tech folks. And so, you know, just trying to build that relationship and coalition and talk about issues that are out there, and what we can do to help solve them.

Andy Johns: It’s got to be a holistic approach, clearly, as you guys are doing there. So most everybody, I think everybody in the room is a community-based utility. They are telco, electric co-op, a couple of municipality folks in there. Why is it important, and what’s so special about a community-based utility like yourself, like most of the folks in the room being involved? Why should they even get involved in economic development?

Brad Kimbro: Well, if you’re not involved, then you’re on the sideline, and you’re not controlling the agenda or helping with the narrative. You know, if not us, who? You know, what we want to do is do what’s good for our members. And what’s good for our members is to have an area that’s growing and prospering and providing jobs that provide hope. You know, and that’s what our charge is. And all of us in this room, we’re charged with what’s best for our members and our customers and doing what is best for our area. And, you know, most of us do it at cost. I mean, that’s our model, and we’re in it for the right reasons. We’re not out there to price gouge, or make a bunch of profits and stack them up. And we’re really, we’re doing it for the right reasons and growing the area. You know, I just got a phone call, Jeremy knows, I just told him, we’ve been working on a project now —

Andy Johns: Is this breaking news?

Brad Kimbro: It’s breaking news.

Andy Johns: Breaking news. We don’t usually break news on a podcast.

Brad Kimbro: Let’s see what Jeremy, we broke ground on a spec building and in August of 20, and I just got a call from the chairman of our local county commissioner and judge, probate judge, and everything has been signed. And what that means is our spec building that — again partnerships are so important. You know, I referenced our partnership, but we have a partnership with our local county officials and building that coalition. Our wholesale power supplier is Power South Energy Cooperative, and we consider them a good partner. They provide us wholesale power, but they do more than that. And one of the things that they do is through this spec building program that they have, we’re basically able to to build these spec buildings and float them for about four years. It gives us four years to sell them, and put a company in there. And, you know, we can go up to $1.2 million with that program. That’s what this program was. And we broke ground on a spec building and our industrial park there in Geneva County. And it looks like we’re going to have a tenant here, which is going to produce, day one, about 100 jobs at $20 an hour. And maybe by 2024, they’re talking about moving their entire operation to our industrial park and employing about 200-225 people.

Andy Johns: That’s awesome.

Brad Kimbro: That’ll change that place forever.

Andy Johns: Yeah. Congratulations on that. We can do a round of applause with the doing that. (applause) If you’ve got a live audience, you might as well use them for sound effects.

Brad Kimbro: Well, you know, it’s just a testimony, again, to a lot of hard work on that coalition. And I mentioned the meeting that we have, the quarterly meetings. One of those ideas that came out of that quarterly meeting was Geneva County — and now we serve in the Dothan area, so that’s Houston County — but Geneva County is in Alabama, one of the, I hate to say poor counties, but it’s a little bit behind Houston. So, you know, so they didn’t have a career take center. And the closest way that the students or kids or whatever in Geneva could do something to get technical skill was to travel to Houston County. And a lot of them couldn’t do that because of the logistics of it. So around that meeting, we talked about that and the armory that was there was about to close. So we were able to, through that coalition, through our state Senator Donnie Chesteen, was able to save that armory, but also make it a career tech center. So now, you know, the students are able to get technical trade and technical skills, which is very important now for this new announcement.

Andy Johns: You’ve got to build that pipeline.

Brad Kimbro: Yeah. Because now what’s going to make them successful, obviously, is, and we have to do it, we can’t miss. We have to make sure that the labor they’re going to need is there. And G-tech, this career take center in Geneva County, will do that.

Andy Johns: You mentioned earlier, if not us, who? How do you go about telling that story, that economic development story, talking to folks all over? I mean, if I remember right, you know, there were some folks on the other side of the country who are looking at this space. So how do you go about telling the story of the Wiregrass to folks all over the place in terms of economic development?

Brad Kimbro: Yeah, well, it’s not a one time thing. It’s just an ongoing thing. Through a magazine, through a website, through social media channel, through again, just old fashioned relationships and building those and promoting what we’re doing again, which helps us a lot. And in doing that, we’re seen as a resource too, you know. We’re able to do some things because of our partnership with you guys that we can turn around things quickly that’s beneficial to the community, economic development community. We just did one a week ago. We got, I serve on a local cities redevelopment authority and trying to revitalize that local city in that county, which is good for our members and creates jobs and things. And we got a donation of a building that was given to the ADRA. We in turn were able to donate that, deed that to the library, the Dothan Houston County Library, which was able to double their square footage and have more of a presence, and do some things that they were not able to do or will be able to do. And then the old building, they were able to donate it to the ADRA, which we would then donate to the city to help with their needs. So all of that happened quickly and because of our relationship with WordSouth, I call Jeremy and I’m like, “Hey, we need a media release. We need an invitation. We invited people for the event,” and it was done. And it wasn’t like, because of that partnership, it wasn’t like it was news for calling up a PR firm and saying, “Hey, I need this.” Now, you guys are living it with us every day. He’s like, Oh, yeah, I’ve been turning it around. It was great.

Andy Johns: I appreciate saying that for sure. The last question I had for you, what advice do you have for somebody? Maybe there’s somebody in the room that’s thinking about stepping up their role in economic development for their community and is just not sure where to start. What advice would you have for somebody to get things rolling?

Brad Kimbro: Just start. Really it can be overwhelming, you know. But I would say start with the relationships. You know, in our area, what had been the history was our counties would want to work individually a little bit and be in that silo a little bit. And I’m not saying we’re the sole reason, but I think we had a lot to do with it, in helping get that together and get that coalition together. An example of that is there was talk for years about an I-10 connector because we don’t have an interstate highway through our territory. So we’re right there, southeast Alabama on the Florida line. And it would be nice if we had an interstate that would run through and connect I-10 and Florida and connect all that. So it just never worked. And so, you know, the reason it didn’t work was Geneva wanted the connector their county. Houston wanted it in their county. And you see the problem. But what we’re able to do is, is now we’re all in one page. And what that means is when you go to the Alabama governor or the DOT and you’re talking as one now, and it doesn’t really matter where it is in the county, which county, it just matters that it’s there. So we have some efforts, and Senator Shelby has given us a $450,000 grant to begin the feasibility study of getting that done. I would just say just start. Just start somewhere.

Andy Johns: Start somewhere. I like that. Good advice. He is Brad Kimbro, COO of Wiregrass Electric Cooperative. My name is Andy Johns. They are the live audience here at StoryConnect. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.

Intro: StoryConnect is produced by WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. Both companies are built to share your story. Our associate producer is Sarah Wootten. StoryConnect is engineered by Lucas Smith of Lucky Sound Studio.