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Roundtable: Recreation, higher ed are drivers in region’s economy

ATHENS — In the modern live-work-play society, recreation is a key piston of a region’s economic engine.

North Alabama is no different.

On Thursday,  Innovate Alabama and Launch 2035 hosted a regional economic round at Athens State University. The panelists included politicians, educators, entrepreneurs, community leaders and business people. The conversations were centered around entrepreneurship, commercialization and the development of an innovative, skilled workforce. Innovate Alabama brought a coalition of public and private sector representatives to the roundtable.

“Through this roundtable, Innovate Alabama’s goal is to connect local and state policymakers with leading entrepreneurs and higher education folks across North Alabama to learn about some of the obstacles these leaders are facing as they work to move this region forward,” said House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels (D-Huntsville), a member of the Innovate Alabama board of directors.

During the roundtable, Launch 2035 highlighted the Singing River Trail – a 200-mile greenway system that strengthens regional bonds among 16 North Alabama cities.

Launch 2035 Chairman Rob Hamilton touched on why enhancing outdoor recreational opportunities was critical to Alabama’s economy.

“The opportunities are endless when we bring together people from different corners of Alabama to develop innovative opportunities that enhance the economic landscape of our region,” said Hamilton. “The Singing River Trail is a prime example of this. By working with leaders in both the public and private sector across multiple counties, we developed a product that would leverage our region’s outdoor recreation assets to increase our state’s economic footprint.

“We are excited about today’s conversation and those to follow. This is the beginning of a long partnership between our state and regional leaders as we continue tapping into North Alabama’s incredible potential.”

Governmental, business and educational leaders discussed challenges relating to workforce needs and talent retention. The need to bolster capital resources for rural small businesses was also discussed.

Founded in 2014, Launch 2035 is a regional economic partnership of Limestone, Madison and Morgan counties to ensure regional economic growth over the next 20 years. It focuses on three areas: land use, workforce and entrepreneurship.

The organization has since expanded to include all of North Alabama.

Because of higher education’s role in workforce development, college and university leaders discussed post-graduate recruitment and retention.

Andrew Dollar, director of the Athens State University’s LaunchBox, said creating in-state opportunities for graduates will be paramount in economic growth efforts.

“For those of us engaged in higher education, we have noticed that many Alabama students seek opportunities outside the state after graduation with all of the knowledge and experience that they gained while in college here,” said Dollar. “We are grateful to connect with leaders in the business and government sectors who can serve as resources to our students and help us create more home base opportunities for them.”

The LaunchBox is an innovative hub in downtown Athens and hosted the roundtable.

The Tennessee Valley discussion was one of a series of roundtables Innovate Alabama will hold across the state. The next roundtable will be Oct. 20 at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa.

Dylan Smith is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanSmithAL

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