January 9, 2001
The following interview with Mayor Mike Dow of the City of Mobile took place on December 14.
Harbinger: How's the state of the city?
Dow: Well it's evolving, it's changing. Mobile is part of a fast-paced, ever-changing global economy, and we cannot escape the forces that are at play in a world economy. You have shifting financial markets, shifting product markets, shifting technology, and a tremendous amount of realignment of business and industry in the world. Here in Mobile, we are losing our pulp and paper industry. Pulp and paper are over-built, and many pulp and paper mills are being built outside the U.S. where the cost of labor is cheaper. The cost of that pulp, which is equal to or higher in quality, is cheaper. So a plant looks at that and asks, "Why should I make pulp when I can buy the pulp on the open market, and try to compete on that basis?" So we've become severely weakened in the pulp and paper industry, and just having political leaders sitting down with International Paper and Kimberly-Clark is not going to change what is happening. But simultaneously with that, we are recruiting a high-tech, electronics-driven, state-of-the-art steel industry. I think environmentally, it will be a balance if you look at it and say we lost a paper mill but will gain a steel mill. I think there are some things that the steel industry can do that can give us a net gain when it comes to the environment. We have a company investing $400 million, and I think you are going to find the steel industry is going to grow as a replacement to pulp and paper.
If you look at shipbuilding: we had a slowdown last year, but here comes Alstal from Australia to build high-tech aluminum ferries on Mobile's waterfront. It will add to our waterfront employment and bring a very high-tech, highly trained work force to bear on modern shipbuilding. If you look at aerospace: Singapore Aerospace a year or two ago lost orders worth $100 million because they couldn't expand fast enough. Now we are building them a new training school, training 300 people at a time, and they are building new hangers at Brookley Field. Their business is growing. If you look at the high-tech business world, you might say, "My goodness, QMS has fewer employees." But then along came Minolta, which puts a $100 million partnership with QMS, and the opportunity for QMS to grow and prosper has been greatly strengthened. You can also look at the spin-offs from QMS. Look at Xante and Robert Ross and his high-tech endeavors. Look at Neil Armatrout with Telefox. Both these young men have gotten substantial millions of dollars of venture capital and they are starting new QMSs in our community. You look over at CPFI, and they have 500 employees in the high-tech medical-oriented software business, and you look at John Beck of Attel who have raised about $250 million, an entrepreneur with a seven-state business that he started in telecommunication, and you say, "Hey, something is happening here." We are incubating high-tech businesses here, and we are beginning to create more QMSs. We have started a high-tech council that brings all these CEOs together to talk about how we as a community can nurture the high-tech industry. We've put together a 38-person work-force development board, comprised of CEOs and educators in the Mobile area. We are asking industry to give us curricula that we can specifically start teaching to our high-school and junior-college students, giving them the skills that would allow them to go to work upon graduation. You take the program at Vigor where Cesco is in partnership with Vigor on a curriculum on the knowledge base of the Internet. These kids are certified networkers when they come out of the courses, and they can go into the community and make $30,000+ as networkers. The training that Singapore Aerospace is doing is specifically oriented to aerospace. We want more and more of our focus and organization to be geared toward those 75 percent of high-school students who are not going to college. The work-force training is something, I think, that will build us a work-force that can go into targeted areas where we need to grow and can grow, so businesses don't have to go outside of Mobile to hire workers.
If you look at the public school system, we are heavily focused on what has not been accomplished, but we are not giving ourselves enough credit for what we have accomplished. We are building more new schools and extensions than any community that I know of. I don't know of a community that is building more new schools and upgrading more public school facilities than what Mobile County is doing.
So when I look back over the decade, I see a tremendous amount of progress and a lot of successes. But as I look forward, if we want to continue our development and investment in our community, we've got to stay focused on bringing new industries to replace those going away.
There are two areas still that we have not resolved that need to be fully resolved. One of them is funding K-12 properly. I know that myself and [county commissioner] Sam Jones have been a part of three efforts to increase ad valorem taxes to fund public schools. It was like a mule kicking me in the stomach the last time, when 75 percent of the vote went against that. We went to the grassroots and tried to really educate people more about K-12, and it didn't work. That is not discouraging me from the fact that we need to stay focused. It's not a simple matter to tell the City to send the school system a $300 million check each year, because we don't have any additional revenue. It's a matter of continuing a dialogue to figure out an effective way, so we can have the people of this community support a plan that will give us the new schools that we need.
The second issue is the environment. The environmental progress we made over the last decade is significant. If you ask the experts about water quality, they will tell you our water quality is better than the previous ten years. We now have a National Estuary Program that is pulling all the agencies and the political leaders and environmentalists together around the same table. We have an excellent executive director hired in David Yeager, and a comprehensive plan is being put together by a committee that includes citizens, not just political leaders. The Management Committee is putting together a work plan for each agency, including the city, the county, ADEM, and all the agencies, to accomplish over the next decade to continue to improve the quality of our estuaries in Mobile Bay. I am anxious to be a part of that.
Look at air quality: You look at the fact that over the last decade, the industry groups excluding the Alabama Power Company, The Forum, have gone from 72 million pounds of TRI [Toxic Release Inventory] emissions to less then 20 million pounds. In the last decade, there has been a tremendous downward trend of TRI pollutants into our community. Right now, every one of the industries is alert to the importance that they, as individual companies, will impact our air quality, and every one of them are spending large sums of money to try to go to the latest technological level to bring their TRI emissions down. The [Mobile Area] Chamber of Commerce and the County are trying for a decade to diversity our economy. We've gotten shipbuilding to grow again, as well as the aerospace industry and all the high-tech incubation. You look at the fact that we turned down a number of industries that want to come into our community, but we said "No." If you look at the fact that Alabama Power Company is converting thirty percent of its production to natural gas, that's progress. It's a big commitment to spend that kind of money to convert to natural gas burners in generating electricity. Also, the City, the County, the industry groups and the environmentalists are pulling together to create an Air Quality Study Task Force. The City and County are each putting up $150,000 initially, and we've gone through about a year of educating ourselves on a process in which we put a very sophisticated program of work together. We hired a company to put a monitoring system in the county to tell us what is really in the air. It's going to cost upward of a million dollars; we have raised $350,00 and we need to figure out how to raise the other $700,000 to do the study. We just had a meeting last week on that. I think the air-quality study is going to lead to more knowledge, and we have all signed a document saying that we will live with the outcome of that factual study and do things that will continue to keep us going in the right direction.
I think one of the things that Mobile suffers from is the fact that we are on two major interstate highways, I-65 and I-10. We are becoming more and more congested, with more and more traffic and people in our area. Every family now has three cars instead of one, and two-cylinder motors are a big part of our lives because today everyone owns a lawn mower and a blower. The automobile component to the ozone problem is significant. I think part of the doubling of automobiles in the last several decades is causing a problem. If you go to the highway department and ask about the number of cars in the interstates that have to slow down in going through the tunnels, they will give you a very alarming number of the increase in the amount of traffic. We are dealing with a complex issue. But when more and more people who are close to it, take a look and see all the organizations and all efforts that are going into it, they would start feeling better. The issue is how do you educate the people to the efforts and organize a plan to make the city a better place to live. More importantly, how the citizens can be a part of that.
Harbinger: Many cities in the nation are enjoying record economic growth and are piling up surpluses. Yet the City of Mobile is facing difficulties and having to shift revenue streams to meet employee pay-raise and operating costs. I know that loss of sales taxes due in the outlying areas of the city and to increased use of the Internet are some of the reasons. What is so unique to the Mobile problem compared to other cities that face the same challenges?
Dow: It's multi-faceted. For one thing, for decades Mobile has been the retail center for the county and surrounding areas and even some points in Mississippi. Over the years, I have had people told me that many people from Pascagoula do their shopping in the Mobile area. Now, Baldwin County and Mississippi have their outlet malls and new shopping centers duplicating every store we have in the Mobile area -- the Targets, the Wal-Marts, the Lowes, and the Home Depots. So we are losing about 25 percent of the population of this region who looked to Mobile as a retail center. That's a big hit. The second factor is the issues regarding the western sector of the City. Over the last decades, [former Mobile mayor] Joe Langan annexed the regions west of the city and expanded from 26 square miles to about 250 square miles. As we grew westward, our tax base increased and we were able to take that tax revenue to do things like a $100 million worth of drainage ditches, the Bay Bears, the Mysticks, a new art museum, and new libraries. Now, as we grow across the city limits into the [county] jurisdiction, our tax base has been cut in half, and that's another factor that has affected us. The third factor is the Internet. Mayors all across the county are alarmed right now. What is happening, when it comes to people buying on the Internet, is a lack of local purchasing. We are heavily sales tax based here. We proudly say we have low ad valorem, no service fee like garbage fee or storm-water drainage fee. Most cities across the nation have garbage fees, and many of them either have service fees for other services or their citizens support referendums to raise city revenues. As the sales-tax base is weakening all across the nation, Mobile doesn't have the luxury of the types of tax bases that many other communities have. But anybody who says our operations have not grown substantially in the last decade and have not been fully funded, doesn't know what's going on in City Hall. We have 250 more policemen, brand new garbage trucks, with state-of-the-art technology. The City won the State Quality Award for Total Quality Management. Our services are so much stronger and we are putting them in all seven council districts. We used to have services in some districts; now we spread them to all seven council districts. So the information that the City is somehow under-funded, operation-wise, is not true. We are growing at about half-a-percent right now. It's hard to give five-percent pay raises when you are growing at half-a-percent. Last year, we stopped $10 million worth of capital projects to try to keep up. But if the rate of the sales tax is dropping, that is simply not enough. We have to do some more things in the future to make sure we can have these kinds of growth rates. A partnership with the western sectors will give us that, if that can be accomplished.
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Next issue: Part Two of the interview with Mayor Dow, in which he discusses his trip to Cuba and U-S.-Cuba relations, land urbanization and loss of green space, and appointments to the City of Mobile Industrial Development Board.
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