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Partnership aimed at boosting entrepreneurs announced at first State of the Economy event in Tuscaloosa

Entrepreneurs and researchers with potentially marketable discoveries and ideas could soon get some help bringing their ideas to market.

A new partnership involving a private investment firm and the University of Alabama will be formally unveiled soon, said Carl Pinkert, UA vice president for research and economic development.

Pinkert, the keynote speaker at the first local State of Economy conference on Thursday, said the partnership’s goal will be to develop companies from the ideas and research coming from UA’s researchers, faculty and students.

Greer Capital Advisors, a Birmingham-based company that provides capital for private equity projects, will be part of the partnership, providing funds for the budding businesses, he said. The money could come from donations to UA for the research or from equity investment in the start-up business.

Greer Capital provides capital for private equity projects that act as a catalyst for economic growth in the local community, according to its website. The company, which describes itself as Alabama-based, said it invests in industries close to home with a goal of helping local communities’ economies.

The partnership will take viable ideas and help develop them into businesses and keep them in the community, Pinkert said.

“If we reward them (new start-ups) financially, we expect they will stay in our community and grow,” he said.

“With the right incentives in place, they will get their roots planted here.”

The Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama’s “State of the Economy” conference also featured a panel of local experts who addressed the biggest challenges facing their respective industries.

Here’s what each panelist saw as challenges:

— Grayson Glaze, executive director of the Alabama Center for Real Estate, said affordable housing is the biggest challenge facing the real estate market in Tuscaloosa. He suggested the Tuscaloosa City Council’s next task force might look at that issue.

Much of the recent apartment construction in Tuscaloosa has been designed for students and is more upscale, he said. Affordable family housing needs to be addressed, he said.

“Affordable housing is the coming issue for the future,” Glaze said.

— Dara Longgrear, executive director of the Tuscaloosa County Industrial Development Authority, said the county needs to “move up the value-added chain” in manufacturing by making sure workers have the higher skills needed for those higher-paying jobs. Manufacturers seeking low-cost labor are not coming to the South, he said. They are locating in Mexico and China to get cheap labor.

Longgrear said he expects some county manufacturers will make major capital investments this fall, but those investments will not bring a lot of jobs.

“So the question becomes, with more automation and more robotics, can we hire people with the skills who know how to keep the robots from bumping into one another?”

— Jay Kasten, director of sports for Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports, noted several new hotels opened this year and more are in the planning stages. At the start of the year, there were no hotels downtown. Now there are two hotels with a total of 250 rooms downtown and another will soon be built bringing the total number of downtown hotel rooms to 350.

“The number of hotel rooms is exceeding the demand, so we have to become more creative to bring more visitors to town,” he said. Tuscaloosa needs to become a destination for visitors throughout the year not just on fall weekends when there’s a Crimson Tide football game, Kasten said.

— Al Spencer, the Chamber of Commerce’s vice president for economic development and public policy, said he sees the retail gap in which people travel to Birmingham or buy things online rather than shop in town. The gap occurs in part because they cannot get the merchandise locally.

Around $500 million leaves Tuscaloosa annually because of the retail gap, he said. That means lost tax dollars for schools and local governments and fewer jobs at stores and restaurants. The gap is being narrowed and will be helped with new redevelopments like the Shoppes at Legacy Park, which will open this year but it still remains a concern, he said.

— Brendan Moore, Tuscaloosa’s director of economic development, said a major focus for the near term will be continued redevelopment of the tornado recovery area — the parts of the city destroyed or heavily damaged by the April 27, 2011, tornado. Improvements to the downtown to UA campus area also are priority, he said.

July 30, 2015

By Patrick Rupinski | Business Editor

Reach Patrick Rupinski at patrick.rupinski@tuscaloosa or 205-722-0213.

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