Investing in Regional Partnerships
New Building Enables Chamber to Scale its Impact in Workforce and Community Development
The West Alabama Workforce and Community Development Center in downtown Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is much more than just “the building that houses the chamber of commerce.” It’s a center born of “extensive due diligence, committed partnerships, and a whole lot of patience,” said Jim Page, CCE, President and CEO of The Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, referencing the project’s origins in a 2018 chamber benchmarking trip to Commerce Lexington in Lexington, Kentucky.
The chamber, which recently sold its former space, now owns the more than 40,000-square-foot building, formerly the main local branch of Regions Bank. The building and its parking lots take up the better part of a city block and thanks to the chamber’s leadership, is going to be home to several of the region’s leaders in workforce and community development.
“We’re excited about the potential synergies between these partner entities working together in the building, sharing common spaces – we can’t yet imagine all that we will see,” said Page.
Page and his board knew the chamber would never need 40,000 square feet, but their vision was much larger than simply housing their organization alone. Page sees the move as more than just a great financial investment – due to their winning proposal the chamber gained immediate and significant equity in the building – he sees it as a great investment in regional partnerships.
The chamber was already a catalytic leader for workforce development in the region, serving as the State of Alabama’s coordinating entity for nine counties through its workforce arm, West Alabama Works. In addition to workforce development, the chamber engages in community development issues directly tied to growing and supporting a thriving workforce, which in turn supports healthy economic development. These issues include access to housing and education, building up the community in underserved areas, access to childcare, transportation investment and more.
The new center is coming alive with tenants representing a variety of aspects of workforce and community development in the region – some who currently partner with the chamber, and others who are new. The building represents a big leap forward in capacity for the region’s numerous partners in workforce and community development to collaborate in a big way, said Page. Tenants include Habitat for Humanity, Junior Achievement, and The Junior League, all of whom are leading successful community, education and workforce development programs. Other tenants the chamber is in discussions with include an organization that offers meaningful employment opportunities for past offenders and one that works with at-risk youth. Camgian Microsystems, an artificial intelligence and machine learning company the chamber helped recruit to Tuscaloosa, will also call the Center home as a tenant. The chamber is partnering with officials from Camgian on strategies to grow the “knowledge based” sector of the economy in a focused effort to keep educated talent from The University of Alabama, Stillman College and Shelton State Community College in the area.
Jim Page, CCE
Page says the building isn’t named for the chamber, but rather, for the broader purpose of supporting inclusive, comprehensive workforce and community development. “We want buy-in from all of our partners, we want them to feel part of the facility,” he added.
The vision for the project, though born of need for more office space due to the chamber’s growing scope of work, was incubated in leaders’ minds after an intercity benchmarking visit to Lexington, Kentucky. Page led a team in 2018 to visit with Bob Quick, CCE, President & CEO of Commerce Lexington, and his team, to get ideas for economic development and study the convention center model in Lexington. Though the goal of the trip was gathering knowledge and insights about The Lexington Center and Rupp Arena in Lexington, something else stood out as well. The Commerce Lexington building houses businesses and organizations, such as Northwestern Mutual and the UK Small Business Development Center, as well as chamber-affiliated entities for economic development, minority business development, and workforce development. Page said he and his group were inspired by seeing employees of all these groups able to collaborate so easily – sometimes over a cup of coffee in their shared break room – and knew something like that could work back home.
The chamber’s vision for the new center includes shared spaces to facilitate those types of valuable exchanges. In addition to the chamber offices, temporarily occupying space on the second floor until the building is fully renovated and open to other tenants, the building will have additional office suites as well as many shared spaces. These include a large and dynamic Boardroom and attached catering kitchen, meeting rooms, a multi-media studio, and a two-story atrium. The atrium formerly housed bank tellers but will be repurposed into a special events space where tenants can have receptions, seminars, and programs. These facilities, by design, are not just open to the building’s tenants, but to all partner agencies looking to collaborate and work on large projects. The lower level of the building houses a large break room, vending machines and a coffee station where employees can converse, eat lunch or gather.
Page’s vision is even bigger still. He and his team are evaluating the possibility of retrofitting and leasing the former bank drive through and associated space for a small deli to serve the tenants in the building as well as the surrounding downtown area. He’s quick to say that this is just an idea, so stay tuned for further updates.
All in all, Page and his team are pleased that the sound financial investment and business decisions will serve the entire Tuscaloosa and West Alabama region now and into the future. In his press release, he gave testament to the fact that these kinds of results are what intercity benchmarking trips are all about – real results that improve the community.
So how did Page and his leadership team leverage a straight-forward commercial property purchase into a powerhouse project to support regional workforce and community development?
In 2018, Page and Donny Jones, the chamber’s chief operating officer, had been having casual conversations about the need for more workspace for chamber staff. The board’s treasurer, Elizabeth Winter, an executive at Regions Bank, shared that her bank was looking to build a more modern, smaller facility and was selling their existing building. She connected Page to their corporate real estate officials, though he knew his chamber would never be able to secure a facility with more than 40,000 square feet of space. Regions was taking proposals, and Page determined it was infeasible to submit at that time. However, he ended up submitting a proposal at the last minute he was sure was never going to measure up financially to the other proposals the bank was sure to receive.
He was taken by surprise about a month later by a call from the bank’s vice president of corporate real estate, informing him that the vision outlined in the chamber proposal aligned perfectly with Regions’ community priorities. Though the financial offer was indeed not the highest, the bank highly valued the broader purpose of the chamber’s proposed use, and with the lengthy track record of the chamber’s success and with the leadership of Winter, now the chair of the chamber board, the proposal was accepted.
Page says he was shocked the proposal was accepted and knew at this point he had to take it to the full board. Up until that point, only Jones and key members of volunteer leadership had been engaged, but with the support of the full board, the chamber began its due diligence process of what this project would look like. It took about a year, and In January 2020, the chamber officially listed its existing facility, expecting it to sell quickly. Then COVID-19 hit, and no one was buying commercial property. The project was shelved for six months so the chamber could focus all its energies on helping its community through the pandemic, revisiting it in the fall of 2020. On New Year’s Day 2021, the building was shown, and an offer put in on the following Monday, which the chamber accepted.
Page says, “Their [Regions Bank] willingness to make this facility available to the Chamber at a price below market value has made this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity possible, and we are beyond grateful for their generosity and civic-minded focus. Regions shares in the chamber board of directors’ vision of creating a center for workforce and community development that will lead to unprecedented collaboration and synergies in support of job creation, under one roof.”