BREAKOUT:

The Next Step

The next step in the "Pathway" movement involves creating Greater Shoals Working Groups in six targeted areas:

• Broadening the definition of economic development

• Developing high-tech infrastructure/recruiting

• Quality of life

• Workforce development and education

• United tourism

• Government cooperation and structure

Anyone interested in joining a group can submit their name online at agreatershoals.com.

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FLORENCE — The Shoals boasts the highest percentage of workforce-ready high school seniors of any metropolitan statistical area in Alabama.

Consolidating or sharing some aspects of government should be considered.

The Shoals Economic Development Fund is a valuable resource whose purpose should be expanded.

Those were among findings and suggestions the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama presented Thursday to a packed house at Singin' River Live.

The idea for the study, titled "A Greater Shoals: A Pathway," was spawned after the 2017 Shoals Chamber of Commerce Leadership Shoals class invited PARCA officials to discuss a similar study they had conducted in Birmingham.

Macke Mauldin, president of the Shoals-based Bank Independent, former University of North Alabama President Robert Potts, chamber President Caitlin Holland and Alvin Rosenbaum, author of "The Muscle Shoals: First Frontier of These United States," formed a steering committee for the project.

Thursday's presentation had some surprises, including several that came from the audience. During the meeting, those in attendance were asked to participate in an online survey using their phones or other mobile devices. More than 120 people responded.

Among the results:

• 97 percent said the Shoals should have a comprehensive strategic plan for tourism.

• 95 percent see fragmentation as the largest hindrance in quality, positive growth for the Shoals.

• 90 percent favor expanding the scope of the Shoals Economic Development Fund.

• 95 percent want to explore ways to merge and/or consolidate government entities and services.

• 13 percent believe the Shoals is doing enough to combat poverty and promote equal opportunity.

Another result: 76 percent were surprised to learn the Shoals was No. 1 in Alabama in providing workforce ready and college-ready high school seniors.

A full 68 percent of seniors in the Shoals Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), which encompasses Colbert and Lauderdale counties, are workforce ready, the study revealed.

"That's the top in the state by a large margin," PARCA Senior Research Associate Tom Spencer said.

That drew a rousing ovation from the crowd, which was comprised of a cross-section of movers and shakers throughout the Shoals.

Spencer added that 84 percent are certified as college and career ready, placing it up there with Huntsville for the top spot in Alabama.

"This is what matters in the modern economy," Spencer said.

However, Spencer pointed out population growth in the Shoals is at a crawl. In fact, the area has lost some 100 residents since 2010.

"You're dying faster than you're having babies," he said.

Yet, the area is beautiful and has a remarkable quality of life, he added. It also has a rich music heritage that continues today, an emerging fashion scene, a rich arts community, a variety of festivals and the Tennessee River.

The study showed there remain some aspects of the area that benefit from mergers, emphasizing the success of the chamber and Shoals Economic Development Authority as examples.

The Shoals also boasts vibrant downtowns, the University of North Alabama and Northwest-Shoals Community College, Spencer said.

He said it is important to protect the Shoals Economic Development Fund while looking at ways to broaden the definitions of its purpose. He also praised the Shoals Scholar Dollars program.

In addition, he suggested city managers should be considered, and he recommended having a mayor's council that would regularly meet.

Spencer also pointed out there are separate tourism agencies in each county.

"This will be somewhat controversial, but I think you should combine tourism efforts," he said.

bernie.delinski@timesdaily.com or 256-740-5739. Twitter @TD_BDelinski

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