"It's one of the first things they want to know," said Neal Wade, former head of the Alabama Development Office. "Quite often, they know more about your community than you do."
Wade headed the ADO — the state agency dedicated to bringing big businesses to Alabama — during the administration of Gov. Bob Riley. Now he's chairman of the state's best-known think tank.
The Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama announced Monday that Wade has been named chairman of the organization. PARCA's website describes the group as "the only nonpartisan research organization dedicated to the improvement of state and local government in Alabama."
Housed at Samford University, PARCA has produced oft-quoted studies of Alabama's tax system, schools and prisons, as well as analyses of the dozens of constitutional amendments the state mulls every election year.
Wade said that in coming years, the group will continue to focus on studying the state's school system. Improving schools, he said, is the biggest thing the state can do to better position itself to attract new industry.
Wade traveled overseas regularly in his position as director of ADO, as the Riley administration courted industries such as Hyundai Heavy Industries and ThyssenKrupp. He said the subject of education always came up.
"My experience is, they tell you they have to have workers who are qualified," Wade said. "You have to show them you can produce workers with those critical skills."
PARCA's policy recommendations are widely praised on Goat Hill, but less often implemented. The state recently dropped a budgeting system, called SMART budgeting, that PARCA supported. The think tank's analyses have repeatedly noted that Alabama's sales-tax-heavy revenue system is volatile and regressive. The tax structure remains largely unchanged.
"Our job is to help the community look at its own strengths and weaknesses," Wade said. "It's up to the community to decide what to do with that information."
Wade said the group has seen success working directly with local school systems such as the one in Mobile, analyzing academic data and crafting solutions to local problems.
He said the group is now polling and interviewing Alabama residents to ask what they expect from their school system, and what they want for their children. While that study is still ongoing, Wade said it will be released at a PARCA conference in February.
"There may be some things in there that are surprising," he said.
Wade said he'll work part-time in the chairman's position. PARCA is still run on a daily basis by executive director Jim Williams.
Wade takes over the chairmanship from former Gov. Albert Brewer, one of the founders of PARCA and chairman of the group for more than 20 years. Wade said Brewer, who teaches at Samford and heads the state's Constitutional Revision Commission, will devote his time to those roles.
Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.