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The Montgomery Advertiser

Community Hero Ellen McNair helps to sculpt Montgomery's development

By Alex Gladden, Montgomery Advertiser,

2023-03-15
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  • McNair has been involved in corporate recruitment here for three decades
  • The area drew a record $1.7B in industrial investment last year
  • Colleagues say her tenacious work is born from a dedication to improving life here

When Ellen McNair drives past Hyundai's manufacturing plant, she cannot help but smile. McNair was a lead on the team that brought Hyundai to Montgomery in 2002.

"But really the huge payoff is when you see those cars in the parking lot, and ... you know those cars represent families that now have great job opportunities that pay a lot, that have benefits that they didn’t have before," McNair said. "It's really amazing to drive by and see a parking lot full of cars..."

McNair is the chief officer for economic development at the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce and has been behind some of the top projects that brought organizations to the city such as Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama, which brings in $5 billion to the state each year.

“There are families who will never meet or know Ellen who are going to benefit and change their standard of living and be great taxpaying citizens here because of her work," Chamber Chairman LaBarron Boone said. "(McNair) can touch people who may never know it, but their standard of living and why they can thrive and survive in Montgomery is directly related to her work."

In 2022, companies announced more than $1.7 billion worth of industrial projects in Montgomery. That’s the most in at least three decades, according to a previous Montgomery Advertiser article. McNair is heavily involved with bringing companies to Montgomery, but she also works with the more than 400 industries already in Montgomery.

The projects keep coming. Last year alone, Hyundai announced a $300 million expansion that created 200 new jobs; Fedex launched a $52 million and 150 jobs; Amazon invested $100 million in a project that will create created 500 jobs; Manna Beverage invested $600 million to create 280 high-paying jobs; and Diageo Americas Supply Inc. invested $415 million into a project that's expected to create 75 high-salary jobs.

For her decades of work as a corporate recruiter and that work's impact on the quality of life throughout the region, McNair has been named the Montgomery Advertiser's Community Hero for the month of March, an honor sponsored by South University.

More: More investments McNair leadCompanies pour $1.7B into Montgomery plants despite tight labor market

McNair credits much of her success to her team. “All the partners, the folks that are in this business (deserve the credit)," she said. "Our team is just so professional, and they’re so good at what they do."

But the people who work the closest to her unanimously agree that there is something special about McNair.

“Ellen is the firepower behind the significant economic development growth in this area," said Leslie Sanders, the vice president of Alabama Power's Southern Division.

Boone added, “I would sum Ellen up as talented, tenacious and committed to the capital city."

Former Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange also had a phrase in mind in describing McNair.

“I’d tell you she’s a bulldog, but she's a very smooth bulldog," Strange said.

Mayor Steven Reed agreed, calling McNair "tenacious."

"Ellen has been tenacious when it comes to not only recruiting but retaining and growing high-impact economic development opportunities in Montgomery," Reed said in a statement. "She and the chamber team have helped bring thousands of jobs to our community. Most importantly, Ellen genuinely cares about Montgomery and its future.

"We are grateful for her work and look forward to building on last year's $1.7 billion in investment."

A new kind of economic development

McNair joined the chamber about 30 years ago. Aside from a few years when McNair worked for the state, she has spent her career almost exclusively working for the chamber.

Over that time, those who have work alongside her say she's been able to embrace changes to help keep the area growing.

"She is one of those special economic development people that has been able to transition from what economic development was in the day ... (when you were) looking at infrastructure, access to interstate, those kind of things. She still does that (too). You see Montgomery had the best year ever with the announcement of projects and job growth.

"But she has also heard (from) those in economic development, and those that we want to locate here, that it’s about quality of place. So, nowadays you have to prove to an employer that you have the infrastructure but also that their employees would want to come and live in your city."

The Boston native originally moved to Alabama to join the new-at-the-time women's track team at Auburn University and since then she's balanced her decades of work responsibilities with her duties to her own growing family. And her family said she is just as dedicated as a wife, mother and grandmother.

“As busy as she was with her job, she never missed anything and always put being mother first above anything else," her son Michael McNair said. She is a devout Catholic, and her son said they still meet for mass every week.

McNair has three children including a son the family adopted after his mother died.

'A better place for all of us to live'

With McNair's successful career, she has had the opportunity to live in different places, but she has chosen to stay in Montgomery.

“Ellen just has a sincere desire to help Montgomery a better place for all of us to live," said Liston Eddins, who has worked closely with McNair at the chamber.

Strange said that desire translates into companies coming to Montgomery and investing in the city.

“From a Montgomery standpoint, the number of jobs and the amount of investment certainly makes Montgomery a better place," Strange said.

Community Heroes Montgomery

Community Heroes Montgomery, sponsored by South University, profiles one person each month.

The 12 categories the Montgomery Advertiser will focus on: educator, health, business leader, military, youth, law enforcement, fire/EMT, nonprofit/community service, religious leader, senior volunteer, entertainment (arts/music) and athletics (such as a coach).

Do you know a Community Hero?

To nominate someone for Community Heroes Montgomery, email communityheroes@gannett.com. Please specify which category you are nominating for and your contact information.

Alex Gladden is the Montgomery Advertiser's public safety reporter. She can be reached at agladden@gannett.com or 479-926-9570.

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