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ATHENS, Ala. (WHNT) – State legislators, entrepreneurs, and higher education leaders gathered in Athens on Thursday to discuss the future of innovation and development in the state.

The meeting, hosted by Innovate Alabama and Launch 2035, was a discussion session that identified goals and obstacles that North Alabama can focus on in the coming years.

“When people hear about Alabama, they don’t necessarily think about entrepreneurship,” said Alabama House Minority Leader Rep. Anthony Daniels. “They don’t necessarily think about the natural resources and assets we have as a state.”

North Alabama contains several of the state’s fastest-growing counties, according to U.S. Census data. Alabama legislative and entrepreneurial leaders said, with the population growth, the region has the opportunity to bring together lawmakers, entrepreneurs, and higher education.

“Our goal is to tell Alabama’s story, but also put our money where our mouth is when it comes to making investments and helping a lot of these companies and small businesses get into higher education and institutions,” Daniels said.

The mission of Thursday’s meeting was to start a conversation and partnership between state leaders.

“Launch 2035 is really excited to be able to pull together the right leader from throughout the region to help stimulate and address those opportunities and challenges that may exist related to workforce development, entrepreneurship, and land use,” said Launch 2035 Entrepreneurship Co-Chair Toni Eberhart.

Daniels said North Alabama is seeing an influx of ideas and talent that he and other leaders hope to support and retain.

“We want to figure out what is our retention plan in higher education, and what are we not doing,” Daniels said.

Former Director of Marshall Space Flight Center and current Dynetics CEO Dave King said the state often focuses developmental resources on urban areas.

“I think this is an attempt to broaden that into the more rural areas,” King said. “Folks that live in rural areas have just as good of ideas, but sometimes they don’t know where to go and they don’t have the resources to go implement something they’ve come up with.”

However, King said if rural communities are offered the same opportunities, the state can encourage the creation of more small businesses and foster widespread growth across the entire region.