Imagine what a little help would do for our community

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 28, 2003

I’ve got to tell you: A year ago, I wasn’t even close to writing the kind of stories I write today about the city I live in. It’s well documented (at least in this column and by my occasional typing blunders) that I moved here from Selma.

Over in Selma, if we had been named a "City of Excellence," the mayor would have proclaimed a school holiday, business owners would have gathered at a local hotel, and we would have hung a banner on the Edmund Pettus Bridge declaring our city "excellent."

Here in Demopolis, my assumption is that we’ll read the headline on the front page, wipe our noses, and keep reading. To us, being named one of the best small communities in Alabama is not much more than a sweet gesture made by some far-off organization that has nothing better to do than pick excellent communities.

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Bah, humbug.

The latest accolade handed to the city of Demopolis is a lot more than just a kind gesture. It’s proof that our city and her leaders do a lot of things right. It proves, as the chairman of this "far-off organization" said, that we know how to work in unity and that we’re a progressive town.

Then Bob Howard, the chairman of Alabama Communities of Excellence, made a statement that caught my ear.

Literally, we all know what Howard meant. He meant the political and economic forces in Demopolis know how to come together "as one" and get a project completed.

But what Howard, and many of you, may not know is that Demopolis really is a city that "works as one." And by saying "one," I’m referring to our community’s chamber of commerce and industrial board executive director.

Chances are, you’ve seen Kathy Leverett around town. If you haven’t, you should leave the house sometime. In her role as chamber of commerce director and industrial board director, Leverett wears more hats than Mini Pearl had in her closet. She’s everywhere you go, organizing practically every event you attend. She wears a smile that plastic surgeons can’t perfect, and she has made an all-out assault on economic development leaders in this state in an effort to put a brighter star around Demopolis.

Don’t take that the wrong way. Demopolis and Marengo County are blessed with numerous leaders who portray this city in a positive light, but no one can deny that Leverett works as hard, if not harder, than any other person in keeping Demopolis at the center of industry talk over in Montgomery.

On Thursday, as I interviewed Leverett about today’s "excellent" story, she had just returned to her office from a community meeting. Thirty minutes after I called, she was scheduled to host a merchants meeting at her office. The day before, she had visited Montgomery with a group of community leaders to pitch our city to the Alabama Development office.

Her schedule makes my head ache.

During my newspaper career, I’ve worked under the wise tutelage of some brilliant community advocates. I’ve learned a great deal about economic development and its importance to the vitality of any city. At one point, I also served on an economic development board and learned of the intricacies involved in recruiting industry.

Though that resume wouldn’t land me a job on a governor’s cabinet, it does provide me with the ability to make the following statement: Kathy Leverett, in her current job, does far too much for a city with the ambitions of Demopolis.

If leaders in this city are serious about economic development, while continuing a focus on tourist events like Christmas and Freedom on the River, Leverett needs some help.

There’s an easy rebuttal to that opinion: We’re a small town with limited finances. Having one person head the chamber of commerce and the industrial board is not that big a deal. Heck, some will say that a lot of communities our size don’t even have an industrial board.

Bah, humbug &045;&045; again.

We aren’t like "a lot of communities" and if we ever become satisfied with being like everybody else, Demopolis will not realize the growth we are so capable of attaining.

The city of Demopolis, like every other city in this state, is strapped for cash right now. No, there isn’t room in the budget to hire a $45,000 employee to become head of the chamber of commerce or the industrial board. But I don’t buy money arguments that often, and I won’t do such right now, either.

The investment of hiring a full-time tourism director, or events planner, or whatever you want to call that person, would pay off 10 fold in only a couple of years. Imagine if we had one person who specifically worked on bringing new vendors and new tourists and new barbecue chefs to Christmas on the River. Imagine if that person were able to spend more time organizing Freedom on the River, or the Historical Society’s Spring Pilgrimage?

And here’s the kicker: What if we had one person who headed our entire industry recruitment effort? What if we had a person who spent two days a week in Montgomery lobbying to bring the next big industry to U.S. Highway 80? What if we had someone who stuck her head in the Alabama Development Office every week?

In her current job, Kathy Leverett does such a wonderful job that David (her husband) probably cowers at the sight of red carpets and Christmas floats.

If Demopolis is ever to grow serious about bringing new industry and better jobs to the kids who will leave town for better opportunities, then I believe we should consider hiring a person to take some of Leverett’s many duties away.