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An open letter to top elected leaders

I never thought this would work and always swore I wouldn’t do it. In the years I’ve written a newspaper column, common sense has fought off the urge to write what’s about to appear on this page. But a few weeks ago, I talked to a press secretary in Montgomery who said elected officials always read the editorials and opinions in most every newspaper. Maybe the right politicians will read this one.

Nov. 8, 2003

The Honorable Gov. Bob Riley

The Honorable U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby

The Honorable U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions

The Honorable U.S. Rep. Artur Davis

Dear Sirs:

Each of you has received hundreds upon thousands of letters during your careers as public servants. Every once in a while, your secretary probably brings you a really good one and says you have to read it. Most times, I imagine a form letter is sent out that says you appreciate the opinions of your constituents and you will do everything within your power to make sure Little Billy gets a new playground.

In a sense, I guess you could say this letter is about Billy and his playground. It’s about getting Billy’s parents to come back home after they graduate from college. It’s about getting Billy’s grandparents to watch their own children come home so they can watch Billy run wild on that playground.

I was born in West Alabama, went to college in Tuscaloosa, and have since found my way in the newspaper business to a great West Alabama town called Demopolis. I’ve driven nearly every county road, made a stop in most of the schools, and have talked to hundreds of business owners in this region of the state you serve.

No one has asked me to write this letter, so I can only speak for myself. In my position as editor and publisher of a newspaper, however, I somehow feel duty-bound to speak for those people The Demopolis Times serves.

From everything I can tell, the political leaders of our state have always noticed a problem with Alabama’s Black Belt region. They’ve talked about infrastructure, education and transportation. Obviously, they’ve talked about the lack of jobs in our area of the state ever since other countries began importing agricultural goods.

While the discussions have taken up enough time to find a viable solution to world peace, the good people of West Alabama and the Black Belt wait every day for something tangible to come from the simple talk.

A few years ago, a former governor established the Alabama Commerce Commission. That group of business leaders came up with a "plan" to help what were dubbed the "economically distressed" counties of Alabama (which, by the way, is right here in Marengo, Greene, Hale, Sumter and Perry counties).

Nothing happened as a result of "the plan."

Gov. Riley, you took office a year ago and I know you have faced enormous struggles that you did not create. At the same time, one of your first decisions upon taking office was to begin the creation of a "Black Belt Commission."

Unless I’m ill-informed, that commission is still in the creation stage, and they haven’t even had a chance to make a "plan."

Sen. Shelby, you’re from Tuscaloosa and you know the economic plight of the counties just south of you. A few years ago, you raised the hopes of thousands when you brought up the idea of extending Interstate 85 from Montgomery to Meridian, Miss. In the transportation appropriations for the following year, you were able to secure $5 million to begin a corridor study for that project. The following year, you helped secure another $3 million to continue that study.

So far, we still haven’t even seen the study.

Sen. Sessions, you’re from Wilcox County. You’ve made plenty of trips through this region and you’ve talked extensively about the need to improve transportation and industrial recruitment in the Black Belt.

One of the new employers in Wilcox County just closed down.

And U.S. Rep. Davis, you’re in the same position as Gov. Riley. You’ve been in office for less than a year and haven’t had a great deal of time to affect change in the district you represent. You’ve visited numerous times, and we all appreciate that. We’ve heard of a lot of new plans and task forces you want to create, and we’ve heard you challenge President Bush about the economy.

As in most cases, we’re still waiting to hear from the "task force."

I’ve never served in public office and wouldn’t pretend to know the nuances of taking a region like this one &045;&045; the Black Belt &045;&045; and making a difference. The status of our society and economy didn’t happen overnight. We all know it can’t be changed overnight, either.

More than 40 years ago, a group of public officials met to discuss the complete four-laning of U.S. Highway 80 in Marengo, Sumter and Perry counties. If you took a drive down the only two-lane stretch of that road (actually two stretches), you’d know that we have less than 30 miles that needs to be expanded.

Over the past four decades, plenty of government officials have been asked to help. Each one of you has received the same request. Today, I’m asking for the same.

Did you know that if this region of Alabama was cut off &045;&045; if it just fell into the ground and disappeared &045;&045; your state would rank in the top 10 of nearly every national category? Did you know that your unemployment figures would hit rock bottom?

We don’t want that to happen, and I hope you don’t, either. So why hasn’t anything been done to really help our region? Why has it been 40 years since we first discussed U.S. 80, and still no asphalt has been poured? Is it because we don’t have enough votes for the next election?

Sen. Shelby, you’ve got nothing to worry about. You’re too good for us and you have helped so many residents in Alabama. Sen. Sessions, you were just re-elected and you’ve got a few years before someone tries to unseat you. Congressman Davis, you’ve done too good of a job and have helped us so much already that you shouldn’t be too concerned about your election in another year.

And Gov. Riley, you’ve already demonstrated to the entire state that you’re not in office to win votes for the next election. Despite being a Congressman who never voted for a tax increase, you honestly believed that the only way Alabama could escape fiscal disaster was to propose a tax hike. You lost a lot of party supporters for that, but I honestly believe you felt there was no other option. That took courage. It also meant you were looking out for the good of the state rather than the good of your next election.

To each one of you, the people of West Alabama and the Black Belt ask that you take your political power and make a decision that will change the face of this region that has been dubbed "Alabama’s Third World."

We need your help. We need U.S. Highway 80 four-laned.

More than a year ago, a tractor-trailer collided with "Malfunction Junction" in Birmingham. Crews came in and fixed that road is a matter of months.

I know we don’t have the population of Jefferson County, and I know I-65 is traveled by millions of drivers. But if it can be done there in a few months, isn’t 40 years long enough to wait for 30 miles to be expanded?

Yes, this is a personal letter, but I’m also writing on behalf of Billy. We’d like him to have the option of moving home after he graduates from college and looks for his first job.