Local leader says planning hurts region

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a 5-part series that takes a look at the potential for economic development in West Alabama and the Black Belt.

The walls of Carnegie Library at Judson College became a fire hazard. The building, for all practical purposes, couldn’t protect the books it housed.

There were other structural problems at the Marion women’s college when Dr. David Potts became president of the institution in 1991.

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In order to fix the college, Potts believed he needed a plan to complete the work. He looked at available funding. He looked at timetables. Most importantly, he looked at the needs of the college. Carnegie Library topped the list.

Since the restoration of the library in 1995, Potts and his college have seen a number of other projects completed. The Lowder Science Building offers students state-of-the-art labs. Most recently, a sparkling Jewitt Hall now provides students with modern classrooms and an elegant foyer that opens to the rest of the college.

If only the state of Alabama could follow the prototype for progress set at Judson College.

Drowning in Blueprint

Discussing a problem without pondering a solution creates stagnation. Pondering a solution without acting upon it yields digression.

Such is the case for West Alabama and the Black Belt.

No person is more vocal about that trend than Potts. While he’s watched his college grow in stature and enrollment, the area around Marion has wilted. "In the past 30 years, I bet we’ve lost half of our population," Potts opined.

What has happened to the economic development of this region? Has the lack of a four-laned highway stopped all growth? Has a lack of funding diminished any resource this area has? Is education so bad that no industry would ever consider employing 500 local workers?

Sure, those are problems, but they aren’t death certificates.

Maybe the answer rests with the state of Alabama itself. Maybe elected officials have become so wound in pondering a solution that they’ve unintentionally driven West Alabama into a morbid sort of digression.

No example gives credence to that thought any better than the Alabama Commerce Commission, which was created on April 2, 1999. Established by former Gov. Don Siegelman, the ACC studied economically "distressed counties" and offered solutions that would pull this region from the bottom of nearly every national ranking.

In the end, members of the ACC wrote an executive summary that provided 19 recommendations for change.

Among those recommendations were improved transportation, free college tuition for students in the area, new telecommunication systems, and turning regions of the state into clusters that could jointly recruit new industries.

The ideas were in-depth and made sense. The members of the commission &045;&045; some elected politicians, others CEOs of major companies &045;&045; were as serious about the ideas as they were about poll returns and financial statements.

Even better, Potts can’t understand why state officials believe there is such a need for commissions and task forces and strategic development plans.

So what purpose do all of the plans have?

Better yet, Potts believes the planning paranoia of the state is an example of the "inconsistency of political leadership" in Alabama.

The Hammer and Nails

There is no answer to the economic struggles of West Alabama and the Black Belt. Then again, maybe that isn’t correct. Maybe there are too many answers to the economic struggles of this region.

Just as Potts took a plan for his college and turned the plan into real hammers and nails, the state of Alabama has plenty of blueprints for improvement. That means the problem isn’t in the details; the problem is in the plywood and asphalt and telecommunication systems.

Maybe it will take more people like Potts to buck the trend of planning to the point of digression. If he has any say, Potts won’t take part in another "blue-ribbon task force commission."