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Riley wants group to focus on Black Belt

Aiming economic development toward the Black Belt is what Gov. Bob Riley plans to do with his term as chairman of the Southern Growth Policies Board.

Riley on Tuesday became chairman of the non-partisan group that focuses on improving the economies of Alabama and 12 other southern states.

“We’ve been very fortunate that recent growth in the economy and in new jobs has been spread throughout much of Alabama,” Riley said. “However, too many of our rural communities haven’t experienced as much growth. No part of Alabama should be left behind and growth strategies for rural areas need to be just as aggressive as those for our cities.”

Whether or not Riley’s chairmanship of the 13-state consortium can make a difference for Alabama’s Black Belt is debatable, but the effort is appreciated, said Jay Shows, president of the Demopolis Area Chamber of Commerce.

“The Chamber is glad to see Gov. Riley has reconfirmed his commitment to assist in a greater way to drawing attention to the resources of the Black Belt,” he said.

According to Riley Administration officials, one way to draw that attention to the region is to first direct industrial prospects to the Black Belt.

“Whenever an industrial prospect expresses interest in the state, he’s instructed (the Alabama Development Office) to first show them the Black Belt,” said Jeff Emerson, Riley’s communications director.

In so doing, Emerson said, Riley is separating policies from politics. The Black Belt did not heavily support Riley’s campaign for election against former Gov. Don Siegelman.

“The motivation is there’s been a lot of growth, but some areas – the Black Belt is one – has not had growth. Alabama can’t afford to leave one section of the state behind as others become prosperous and grow,” he said.

Emerson said Riley has stressed the philosophy to the cabinet and his staff.

“He’s emphatic that they make decisions based on merit and not politics,” he said.

At stake is the creation of jobs in one of the states poorest regions, where education levels and race still play a part in the recruitment game.

The University of West Alabama’s Center for Community and Economic Development is attempting to overcome those obstacles.

“UWA wants to facilitate and promote a grow-your-own philosophy,” said James Mock, the center’s director.

The center is support small company growth that creates a smaller but more sustainable number of new jobs than large industrial locations.

“It may be one of the major ways to grow because the employee pool is small,” he said.

Mock, at UWA just one year, points to recent developments with trucking education as an example.

The school recently began a truck driving instruction program. So far 10 of 11 graduates have gone on to new jobs in the transportation sector.

“There is progress toward regional growth, but there are still obstacles,” Mock said.