Without ideas, the Black Belt is without a future

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 9, 2004

So you don’t think dreaming makes a difference? Last week I took too many sniffs of the paint being used to remodel our office and threw out the idea of a Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail somewhere in West Alabama.

Since that column, you won’t believe what’s happened. Nothing. For some reason, Dr. David Bronner, head of the Retirement Systems of Alabama and mastermind of the now world-famous golf trail, hasn’t shown up to begin construction of a golf course in our region.

Actually, that wasn’t the intention. And in all honesty (as opposed to partial honesty), a great deal has happened in the seven days since our RTJ idea first seeped its way onto the pages of The Times.

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Freddie Armstead, a Marengo County Commissioner, was one of the first to knock on the door. According to Armstead, part of the golf trail story wasn’t accurate, and he asked for a retraction.

In the story, Bronner’s right-hand man, Marcus Reynolds Jr., said he did not believe RSA had been contacted about building a trail in this region of the state. Armstead called us on the point.

According to the good commissioner, members of the Marengo County Commission met with Bronner earlier this year about developing some walking trails in the southern part of the county.

While making a retraction probably isn’t the right way of saying things, Reynolds may stand correcting on the point that people in West Alabama haven’t contacted RSA about development in our region.

During another call, I was informed that Drayton Pruitt, in Livingston, helped lead a feasibility study to bring a Trent Jones golf course to the area. I’m not sure if the study made it to Bronner’s desk, but whatever the case, there have been local efforts to get the RSA’s attention over here in West Alabama.

Obviously, it would have been impossible for me to contact every person in our five-county region to ask whether they, personally, had ever placed a call to Bronner. It is intriguing that RSA doesn’t recall, off-hand, some of those conversations.

Golf course grandeur aside, let me tell you about a few conversations that resulted from the RTJ idea.

The first came with a media relations officer at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, who somehow got a copy of last week’s story and column.

“Mr. McElvy: I just finished reading your article on organizing an attempt to bring a Robert Trent Jones golf course to the Demopolis area. It is an interesting idea. I would like to bring to your attention a different and potentially much more important economic development initiative. Scientists here at UAH are working with faculty at other state universities to develop an Alabama Irrigation Initiative, which has the potential to reshape our state.”

In essence, that note from Phillip Gentry expounded on an idea to irrigate this region of the state, possibly with federal grants, which would redevelop the agricultural landscape of West Alabama and the Black Belt.

“At the top end of the economic scale, returning some part of the now fallow farmland in your five counties to productive and profitable farming has the potential to bring tens of millions of dollars into the Demopolis-plex every year,” Genrty said.

In the coming week, I hope to give readers a little more information about the plan a group of professors across Alabama have for economic development, but that note never would have come without presenting an off-the-wall dream.

I had another conversation with a local businessman earlier this week, which stemmed from the RTJ article and column. The idea, which I actually discussed with a friend some months ago, revolves around water — of which we have plenty.

Up in Alexander City and over in the Wetumpka areas, local economies have grown because of man-made lakes. The same, in fact, could be said about Tuscaloosa.

If you look around Lake Martin, or Lake Tuscaloosa, or Lake Jordan, the real estate developments are astounding. Even more interesting is that many people who build on those man-made bodies of water don’t actually live in Alex City or Wetumpka.

Go on the internet and search for Lake Jordan, and the first thing you’ll find is a real estate guide.

In West Alabama, and Demopolis especially, there are two things we have plenty of: water and land. What if a land owner decided to dig a big (and I mean big) hole in the middle of about 2,500 acres of land? Could we create a residential development that became a retreat for the well-off all over West Alabama and East Mississippi?

You bet we could.

There were many who scoffed at the idea of a Trent Jones golf course in our region. Who knows what will happen in the coming years, but one thing’s for sure: Without ideas (as crazy as they may be), we’re without a future.