Leaders marching to same drum beat

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 17, 2004

THOMASVILLE – At the first of what was unofficially called “Leadership West Alabama” meetings, community leaders from a 10-county area Friday began to lay the groundwork for change.

The three-part series of meetings primarily is sponsored by the Alabama-Tombigbee Regional Commission and the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, with assistance from other state and private groups.

Those assembled stole a march on the newly created Black Belt Action Commission set up by Gov. Bob Riley to generate economic progress in Alabama’s poorest region.

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The group included graduates of the leadership programs in their respective counties. Among those attending from Marengo County were Annye Braxton, Pat Dixon, Olen Kerby, Hon. Cindy Neilson, John Northcutt and Dr. Ken Tucker.

Thomasville Mayor Sheldon Day, in welcoming the more than 100 attending, said the room had “some of the brightest minds and talented people…to make our part of Alabama what it can be.”

John Clyde Riggs, chairman of the Ala-Tom Regional Commission, stated the purpose of the meetings was to “develop regional thinkers. No where does that matter more than in our area,” which lacks political and economic clout in Montgomery or Washington, D.C.

Nissa Miranda of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama described west Alabama as a region of “perpetual potential.”

She explained that out of the meeting series will come working task groups to tackle problems in several different areas of concern in the Black Belt region.

Featured speaker for the day was Dr. Vaughn Grisham, of the University of Mississippi, an expert on economic development. He advanced the Tupelo Model, based on steps taken by the town of Tupelo, Miss., on economic development. Grisham now has projects in 32 states and two countries.

His focus is “how to make good communities even better communities,” taking the few resources and creating “extraordinary results in ordinary places.”

In every case he has worked with, he said, the commality was leadership. “People learned to work together whether they liked each other or not.”

Tupelo, he said, remains an imperfect community with flaws, but it continues to get the job done. “The secret is that they keep getting better.”

Rural communities are having to cope with dramatic change. In the space of 200 years, the United States has gone from 95 percent of the people living in rural areas to 95 percent living in cities. Almost no young people are returning to their agrarian roots. Add to that the fact that, “No industrial society on earth is reproducing itself,” said Grisham, and there is a growing problem.

Today’s primary work force is becoming one of immigrants from Asia, Latin America and Africa. Communities must ask questions about how they will cope with a rising immigrant population.

He told the group their area is facing competition from throughout the world. “You’re not competing with Tupelo, Miss. You’re competing with Yokohama, Japan,” he said. “Either you work regionally or you die.”

He gave reasons why Tupelo is thriving. First, he said, the community provided a trained work force. “They never sold cheap labor,” he explained. “They built a whole economy around education.”

Tupelo, he continued, has more leaders than anywhere else. It’s not about telling others what to do but creating partnerships.

Those people who cause change are the ones who “can’t put up with the situation any more and get together with like-minded individuals,” Grisham continued.

“In all these communities they invest in themselves,” he continued. “People who are tax-averse have to give it up.”

No community will improve unless everyone takes responsibility, he said. “Communities by and large get what they deserve.”

Also speaking to the group of west Alabama leaders was Rep. Artur Davis, whose district covers a large part of the 10-county area represented at the meeting. Referring to the meeting officially setting up Gov. Riley’s new commission, Davis said it was the first time he had ever been in the governor’s office.

“When I was born in 1967, that room was not open to everybody in the state,” he said. “What a miracle we have made.”

“Now leadership looks like all of us,” he said, pointing to the diverse racial make-up of the room, “and we’re better for it.”

He said the biggest challenge is to “bridge the gap between people who are winning and people who are losing.” With only 4.2 million people in the state, “We’re not that big. Our destinies are linked together. (The state) can’t ignore the Black Belt…We must build a neighborhood of 4.2 million people.”

Davis said the group must begin by raising expectation. “A lot of you live in communities that have given up,” he said. Instead, citizens must focus on assets and use their capacity to dream. The constraint on leadership is the unwillingness to talk about tough choices and accept accountability.

“Government is not a bad word,” he said. He said the issues facing the Black Belt are not liberal or conservative, such as self-rule, better health care and improved education.

While Montgomery and Washington, D.C., “are more partisan and they’ve ever been,” he said the leaders of west Alabama “must be solution oriented.”

The west Alabama leaders attending the meeting were invited back to the second session on September 24 and to bring others who are interested in working for change.