Riley optimistic for region

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 19, 2004

Editor’s Note: Periodically, Gov. Bob Riley holds conference calls with community newspapers around the state. This week, he took time to talk with The Demopolis Times about issues important to this region.

Three months ago, Gov. Bob Riley announced the state’s latest attempt to bring the Black Belt region out of a five-decade tailspin. To date, Riley can’t answer how successful his Black Belt Action Commission will be.

“I don’t know yet, but I know we’ve got a lot of people helping,” Riley said during a conference call with The Times earlier this week. “I’m encouraged a little more every day.”

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Riley gave the example of a man named Dwight Carlisle, who once served as an executive with Russell Mills in Alexander City.

“I talked to him the other day, and he kept telling me how busy he was,” Riley said. “I asked him what he’s been doing, and he said he’s spending every hour of his day working on the Black Belt Action Commission.”

Carlisle is like a lot of other leaders in Alabama who have taken Riley’s charge for developing measurable actions around this region and putting them into place.

As Riley told it, a doctor in Birmingham heard about the Governor’s plan and immediately got involved.

“This doctor wants to pay for eye tests of every child in the Black Belt,” Riley said. “When you get people like [them] working, that says a lot. And if that’s any indication of what we’re going to do with this thing, I’m optimistic.”

Getting action from those who take an interest in Riley’s commission is just the start of a transformation Riley said the Black Belt region needs. He said developing leaders is an important step toward growth.

“There’s a lot of state money out there that leaders don’t know about,” Riley said. “When I was in Clay County, I called the mayors and commissioners and council members and told them about all the grants and funding available through the state. We need to do the same thing in the Black Belt.”

For starters, Riley encouraged leadership programs within each county, and even offered the services of his cabinet to help spur dialogue on expanded funding for the area.

“The members of my cabinet would be more than happy to come over and spend some time with the leaders of each county,” Riley said. “We’ll look at what’s available and help you get it.”

Taking that even a step further, Riley said the work of any commission is only as good as the people directly affected.

“Over time, you’re going to have people who don’t stay involved,” he said. “But the ones who stay, and the ones who want to keep talking about quality of life — those are the ones who have a passion and who want to make a difference.”

University of West Alabama

Earlier this week, the University of West Alabama responded to a preliminary report from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools regarding the academic probation lingering over the Livingston institution.

The bulk of the SACS report indicated UWA’s board and leadership have done everything possible to correct concerns raised one year ago.

“I’m extremely proud of the way the University of West Alabama has responded,” said Riley, who serves as a member of the Board of Trustees through his position as governor. “If you look back a year ago, and look at what they’ve accomplished, it’s really an accomplishment.”

Along with the standing granted from a SACS accreditation, Riley said UWA is an important player in the growth of this entire region.

“They’ve done anything and everything they’ve been asked to do,” he said. “They ought to be commended.”

Legalized Gambling

With operations like GreeneTrack in Eutaw and a new bingo parlor in White Hall — just east of Selma — Riley and Attorney General Troy King continue to face tough questions about the legality of those businesses. On a smaller scale, the same questions arise about small adult arcades all over West Alabama.

For now, Riley said it’s impossible for him to make a stern comment until King issues an official state opinion.

“We’re still waiting on a definitive statement on gambling,” Riley said. “We’re supposed to meet in the next two or three days and, hopefully, we can come to some conclusion.”

While Riley defers comment on bingo parlors, he has remained firm on his stance toward legalized gambling in the state.

“I’m going to oppose any expansion of any type of gambling in Alabama,” he said. “I believe, on more than one occasion, the people of Alabama have spoken on that issue.”

Even still, Riley said it’s important that King issue a ruling and that the leadership of Alabama follow that opinion.

Times Publisher Jonathan McElvy, who wrote this article, serves as an executive committee member on Gov. Bob Riley’s Black Belt Action Commission.