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Barron to propose legislation to benefit rural Alabama

State Senator Lowell Barron, president pro tempore of the Senate, while not focusing exclusively on the Black Belt, is preparing to introduce a bill today that would create a Center for Rural Alabama to help all rural areas of the state.

“”The simple truth is,” says Barron, “while some parts of the state are thriving, many of the 1.3 million people who live in rural Alabama are not sharing in this prosperity.”

The Black Belt has already seen this disparity first hand, particularly in unemployment rates, which in some local counties are as high as 11 percent. Information gathered by Auburn University’s Economic Development Institute supports Barron’s observations.

“Auburn University’s Economic Development Institute recently ranked all 67 counties in economic vitality, looking at such measurements as population growth, household income, educational attainment and employment,” a Barron press release stated. “Of the bottom 38 counties, 37 are rural.”

Barron said his travels through Alabama have shown him the disparity between such areas as Dekalb County and Jefferson County.

“As I’ve traveled through rural Alabama I’ve noticed the continual demise of rural communities,” Barron said. “I’ve studied what other states have done, and have centered this legislation on what has worked.”

Under Barron’s proposal the Center will be similar to existing organizations in North Carolina, Virginia, Texas and Louisiana. The Center will be a legislatively created non-profit. Initial board members will be appointed by the Governor, Lt. Governor, Speaker of the House of Representatives, President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Commissioner of Agriculture&Industries.

“The plight of rural citizens is not unique to Alabama,” Barron stated in the release. “Rural communities across the South are struggling. However, Alabama lags behind our sister states in tackling the special challenges and opportunities of rural citizens in a comprehensive manner.

“Frankly, we can’t afford inaction any longer. It’s time we recognize that we are one state with one destiny and put together a coordinated approach to rural development. We’re not so much lacking resources as we’re lacking everyone being on the same page at the same time.”

Barron said one of the many benefits of the Center would be a sort of information database, where counties and municipalities in rural Alabama could share ideas they have tried, what worked and what didn’t.

“The Center would keep track of things tried in rural Alabama. What worked for a small town in Dekalb County, Demopolis might not know about,” Barron said. “But this would make that information available.”

He said the Center would focus on all aspects of rural areas, from health care and education to aesthetic things like junk car ordinances.

Because the legislation had not yet been introduced, Gov. Bob Riley said he could not comment specifically on this bill, but said he supports anything that would help the rural areas of Alabama.

“I am very committed to the economic development across all of Alabama, particularly in the rural areas,” he said. “It is the top priority of this administration.”

Riley last year created the Black Belt Action Commission, a group of committees that examines such things as health care and economic development in the Black Belt and discusses ways to address those issues.

“We are always looking for ways to improve the quality of life throughout Alabama,” he said. “I remain committed to economic development across Alabama and in our rural areas.”

Barron said the Center for Rural Alabama would differ from the governor’s action commission in that the Center will address issues affecting all rural areas of Alabama.

“It’s different in that the Black Belt Action Commission is regional, this would be statewide,” he said.

District 21 Senator Philip Poole, District 23 Senator Hank Sanders and District 24 Senator Bobby Singleton could not be reached for comment, other state leaders have given their kudos to the proposed legislation.

Rosemary Elebash, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) in Alabama, said her membership is very interested in identifying ways to support rural businesses.

“Small businesses have been the heart and soul of rural Alabama for decades,” she says, “and many of them are concerned they’re being left behind or ignored in the public policy arena.

We know when local economies falter, quality of life suffers, including our ability to keep schools open and to provide health care in those localities.

Senator Barron has come up with a commonsense approach and NFIB is very interested in assisting this effort.”

Under Barron’s legislation, the Center will have a number of duties, among them: serve as a clearinghouse for rural development information, develop rural policy in conjunction with other agencies, work to improve coordination and cost-effectiveness of existing programs, develop and work with existing programs to improve local leadership capacity, assist the Governor, Legislature and various agencies in formulating rural policy and fostering innovative strategies that promote rural development.

“One thing that has been encouraging has been the input of so many different groups who have a strong interest in rural Alabama,” says Barron.

“We’ve gotten help and interest from Commissioner of Agriculture&Industries Ron Sparks, the Alabama Association of Regional Councils, the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, the Alabama League of Municipalities, Alabama Rural Electric Association, Alabama Farmers Federation, Alabama Power, Alabama Electric Cooperative, Alabama Poultry&Egg Association, Alabama Cattlemen, Alabama Forestry Association, the Economic Development Association of Alabama and others.”

Larry Lee has been involved in rural development in Alabama for years, at both the local and regional level.

Along with Dr. Joe Sumners of Auburn University, he’s co-author of two publications about rural Alabama.

He is working closely with Senator Barron on this legislation and is excited about the possibilities.

“For one thing, this bill does something very simple-but very powerful.

It acknowledges for the first time that rural Alabama has its own unique set of challenges and circumstances.

Rural Alabama is not urban Alabama in a different suit of clothes.

One size does not fit all.

What may be a small step in Birmingham may be a giant step in Bullock County.

“And while we’ve got a long, long journey before us, with Senator Barron’s help and guidance, we’re about to take a very, very significant step in the right direction.”

Barron said he plans to introduce the legislation when the Senate reconvenes today.