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Little schedules input hearings

To find out what an area’s needs are, it’s best to go to the source. That’s the tactic Sen. Zeb Little, (D-Cullman), is taking.

Little chairs the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, which is charged with reviewing and making recommendations on SB 366, introduced last week by Sen. Lowell Barron (D-Fyffe). The bill, if approved, would create the Center for Rural Alabama.

“Before we begin work on this bill, we’d like to get input from those who know rural Alabama the best – the people who live there,” Little said. “We want to hear from local elected officials, business leaders, farmers, educators, health care providers and others.”

To get that input, Little scheduled several town-meeting type hearings in rural areas and invited anyone who had anything to say.

One such meeting will take place Monday at 2:30 p.m. at the Demopolis Civic Center.

“We’ve just completed our second meeting,” Little said during a phone interview late Friday afternoon. “We had one in Boaz this morning and just finished one in Winfield. We had great attendance at both.”

The meetings, he said, were to seek input from rural Alabama residents and officials on what the needs in rural areas are.

“The biggest complaint we heard was loss of jobs,” he said. “Alabama has done a great job of recruiting businesses, but because of NAFTA a lot of industries have pulled out.”

That is one thing, he said, the Center for Rural Alabama would help with.

“The purpose of the center is to promote and assist those entities already helping rural Alabama and give a single voice to rural areas,” he said.

In brief, the bill would create the center as a 501 (c) (3) non-profit entity that would be governed by a Board of Trustees made up of the governor, lieutenant governor, president pro tempore of the Senate, speaker of the House of Representatives and commissioner of Agriculture and Industries. Those trustees would then select up to 30 additional trustees to represent Alabama’s economic, civic and social life and agencies and local governments.

The Center’s duties, as outlined by H 366, are: to serve as a clearinghouse for information relating to rural development; to advise and assist communities, agencies and individuals in problem solving; to develop rural policy in conjunction with other agencies and constituencies; to work to improve coordination and cost-effectiveness of existing programs; to develop and work with existing programs to improve leadership capacity of rural community leaders; to monitor developments that have a substantial effect on rural communities; to assist the governor, legislature and various agencies in the integration and formulation of rural policy; to facilitate local efforts in developing cooperative agreements for rural needs; to coordinate and facilitate research on rural issues; to facilitate public-private investments in rural infrastructure; to foster innovative strategies that promote rural development; and to provide for the collection and dissemination of data and other information concerning issues relevant to rural development.

The concept is new to labama, but not to other states, where Barron got the idea.

“Other states such as North Carolina, Virginia and Texas have rural centers that serve as coordinating bodies for rural programming,” Little said. “There’s no reason why we can’t do that here.”

Little said he has not studied the other states intimately, but said North Carolina has had the longest running center, having been established in 1987.

“Virginia, Georgia and Louisiana have developed theirs in the last year or two,” he said. “Most of the bill is worded after the one in North Carolina because it has the best one.”

The hearings will serve as a way to find out exactly what the Center will need to do to best fulfill rural needs in Alabama.

“There’s no doubt that many places in rural Alabama are struggling to survive and we want to know what we can do in the State Senate to help,” Little said. However, he added, he expects the bill to come to his committee Tuesday and be voted out of committee and onto the Senate floor.