Blackbelt residents speak up on local issues

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Sen. Zeb Little said he wanted to hear from the people of rural Alabama, and he certainly got an earful during Monday afternoon’s hearing on the proposed Center for Rural Alabama.

Sen. Lowell Barron has introduced legislation to create the Center, legislation that is in the hands of the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, chaired by Little. To learn more, Little held a series of town hall type meetings in areas of rural Alabama to find out from the source what problems ail those areas.

From a lack of leadership, lack of jobs and lack of communication, “lack” was probably the most often spoken word during the two-hour meeting, attended by residents from Marengo, Clarke, Wilcox and Pickens counties, among others.

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“There is a lack of communication in the cities and communities,” said Pam Chism of Friends of Hale County. “Racism is some of the issue, but it’s not that big an issue when you look at the whole picture.”

Chism echoed many when she said the real issues are health care, safety and economic viability.

“There are people here who live in situations that are just inexcusable,” she said. “We have to make sure the kids are safe and the elderly are taken care of.”

Mike Marshall, CEO of Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital also attended the meeting. He agreed rural health care is an issue, though probably more of one in the outlying areas of Demopolis.

“People in Demopolis don’t realize how blessed we are,” he said. “You go 30 miles in any direction and it’s very different. I grew up in Henry County and I’ve worked in Chatham and Washington County, I’m aware of the issues.”

Those issues, he said, include the ability to recruit doctors and nurses and Medicaid funding – issues that still plague Demopolis.

“Demopolis is looking at a physician population that is aging,” he said. “The average age of doctors in Demopolis is 56. We’re fortunate to have a new young doctor coming in July.”

Additionally, he said, finding nurses is difficult.

“During flu season we have an onion skin thin staff, yet we can’t just go out and hire more nurses,” he said. “We’re fortunate to have a good working relationship with the UWA nursing school. We hired five from their graduating class last year and all five were from this area.”

But while some are having a hard time finding help, finding jobs is an even more difficult task in the Black Belt area.

“Someone once said of this area, we can put (young people) on the basketball court, we can put them on the football field, but we can’t put them in a job,” Larry Lee of Auburn University, said.

Job development can be divided into two issues – recruitment of businesses and training of a good labor force.

“The question is, how do you get someone to come to a place that looks like it is caught in a time warp,” one participant asked. On the same topic, another attendee noted the lack of incentives available from rural areas.

Little agreed, and said it was a regrettable problem, but one that would be difficult to overcome.

“We’re a state of limited resources. When a Honda or Hyundai comes in we put all our resources in those areas, and the rest of the state suffers,” he said. “I’m not sure what can be done about that.”

Though some in attendance seemed a bit skeptical, all seemed to agree that the Center, if run the way it is described on paper, could help those rural areas that appear stuck in a time warp.

Little and others assured those in attendance that the Center will be a program of action, not in-action.

“I can’t promise it will have all the answers,” Little said. “But if you keep doing the same things, you’ll keep getting the same results.”

The Center, which will be charged with encouraging a comprehensive approach to rural development that helps communities understand the linkage between jobs, education, health care, quality of life and infrastructure, is designed much like the Center for Rural Development in North Carolina.

“This will hopefully bring a lot of people to the same table,” Lee said of the Center. “North Carolina has more people in rural areas, but that is the Cadillac. We’d just like to get a beat-up Studabaker on the road.”

He said probably the most important function of the Center would be information gathering and dispersal.

“Right now you’ve got to look under every rock between here and Montgomery to know what is going on,” he said, noting that the Center would store information on various programs and projects going on in other parts of rural Alabama so that any rural area could access it.

In the end, Little said he was pleased with the turnout of approximately 100 people and their eagerness to see something done in the rural areas of Alabama.

“Obviously the people here care deeply for this area,” he said. “I’m encouraged by the commitment and love they have for this area and revitalizing this area. They have a thirst and a hunger to see something happen.”

Little said he feels confident the Center can help make something happen, and said the committee will be reviewing the bill today and will more than likely vote it out of committee.