Caldwell higher education building dedicated

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 11, 2005

It’s a first in Alabama history and possibly in the history of the United States – three universities and a community college working together for higher education – but that is exactly what has happened in Demopolis.

Representatives from Auburn University, the University of Alabama, the University of West Alabama and Alabama Southern were all on hand, along with local school superintendents, legislators, public officials and others to dedicate the new Austin Caldwell Building at the new University Center, housed at the SportPlex.

“This is a day Demopolis has long awaited,” Mayor Cecil Williamson said as she opened the dedication ceremonies.

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“Dr. John Johnson looked at the city of Demopolis and had a vision,” she continued. “A vision that we could make affordable higher education an accessible reality to not only the people of Demopolis, but this region.”

Friday those who followed the vision to completion gathered to dedicate the new facility, including Alabama Southern President and visionary John Johnson.

“Dedicating this facility today proves that it is possible to bring institutions of higher education, even here in Alabama, together,” Johnson said of the partnership that is the Demopolis Higher Education Consortium.

He said the ability to put the vision of a higher institution facility together and make it reality took more than the brainstorming of a few college presidents, though, commending the former and current city councils and mayors for their role in the plan.

“In this town of about 7,500, it took courage and vision to bring this vision to stand before the Delta Regional Authority and say ‘we want to do this,’ and to dedicate 30 acres of land to the project and a $500,000 one-time funding plus $100,000 a year for 10 years,” Johnson said. “But the council did all this and said, if you will help us we will help ourselves. And Mayor Austin Caldwell and the city council never waivered.”

Johnson said that kind of dedication and aggressive attitude was what had kept Demopolis alive and made it the ‘pearl of the Black Belt.’

“If every community had this kind of forward thinking leaders Alabama would be rising and rising,” he said. “I commend you on that.”

Gov. Bob Riley, who had been expected to speak at the event, was unable to attend but sent Bill Johnson, director of the Black Belt Action Commission, in his stead.

“If the Governor was here, I know exactly what he would say,” Bill Johnson said. “So I’m going to say it for him, ‘wow.’

“Anyone driving up to this facility can’t help but think what a great facility this is,” he said. He said this kind of project is the kind of results the BBAC is hoping to see in more Black Belt areas in the future.

“When we put together the BBAC and were deciding what it’s purpose would be, we were very careful to structure things so that while acknowledging what’s wrong in the area, we were celebrating what is right. This is one of those things that’s very right,” he said. “I commend you for coming together for the future of the area and I commend you on pulling it off.”

Those gathered agreed the project would not have been possible had it not been for the support and funding by the Delta Regional Authority, led by Pete Johnson. Johnson was on hand to give his view of the project his organization helped build, likening it to the popular movie, “Field of Dreams.”

“If you’ve seen the scene where the players come out of the corn field onto the playing field, and they ask Kevin Costner, ‘is this Heaven.’ He answers, ‘no, it’s Iowa.’ When I looked at this field of dreams in Demopolis, Alabama, and came back here today it looks like Heaven,” he said.

Pete Johnson said funding for the Regional Authority had been in danger of budget cuts from the federal government, but said projects like the Higher Education Center had actually tripled its funding instead.

“We have gone from $37.4 million to having an additional $226 million. We have created over 19,000 jobs, provided water or sewage to more than 20,000 families and through training programs helped 3,400 people get employment,” he said.

As an added surprise at the dedication, John Johnson announced that in addition to the initial university partners of the University of Alabama and University of West Alabama, Auburn University had joined the partnership as well.

But all agreed that a major supporter through the entire project, and one that should receive honors and accolades, was former Demopolis Mayor Austin Caldwell.

Caldwell, while visibly pleased by the honor, was also humbled and shared the honor with those who had worked so hard by his side.

“This is just the culmination of a dream the City Council and I had,” he said. “But I don’t think we had anticipated anything on such a grand scale.”

He said bringing higher education to Demopolis was a no-brainer in his view.

“Education is the key to our future,” he said.

As for the honor of having the building named for him, he smiled and brushed the thought aside.

“They could have left (a name) off. I appreciate that they did it, but I wish they had not,” he said. “I’m proud of it.”