Community leaders gather for conference

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 24, 2005

What would happen if more than 80 community leaders from across southwest Alabama all got together in one building to figure out how to help the Black Belt?

Well, we’re finding out now. The Alabama-Tombigbee Regional Commission (ATRC) held its fourth meeting of the Alabama Tombigbee Leadership Program last Friday at the Demopolis University Center. The meeting brought together more than 80 representatives from 10 different Alabama counties to discuss ways of leading the region forward.

“This conference is about leadership development,” said ATRC Executive Director John Clyde Riggs. “Some of the most successful stories from our area are when ordinary people assume leadership roles.

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If we’re to move forward in any direction, people have to be willing to get involved. This has been a series of conferences that has grown and is finding people who are willing to lead and step forward.”

The driving idea behind the Leadership Program is that not only will the people immediately involved become better, more involved leaders, but they will reach out and in turn spark leadership amongst others in the region.

“Youth leadership is a real critical area,” Riggs said. “If we can develop their enthusiasm they will buy in emotionally, physically, and monetarily into the area.”

The program alone has 100 members, which Riggs says should already make an impact on the Commission’s region.

“That’s 100 new leaders in these counties. 10 new leaders in every county,” he points out. “That could make a big difference.”

The Leadership Program is separated into four committees: Economic Development; Community Development; Arts, Culture, and Heritage ; and Workforce Development. But before the Program split to do work in groups, Riggs told those assembled that the ATRC area is already moving forward, and that the Leadership Program is charged with continuing that momentum forward.

“7 of our 10 counties have had a major industry announcement in the last two years,” he said. “We need to just get on fire for our communities, our counties, and our region. We’re taking part in a global economy, and we need the regional networks to keep up.”

In the Workforce Development meeting, members discussed ways of tackling the area’s biggest the problem: not that there aren’t opportunities for potential employees to become trained and land jobs, but that few potential employees are aware of them. For example, Kandis Steele, Vice-President of Alabama Southern Community College, said a program had been created whereby 40 $4,000-a-year scholarships were made available for students to train for a job with area industries like Weyerhauser and Georgia Pacific. Unfortunately, the program only received 33 applicants, not all of who qualified for the scholarships.

“[Employers] are suffering for a great lack of competent workers. We need to increase the base of knowledge and train our local workers to be prepared for these jobs,” said Jamie Wallace of Wilcox County. “We need to grab people’s attention and get the information to the people who need it most.”

To that end, the committee agreed to work towards several goals, including better communication with high school counselors; increased interaction with the region’s churches; create an easy-to-read brochure with information about many of these opportunities, rather than one; and collaborate with the Black Belt Action Commission and other groups to ensure there is little duplication of efforts.

“There’s been a lot of good-faith efforts, but they’ve been disjointed,” Wallace said. “The left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing.”

Recommendations from other committees included hiring an economic development professional devoted exclusively to the ATRC area, available for grant-writing, marketing, and site identification services; a survey to identify how many people are still without water and sewer service in the ATRC area; creating a comprehensive tourism “inventory” for each county; and many other ideas.

Although the meeting was the last formalized meeting for the Leadership Program, Riggs expects it to continue growing from here.

“We’ll see if we can’t continue what’s started,” he said. “We would love to see the individual task forces continue in their efforts. We’re going to carry this enthusiasm forward.”