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Mayor’s ready to move forward

BUTLER-Mayors from Pine Hill to Lisman gathered at The Mustard Seed in Butler Friday to discuss plans to make the Black Belt a better place to live. The meeting was the fourth gathering of the Black Belt mayors since January and all parties agreed that the preliminary meetings had allowed them to familiarize themselves with each other. Now it was time to come together.

The group made plans to include Choctaw, Greene, Hale, Marengo and Sumter counties. All parties agreed this group would provide a solid base to work from.

Demopolis Mayor Cecil P. Williamson said creating a critical mass was very important when trying to get your ideas across. Williamson, who recently attended a conference in Orange Beach sponsored by the said she had come away with some great ideas. One such idea was the plan of banding together.

“They said rural communities

must band together to achieve the critical mass needed to allow themselves to be competitive,” Williamson said. “Our competition is not Butler or Newbern. Our competition is across the ocean it is not our nation.”

It is no secret the Black Belt controls their own fate. Williamson said sitting back and waiting for help was out of the question. The goal was to get involved and seek solutions, not people to solve their problems.

“Our future is in our own hands,” Williamson said. “No one is going to ride in here on a white horse and save us. We have to roll up our sleeves and get to work and we all know this.”

The group discussed some of the issues that tear them apart such as football rivalries. So many times hometown pride has created a sense of distrust among people who should be working together. Williamson said the idea was to partner together and seek other partnerships on a larger scale.

“The question that kept being raised was how do we bridge the gap and who are our partners,” Williamson said. “They were talking about colleges and universities, non profit foundations, local government corporations and community leaders. All of them have possibilities and we need to contact them.”

Williamson stressed the fact that sometimes a large industry is not feasible. She said in this situation small businesses with the potential to grow such as the Mustard Seed can make a huge impact. Williamson said these businesses were the future of the Black Belt.

“The future of the rural south is in entrepreneurship,” Williamson said. “This is entrepreneurship right here. They started in a small building and have grown. We have the same thing in our hospital. At the end of this year they will have added 71 jobs and that will increase their budget by $1.2 million. That is better than bringing in an industry.”

Butler Mayor Ben Smith said Black Belt towns had many options to become known in the state. Smith said staying on top of local affairs was critical to making their area more attractive.

“There are so many things that we can d to get our towns and our cities names out there,” Smith said. “Being knowledgeable as to everything that is going on is a big help. That is what we are trying to do with our new Chamber of Commerce. We have just revitalized it and our director is doing a super job.”

The biggest asset the group can have is to work together. Smith said he wanted to see the mayors come away with a solid pan each time they meet.

“I want us to be able to say this is where we are going to go,” Smith said. “I want us to make steps forward and have everyone get on the game plan. Everybody, no matter how small or how large, can get together and put a plan in place. Let’s have a goal.”

Many groups similar to the Mayors Conference have come together in the past only to divide into separate groups and eventually fizzle out. Smith said he would like to see them stay united in one group with one main focus.

“Too many times everybody wants to have their own little committee and do this and do that,” Smith said. “Before you know it people are running in circles. We have to bring all these committee’s together like a global concept. We need a regional concept and we need to work together.”

One of the biggest assets to working together is coming to meetings with a united front. Many times mayors attend meetings and all rush to speak to the same people. Unfortunately, many times they are only able to reach a fraction of the representatives they need to see. Audrey Haskin, Constituent Services Representative for Congressman Artur Davis, said by staying united when they attended meetings they could scatter and reach more people.

“If you plan to attend meetings go ahead and start getting your purpose together,” Haskin said. “That way, when you get to the meeting you will know what to look for and you can plan who to talk with and you can tell them what your collective vision is. You must be able to share your vision because if you go to the meeting and ask them what you should do they are not going to be able to tell you.”

Haskin said if they all attend the meetings with a common idea they can get many different reactions to their plan and heighten their odds of success.

“Get a vision together now and be very clear about it,” Haskin said. “Then you can go and communicate your vision with other people and they can tell you what they have to offer. This will put you in a position where you can choose instead of a position where someone has to hand you something. You need to be able to choose.”

Williamson said they must stay on top of what their goals are. She said this would make the planning process easier for everyone.

“We have to be committed to make a change,” Williamson said. “We have got to decide we want to organize al these different groups and get our ideas together. We need to find out what we want to do.”

The next meeting will be at the Demopolis University Center on Aug. 19 at 10 a.m.