Towns learn from Greenville

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 12, 2005

Even Mayor Dexter McLendon will tell you that Greenville has been the recipient of some good luck.

Being right on Interstate 65 is a boon, and when Hyundai announced in 2002 that it would build an assembly plant just south of Montgomery, Greenville was near enough to attract the automotive giant’s suppliers.

But fortune favors the bold, and Greenville’s leaders and citizens had taken some bold steps even before Hyundai appeared on the horizon. Before Hyundai came along, Greenville had already been put atop ePodunk Inc.’s Home Towns Index and atop its Historic Small Town Index for Alabama. ePodunk, which celebrates the best qualities of small town life, keeps detailed profiles on about 28,000 small towns across the country.

McLendon talked at a Dadeville Chamber of Commerce banquet last week about some of the things Greenville has done. Although specifics may differ, Greenville with a population of about 7,800 in a county of less than 22,000, could serve as an inspiration for other small towns. (Two-hundred citizens of Greenville will appear tonight at 8 on a new ABC television game show called “My Kind of Town.”)

The real change in Greenville’s fortunes, McLendon said, began with Cambrian Ridge, part of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail created by the Retirement Systems of Alabama.

McClendon, who was a city councilman at the time, wrote to retirement systems chief David Bronner saying that the city had a good location for an 18-hole golf course. Bronner informed him he didn’t do 18-hole courses, McLendon said.

“I thought, ‘I’m not thinking big enough,” McLendon said. It may have been the last time he thought small.

Two weeks after he was rejected, Bronner told him he was sending someone down to look at the property.

When he told his colleagues that Bronner was considering Greenville for a golf course, he said, everybody laughed. They were wrong, and with the construction of the 27-holes at Cambrian Ridge a new day started for Greenville.

Perhaps not every small town would benefit from a golf course, but every small town would benefit by taking its blinders off and looking at itself in a new light.

It’s important to try new things, McLendon said.

“If they don’t work, change it,” he said. “If you do 10 things and seven of them turn out to be wrong, you’ve still done something.”

Greenville is now looking for ways to create shopping opportunities for the spouses of people who come to play golf at Cambrian Ridge. One idea is to create a mechanism for refunding sales tax receipts generated by new businesses in the downtown area for a couple of years.

McLendon pointed out that the city would be rebating money it wouldn’t have received without the addition of the new businesses. Even if a city is on an interstate, he said, “Your downtown is the heart of your community.”

McLendon offered some other observations that could apply to small towns.

One is the importance of education. If you drive through Greenville on Interstate 65, you’ll see an impressive new high school just off the highway. “Education and economic development go hand-in-hand,” McLendon said. That’s something everyone knows, but few are willing to make the investment.

There is a tremendous amount of grant money that can help small towns develop.

The number of grants Greenville receives has grown exponentially, and they have allowed the city to accomplish such things as turning an old railroad depot into offices for the chamber of commerce and industrial development agency, rehabilitating rundown housing and expanding the

airport.

Most grants require some kind of local match, and McLendon said the city has sometimes has had to “rob Peter to pay Paul” to find the necessary funds.

But, he said, “You have to spend money first before somebody else will spend it.”

Finding and applying for grants has become an art. Some assistance in applying for grants is already available to small towns. If the Legislature ever gets around to creating

the proposed Center for Rural Alabama, one of the most significant things that agency could do is help small towns leverage their resources by applying for relevant grants.

Unity is a key ingredient in making progress. Decisions by the Greenville City Council, McLendon said, are based not on whether it is good for one interest group or one section but whether it is good for Greenville. All citizens have to be treated equally, he said.

There was one more point: Attitudes can be contagious. “You need a passion,” McLendon said. “It’s not just what you do; it’s what people think you’re doing.”

Bill Brown can be contacted at 377 Quail Hollow Drive, Dadeville AL 36853 or by e-mail at williambrown1@charter.net