Black Belt towns work to dissolve barriers

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 18, 2005

Phillip Rawls / Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – Two leaders of the Alabama Legislature said Thursday they will try to create a state program to focus on developing rural Alabama and helping the state’s smallest counties achieve the success of their urban neighbors.

Senate President Pro Tem Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, and House Speaker Seth Hammett, D-Andalusia, said they hope to pass legislation creating the Center for Rural Alabama in the legislative session starting Jan. 10.

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Barron and Hammett, who both come from rural areas, said 13 states already have similar centers.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re using what’s working in other states,” Barron said Thursday during a conference on developing rural Alabama. The conference packed the state Capitol auditorium with more than 300 people.

Hammett said the state’s economic development agency has done a good job of recruiting industry and Alabama’s unemployment rate is below the national average, but some rural areas are not enjoying the success.

“We have vast areas of rural Alabama that are being left behind,” he said.

Barron tried to pass legislation last year creating the rural center, but it died in the Senate, along with hundreds of other bills, because stalling tactics took up most of the legislative session.

Don Bogie, a demographics expert at Auburn University Montgomery, said the 24 Alabama counties classified as non-metropolitan by the Census Bureau have a lower median household income, a higher poverty rate, fewer college graduates, and a higher unemployment rate than the state as a whole.

Margaret Megginson, a Marengo County native who worked in west Alabama apparel mills for many years, put a face on the statistics.

Megginson said she started a sewing job immediately after graduating from Sweetwater High School because she thought hard work and being a good wife and mother were the ways to succeed in life.

Now, at 61, she’s a widow. She’s been out of work since an apparel plant closed in 2004. And she’s getting by on $759 a month from Social Security.

“I had no idea if I did this that 40 years later, I’d end up in the predicament I’m in,” she said.

She said some people think that extending Interstate 85 from Montgomery to the Mississippi line will bring development to rural west Alabama, but officials need to look at more infrastructure needs than just roads.

“We can’t even get high-speed Internet in Sweetwater,” she said.

Bobby Gierisch, director of state policy programs for Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri, said there are many federal, state, university and nonprofit groups that address individual problems in rural areas, but a rural center can foster cooperation and coordination.

He compared rural Alabama to a pickup football game. There are a lot of good players in the area, but they don’t have a game plan, he said.

Demopolis Mayor Cecil Williamson said “Friday night football rivalries” have divided small towns for too long, and they need to start working together on development projects.

She said mayors in five west Alabama counties meet together once a month and are working with the University of West Alabama and U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., to foster development in the region.

She said small towns don’t want to become like Birmingham or Montgomery. “We want to be rural. We just want to be better,” she said.