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Ups and downs of region in 2005

As we approach the end of the year, it is important to look at some of the positives and negatives of life in the Black Belt.

There are several areas the region has made progress that lead us to believe things are looking up. At the same time, there are several areas that need serious attention.

Cohesion among Black Belt counties has been one of 2005’s most pleasant surprises. In January, local mayors began working with the University of West Alabama to establish a program that would allow Black Belt mayors to gather and trade ideas.

Attendance has been up and down, but enthusiasm continues to grow. Ideas such as a hunting and fishing trail, much like the Robert Trent Jones golf trail, and several other strategic plans to attract industry have flowed freely at the monthly meetings.

Seeing leaders come together with a sense of regionalism and strong ambition to improve the lives of their people is truly an inspiration. There is no doubt this group will accomplish great things in the coming year.

Unfortunately, this feeling of unity is not present within some Black Belt counties. Many of these problems began in late 2004 directly after the November elections. Alleged corruption in elections created a dividing line in some cities and counties that could take years to erase.

People chose their sides, and in many cases, closed their ears to anything the opposition ahs to say. In a situation such as this, a city can only spin its wheels. There is absolutely no way for significant progress economically or socially. These cities could be at a standstill until the 2008 elections either reverse some of the damage or create more.

Educationally, things have been on the upswing. Marengo County schools continue to make significant progress in their reading initiative. Both Greene County, under the leadership of Dr. Douglass Ragland and Sumter County, under the leadership of Dr. Fred Primm, have also made significant strides. Both recently took over struggling school systems, both have made themselves well known in their respective districts and both are getting results.

In a very short period of time, Ragland took Greene County schools from a very discouraging state and slowly built them up. This fall, the schools were officially released from state control and continue to accomplish great things.

Primm can often be found at public meetings listening to the concerns of local citizens and using these concerns to improve his schools.

Though schools are improving, they are doing so with fewer students. Enrollment in most county schools is on a steady decrease, which means less money from the state. No matter how strong a system’s leadership, there is only so far they can go without appropriate funding.

The decrease in enrollment is a direct reflection of the regions decreasing population. Each year, more and more people move to Meridian, Tuscaloosa, Montgomery and Birmingham in search of better jobs. Many grew up in the Black Belt. Unfortunately, at some point they have to leave their home- towns to build a better life for their family.

On a positive note, the state has taken notice of this situation and pledged to step in and make a difference. The Black Belt Action Commission held several meetings around the state to present ideas and help people find a way to make a difference.

While it is great to have the attention of the state’s high-level leaders, it is unfortunate to have gained this attention because of a negative image.

Yes, we need their help and yes, things will get better. However, the situation should never have fallen to this point in the first place.

When you look at the positives and negatives around the Black Belt for 2005 it seems one is a result of the other. Luckily, the positives seem to have the upper hand. It is up to everyone to do their part to keep things that way. Let’s make 2006 the year we make serious strides in turning the Black Belt around.