10 minutes with the governor

Published 10:41 pm Thursday, October 9, 2008

During his visit to the New Era baseball cap plant in Demopolis on Wednes-day, Gov. Riley took some time for an interview with The Demopolis Times.

Q: The buzzword locally has been economic development. In what ways is Alabama pursuing economic development for the less populated areas?

A: We’ve started a Rural Action Commission, and we’ve patterned it after the Black Belt Commission. The Black Belt Commission was essentially set up to do for areas what areas had a very difficult time doing for themselves.

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We ended up with 700 volunteers, and it has been amazing. We have had probably 15 different national and international plants that have located in this area, but we still have a long way to go.

Nothing proves success like people copying what you’ve done, and today, we have the Rural Action Commission all over the state of Alabama because the Black Belt Action Commission was so incredibly successful.

We told all of our cabinet members, we told our Alabama Development Office director, Neal Wade, who is from Monroeville, that this is a priority.

I told one of the ladies out there a moment ago that the little town that I’m from, we think of Demopolis as a metropolitan area.

It’s a little town called Ashland; it’s over on the Georgia line in Clay County. It’s got a population of 2,000, and the county has 12,000. We’ve done a great job of economic development up and down I-65 and across I-20/59, but that’s not what this Rural Action Commission is about.

Taking these economic development projects and moving them out into local areas — if we can do that, and we can improve the public school system the way we’re doing it now, with video conference technology, where you can have distance learning in every high school, I think you’re going to watch the rural areas do really well.

Q: One thing that would help this side of the state would be the proposed expansion of I-85 (west from Montgomery). Any ideas about how that is progressing?

A: It’s going to be a long-term project, and we’re going to push it. We’ve got $100 million committed to it (Wednesday). The problem is: If you wait for that to become the catalyst, it’ll be another generation. What we need to do is take what we’ve got now and try to sell it and continue to work on I-85. While we’re working on that, we’re going to do everything we can to get these companies to come out into this area, the whole area here.

If you look at what ThyssenKrupp is going to draw from the southern part of the Black Belt — 3,000 employees — and Northrop Grumman in Mobile can draw from this area. What’s going on in Tuscaloosa and what’s going to be going on with US Steel, this new coke plant (in Sumter County) — I mean, we are getting some major investments over here. The coke plant is a 4350-million investment in Sumter County. The whole western part of the state has been left behind for a good while now, and I think it’s on track now to really have some great progress.

Q: What can smaller areas like the City of Demopolis and Marengo County do to help themselves?

A: What we need to do is begin to look at this as a region. We’ve allowed Friday-night football to keep us from working together. Municipalities, county lines shouldn’t matter now. If we can begin to look at a region and say, “Whatever happens within that region helps all of us,” then – they’re doing that in northwest Alabama, in the Quad-City areas. We’re doing that over in east Alabama. We’re doing that now, with Mobile and Baldwin County working together. That’s what we need to do here, because you not only have a multiplier placed on your ability to effect political change, but when you’re working together, you get something greater than the sum of each one of the individual parts.

I think you’re doing that. I think the Black Belt Commission finally said, “We’re going to do something about that area.” When you look at the rest of the state today, and everyone is trying to emulate what’s going on over here, then I think we can reach out to a lot of different areas.