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Despite research, improvement is lacking

Alabama’s Black Belt has been dissected more often than a frog in a high school biology class. Countless studies have been conducted and countless grants have been written dealing with the area. To their credit, elected officials and business leaders have worked diligently over the years to identify sustainable development in this region of the state.

While efforts by some have begun the progress needed to revitalize the once-thriving region, the unfortunate reality is that conditions in the Black Belt continue to decline. Department of Industrial Relations data shows that the number of people with jobs in the Black Belt dropped from 72,746 in September 2003 to 62,806 in September 2009–a decline of 13.6 percent.

Black Belt unemployment today is 16.2 percent, almost double September 2003. Concern about the area’s economy is nothing new. Dr. Gerald Johnson, who runs the Capital Survey Research Center, did an exhaustive survey of Black Belt citizens in 2003. They identified their major problem as the economy, and 76 percent said they were either somewhat or very dissatisfied with job possibilities.

However, amidst all the hand-wringing about the Black Belt, well-intentioned folks have too often focused on what the region does not have, instead of what it does have. There have been calls to extend I-85 from Montgomery to Meridian and to build large industrial parks along the Alabama-Mississippi state line. But in a period of ever-tightening governmental budgets and in a region with an extremely limited workforce, what are the prospects that either will happen?

However, after years and years of false starts and futility, an idea has emerged about what can be done to boost the Black Belt that resonates with clarity. Creation of Alabama Black Belt Adventures makes a great deal of sense as it will utilize the natural resources of the region and market them to hunters and outdoor enthusiasts across the country.

John Naisbett wrote the best-seller, “Megatrends,” in 1982. One of the trends he identified was what he called, “high tech, high touch.” He said that in a world of technology, people long for personal, human contact. Naisbett followed this book with one called, High Tech, High Touch, in which he said, “the two biggest markets in the United States are consumer technology and escape from consumer technology.”

Alabama Black Belt Adventures is right on target by offering “escape from consumer technology.” This project (which includes an additional nine counties to those identified by the Black Belt Action Commission), will focus on a variety of outdoor activities, including hunting, fishing, trail rides, bird watching and more.

The “eco tourism” dollars generated by such activities won’t require huge investment in infrastructure or putting together multi-million dollar incentive packages.

The Black Belt is already a destination for hunters across the country and hunting is already big business in Alabama.

The latest survey by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service shows that total expenditures by hunters in Alabama is more than $163 million annually, while total expenditures for fishing is $129 million.

It is the goal of Alabama Black Belt Adventures to brand the region as an outdoor destination.

The group will work with existing outdoor venues throughout the area to expand their markets. Landowners will respond if they know there is an effective and sustained marketing program.

We want to encourage people across the country to set aside their iPhones and Blackberries and spend a few days in Alabama remembering when life was slower and Mother Nature was just outside everyone’s door.

Larry Lee is the director of the Center for Rural Alabama.