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Alabama Black Belt Heritage Area hosts VISTA workshop

The University of West Alabama on March 9 hosted Black Belt service organizations for a Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) workshop sponsored by the Alabama Black Belt Heritage Area (ABBHA).

The one-day forum brought together VISTA representatives working in the 19-county service area of the ABBHA. Participants gained insight on the history and economics of the Black Belt region and its existing economic development initiatives.

“We hope that through workshops such as this VISTA workers will take advantage of the opportunities to network with others across the region to better our efforts for promoting the Black Belt,” said Wimberly R. Comer, interim executive director of the ABBHA.

“The information available in these workshops makes various service organizations aware of the resources available through partner organizations. Through this free exchange of ideas we can create and implement plans that better serve our region,” Comer explained.

Valerie Burnes, director of UWA’s Center for the Study of the Black Belt, opened the workshop with a look at the history and economics of the Black Belt.

Dr. Tom Chesnutt, Extension Tourism Specialist from Auburn University’s Economic & Community Development Institute, provided an overview of the many development initiatives and opportunities, including Alabama Communities of Excellence (ACE) and sustainable tourism programs for the region.

Erika Lovell of the University of Alabama’s Center for Economic Development discussed the programs in which the organization assists through its own VISTA program. Their services include assistance in development, planning, assessment, feasibility and marketing studies, and access to state and federal resources.

Also speaking to participants was John McCarter, Program Manager for Workforce and Community Development at UWA, who serves as the VISTA site supervisor for Sumter County.

Afternoon sessions allowed VISTA workers to share their current and upcoming projects and participate in a roundtable discussion on a brighter future for Black Belt VISTAs.

The ABBHA is a 19-county initiative with a mission of empowering the people and communities of Alabama’s Black Belt region to build a positive future by collaborating to preserve, enhance, and promote what makes the area unique. The Center for the Study of the Black Belt at UWA serves as the management entity for the ABBHA.

The ABBHA in December 2009 was introduced by Alabama’s congressional delegation as a proposed National Heritage Area and awaits legislation. The bill can be tracked through the Library of Congress at http://thomas.loc.gov as H.R.4345 or S.2892.

For more information on the ABBHA and regional events scheduled for 2010, visit http://www.alblackbeltheritage.org

Participating counties include: Bibb, Bullock, Butler, Choctaw, Clarke, Conecuh, Dallas, Greene, Hale, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Monroe, Montgomery, Perry, Pickens, Sumter, Washington and Wilcox counties.