Alabama Takes Action for Rural Development
By Jennifer LeClaire
Alabama has adopted an aggressive rural strategy to drive economic development well beyond the metropolitan outskirts. Several initiatives are underway that put action to the words of state leaders.
“As in other states, our rural communities have lost many traditional manufacturing jobs. We recognize the huge impact,” says Steve Sewell, executive vice president at Economic Development Partnership of Alabama. “There’s been a push to help rural communities develop the infrastructure that will allow them to be more competitive in economic development.”
The Center for Rural Alabama’s Rural Alabama Committee of 100 is one part of that push. The recently formed Governor’s Rural Alabama Action Commission is another. The Rural Alabama Initiative grant program is yet another.
The Rural Alabama Committee of 100 is an advisory group to the Center for Rural Alabama. The council is made up of leaders from various sectors including tourism, transportation, small business, local government, utilities, education and telecommunications. The committee is looking at policy issues that would directly benefit rural Alabama.
“Our challenge is that much of Alabama’s population is rural,” says Larry Lee, who heads the Center for Rural Alabama, a division of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industry.
In fact, according to state statistics, about 30 percent of Alabamians live in a rural county. This reality must be faced in any rural economic development strategy, Lee adds. It’s still early in the process, but Lee and the Rural Alabama Committee of 100 are working to develop best practices for economic development in the state’s 45 rural counties. That may look more like community development than economic development, he explains, because issues of healthcare, education and business need to be addressed before major change can occur.
“Before company comes to dinner, you’ve got to be ready for them,” Lee says. “You can’t have people over to your house if you don’t have any dishes to serve dinner on. We’re getting ready for company.”
The Rural Alabama Action Commission is taking a similar approach, seeking to improve the quality of life in Alabama’s rural communities. The Rural Alabama Commission follows the pattern of the Black Belt Action Commission, which was originally created in 2004. Since its inception, the Black Belt Commission measurably improved the quality of life in Alabama’s Black Belt region, an area which extends from Mississippi's border through the heart of the state and is named for the exceptionally black topsoil.
The Rural Alabama Commission will take the successful model of the Black Belt Action Commission, with its 800 local volunteers, to a statewide level, targeting health care, education, economic development and workforce development.
“The Black Belt Action Commission became a model of success and we’d like to replicate what they’ve done and put it all over the state,” Alabama’s Governor Bob Riley says. “We’ve proven with the Black Belt Action Commission that if you concentrate and make it a priority, you can improve the quality of life. We need to do that for all of rural Alabama.”
Of course, the missing link in rural economic and community development is often financing. The Rural Alabama Initiative grant program, funded by the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) through the Economic and Community Development Institute, helps fund 48 educational projects that promote rural development throughout the state.
“We have worked hard to focus attention on Alabama’s rural challenges and opportunities through our research, publications, and training,” says Dr. Joe Sumners, director of the Economic and Community Development Institute, a partnership of ACES and Auburn University Outreach. “We are very excited about the Rural Alabama Initiative. We think these 48 projects will have huge impacts in communities throughout our state.”