Rural development remains a hot topic across Alabama

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 15, 2001

John Clyde Riggs thinks communities in rural Alabama need three things to successfully recruit industry: transportation, infrastructure and good education.

&uot;At the least, you've got to have two of the three,&uot; said Riggs, executive director of the Alabama-Tombigbee Regional Commission. &uot;We don't have any of them right now.&uot;

Riggs, whose commission helps recruit industry for Wilcox and Dallas counties, was one of 400 community leaders in Tuscaloosa last Thursday for the Rural Economic Development Conference. He listened to speaker after speaker talk about ways to make Alabama's Black Belt a better location for prospective industries. And while planning is important, he said, so is getting something done.

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&uot;I'm about ready for some action,&uot; he said. &uot;We've got to get people focused on the same thing, and I think that focus should be on education, first. It's the easiest thing to fix.&uot;

The purpose of the two-day conference, was to find that focus and to ensure Alabamians in rural areas that state leaders are looking out for them.

&uot;Somehow, we've got to ensure that no one in our beloved state is left behind just because of where he or she lives,&uot; said Dr. Andrew Sorensen, president of the University of Alabama. Sorensen facilitated most of the event Thursday, filling in for Gov. Don Siegelman, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby and U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions

all who had planned to attend but could not.

Ricky McLaney, director of the Butler County Commission for Economic Development represented Butler County at the meeting. &uot;There was supposed to be only a limited number able to attend the meeting,&uot; said McLaney. &uot;However, there were over 400 people who attended. That just goes to show how interested so many are in rural development.&uot;

Kim Ballard, a Dallas County commissioner, also attended the conference. Ballard, who now serves as administrator for Hill Hospital in Sumter County, didn't attend the conference because he thought Alabama would immediately find the answer to economic development in rural areas.

&uot;My No. 1 reason for being here is to learn as much as I can about development and ways we in Dallas County can do a better job,&uot; he said. &uot;I also came to find sustainable funding for rural hospitals that are going to die if something doesn't happen.&uot;

Ballard, who formerly worked at Selma Baptist, wasn't the only one looking for ways to secure more money. Larry Lewis, president of West Central Alabama Easter Seals Rehabilitation Center in Selma, attended the conference for much the same reason.

&uot;I came to learn about how other counties do things,&uot; Lewis said. &uot;I also came to help our outreach program, and find ways of getting more funding for that.&uot;

The Easter Seals rehabilitation center program works to help disabled people in the community back to work.

&uot;The more people we can help put back in the work force, the better off we are,&uot; Lewis said. &uot;I wanted to learn about services other communities were providing because I think it can help us.

&uot;And that helps stimulate the economy because these people are working and paying taxes,&uot; he said.

Yusuf Abdus-Salaam, a former Selma City Councilman and mayoral candidate, attended the conference to help Selma's &uot;Weed and Seed&uot; program develop.

During a Thursday morning round-table discussion, representatives of four federal agencies talked about ways Alabama's rural areas could improve their ability to recruit new jobs. Each panelist echoed the feelings of Riggs.

&uot;In the Black Belt, it's like we're all at a sock-hop dance,&uot; said Pete Johnson, federal co-chair of the fledgling Delta Regional Authority. &uot;Everybody's doing a different dance, and we need everybody doing the waltz.&uot;