MONTGOMERY – When Governor Bob Riley created a commission in 2004 to focus on Alabama’s Black Belt, he said the last thing the region’s residents needed was another study of the persistent problems their communities face.
Instead, he said he wanted action -- improvements that could be measured, and he wanted it done by volunteers from Black Belt counties who would work together with state and community leaders and non-profit organizations.
The result was the Black Belt Action Commission, which grew to about 800 volunteers from the region’s 12 counties, and a list of accomplishments over the past six years in everything from jobs to health care to education and tourism.
Those achievements and Governor Riley’s work to improve the Black Belt were honored Monday in Montgomery during a ceremony at Alabama State University.
“The Black Belt Action Commission lived up to its name. These volunteers didn’t study problems, they worked to fix them. They took a new approach that focused on getting results and they can be proud of all they’ve accomplished,” said Governor Riley. “Is the work done? Not at all. Six years is not nearly enough time to solve all these problems that have lasted for generations, but there can be no doubt these volunteers made a positive difference.”
Governor Riley was joined at the celebration event by the commission’s co-chairs -- Senator Hank Sanders of Selma, Thomasville Mayor Sheldon Day, and Margaret Bentley with the Alabama Power Company -- along with chairmen of the commission’s 13 committees and others who have worked to improve conditions in the Black Belt.
The Black Belt is a band of 12 largely rural counties stretching mainly across the south-central part of the state: Bullock, Choctaw, Dallas, Greene, Hale, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Perry, Pickens, Sumter, and Wilcox.
Some of the improvements that were reviewed on Monday were:
· Economic development projects that created more than 3,800 jobs with a total capital investment of about $985 million.
· Free vision screenings for 70,000 children and follow up treatment including 9,500 receiving free eye glasses and more than 1,000 receiving free sight-saving treatments.
· Removal of a 30-year-old public health regulation that prevented any dialysis clinics in the state from operating unless they were located within 10 miles of a hospital. The commission is continue its efforts to bring dialysis centers to the Black Belt.
· Creation of the Black Belt Nature and Heritage Trail Guide, which features more than 50 destinations to promote the area to tourists.
· Job training programs in each Black Belt county providing 400 hours of free training to job seekers and the establishment of the West Alabama-East Mississippi WIRED Initiative connecting entrepreneurs to resources that support small business development and financing. More than 1,700 Black Belt residents received training in job readiness and entrepreneurial development programs.
· Establishment of the Individual Development Account initiative, which helps Black Belt families build wealth to purchase a home, start a business or continue their education. With a federal grant and local matching funds, more than $400,000 is being targeted to Black Belt families.
· Web-based and videoconference distance learning classes provided in all public high schools in the Black Belt.
· Start of Black Belt Treasures, a non-profit located in Camden that showcases and promotes the arts of the Black Belt region. Since its opening in 2005, Black Belt Treasures has grown from representing 75 artists in the Black Belt to representing more than 350.
· Financial and technical support provided to more than 200 community groups for youth arts programs, community festivals and youth sports programs.
· Expanding the Kid One Transport system into the Black Belt, which provides free transportation to and from doctors’ offices for pregnant women and children under 19.
· The 2-1-1 Connect program, a one-call service that offers access to programs that provide employment support, help for the elderly and disabled, and volunteer opportunities.
· Bringing the On-Line Learning for Low-Wage Workers Program to the Black Belt. The program is a Rutgers University e-learning initiative that uses laptops and the Internet to increase the employment skills of adult learners.
· $17.8 million in grants for water and sanitation improvements that were secured through commission members’ work with government agencies and local leaders.
· Creation of the non-profit Black Belt Superintendents Coalition, which gives public schools in the Black Belt the cooperative purchasing power enjoyed by larger school systems.
· Technical assistance provided to help Black Belt counties establish their own economic development agencies.