WAEM Town Offers Hope to Rural Communities

LOUISVILLE, MS – “This process is one of the best I’ve seen,” said long-time planning consultant John McClure.  Columbus Mayor Robert Smith echoed those remarks.  “Most of the time, we attend workshops where all we do is sit around listening to presenters,” said the mayor.   “But this was hands on, and required teamwork, and I enjoyed it.”  Mayor Smith also recommended that government officials from all levels attend future workshops.

The focus of these comments was the first WAEM Town Designing Our Future Workshop.  Thirty-nine civic and community leaders from the West Alabama – East Mississippi (WAEM) region joined experts from Alabama and Mississippi to delve into practical planning and problem solving for rural communities.  The highlight of the program, as noted by Mayor Smith, was the presentation of drawings, charts, goals, and vision to re-design and redevelop a hypothetical rural town; work product that resulted from the intensive hands-on work of the participants.

Highly participatory, the workshop also includes lectures, case-study presentations and interactive group problem solving.  “It is a direct response to the uncertain future of Mississippi and Alabama small towns,” said workshop leader Cheryl Morgan, Director of Auburn’s Urban Studio in Birmingham, AL.  “It is a future increasingly threatened by large scale changes in our economy, population shifts, telecommunications and mass merchandising, and changes in land policy.”  Planning and design decisions can often make the difference between survival and decay for rural communities.

“Communities do die,” said Bill Crawford, Director of the WAEM Regional Initiative that sponsored the three-day workshop.  He pointed to hundreds of communities that became extinct during the past 200 years in Mississippi.  “Jack Shultz, author of Boom Town USA, says only one out of three rural communities may survive the 21st Century,” he said.

Designing Our Future, held at Lake Tiak O’Khata, October 22-24, 2008, targeted leaders in the WAEM Initiative region.  Funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, the workshop was based on a program that has been practiced by Your Town Alabama for the past ten years.

Key speakers included Larry Jarrett of the Natural Resources Initiative of Northern Mississippi; Mary Beth Wilkerson, Tourism Deputy Director for the Mississippi Development Authority, Nisa Miranda, Director of the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development; Pam King, a historic preservation consultant and Professor of History at the University of Alabama – Birmingham; Paul Kennedy, Executive Director of the Walker Area Community Foundation; and Jan Miller of the Carthage, MS, Mainstreet Program and Judy Martin of Marion, AL. who presented case studies

“I have learned a tremendous amount,” said Carolyn Ward of the West Point/Clay County Community Growth Alliance. “I work mostly in the [planning] office with support staff and never had a good understanding of how it all came together, so this has been instrumental for me.”

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