Alabama Communities of Excellence boosting fortunes of small towns across the state

Alabama Communities of Excellence boosting fortunes of small towns across the state

Arts and crafts, shrimp and air rifles may not sound like economic development to most cities, but small Alabama towns like Fairhope, Gulf Shores and Heflin are using what they have to boost tourism and bring people to their communities.

Those were among the takeaways from last week’s Alabama Communities of Excellence’s (ACE) “Reunion, Renewal and Resources” event in Clanton.

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While Fairhope is home to festivals throughout the year, the Annual Arts & Crafts Festival in March is the biggest. It brings in 250,000 visitors and is widely recognized as one of the best events of its kind.

Sherry Sullivan, director of community affairs and recreation for Fairhope, said for a long-running festival, it’s important to frequently add new board members to bring new ideas and a fresh perspective.

Yolanda Johnson, business counselor with the Alabama Small Business Development Center Network, said that’s good advice and something the Annual National Shrimp Festival at Gulf Shores tries to follow.

Johnson said Gulf Shores targets its festivals outside of the main summer months when tourism is at its height with beach visitors from all over the country. Festivals are a way to bring in tourists outside of those peak months, she said.

A survey of a recent National Shrimp Festival found that 65.5 percent of the attendees were non-local, coming from 30 different states. More than 42 percent of those who attended the festival came for four days or more.

“The National Shrimp Festival is an asset to our local and regional economy,” Johnson said.

But not everyone has sugar sand beaches to help draw people to their community.

Alabama Communities of Excellence’s takes a comprehensive, three-phase approach to benefit communities with populations ranging from 2,000 to 18,000.

The town of Heflin does have nearby Mt. Cheaha , the Talladega National Forest and access to Interstate 20. The community leveraged that natural beauty with an outdoor air rifle range and a set of archery ranges that draw competitors from other states.

From kayaking to disc golf to the Cleburne County Fair (Aug. 15 at Ross Mountain), Heflin officials said the important thing is to use what you have to bring people to town.

The county fair had 1,000 people attend the first year and grew to 6,000 the second year. Officials are hoping for 10,000 visitors this year.

Through ACE, small towns get guidance on everything from community planning to leadership building to identifying resources to help with specific problems or needs.

The program was started and supported by the University of Alabama and Auburn University along with companies like Alabama Power.

ACE takes a comprehensive, three-phase approach to benefit communities with populations ranging from 2,000 to 18,000. Participating communities are selected through a competitive process.

“It takes the technical resources from our partners and our associate council members and goes into these communities and helps them plan, grow and prosper,” said Sidney Hoover, executive director of ACE.

Yolanda Johnson talks about the economic impact of festivals. (Michael Tomberlin/Alabama NewsCenter)
Yolanda Johnson talks about the economic impact of festivals. (Michael Tomberlin/Alabama NewsCenter)

At the most recent event in Clanton, community leaders got insight on the need for more fiber connectivity, an update on efforts to improve rural healthcare, resources available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and lending programs available through the Community Reinvestment Act.

Perhaps most beneficial were the stories community leaders shared about some of their best practices they hoped would spark ideas.

“It helps them be stronger. It helps them have a vision. It helps them come together as a community, which they may have never done before,” said Lisa Miller, president of ACE and manager of communications with the Alabama Municipal Electric Authority. “It keeps the community engaged and brings together all stakeholders that are part of the community, but makes them much stronger as a whole by being an Alabama Community of Excellence.”

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