Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Hunting the great white whale

Whale sightings aren't unheard-of in Mobile Bay. But for decades, one of Alabama's most notorious whales has been an allegorical one: the widespread poverty plaguing the state's Black Belt region. As the 21st century arrived, the area had endured years of rising unemployment with no turnaround in sight. The population had dwindled. Hope for recovery had begun to fade in some corners.

So how do you eat a whale? One bite at a time, of course. In August 2004, Gov. Bob Riley followed up on a campaign promise by creating a bipartisan Black Belt Action Commission to look for some way, any way, to reverse the negative trends.

The commission's members patted themselves on the back Tuesday as they observed the task force's 15-month anniversary. (The obvious question is why they didn't celebrate the one-year anniversary in August. Maybe Hurricane Katrina interrupted. Or maybe they wanted to wait until the fall to get more attention or to get more done. Or maybe they just forgot. Who knows?)

Politicians always love to take credit for all sorts of positive developments, but the commission undoubtedly can point to some victories during its brief existence, such as the Black Belt's new job-training and vision-screening programs. The commission also took some credit for the region's plummeting unemployment rate, which, while still close to double that of the rest of the state, fell almost 3 percent in one year. (How much of that is due to the group's efforts and how much is attributable to independent economic forces is debatable, but the commission's work certainly couldn't have hurt.)

The panel also plans to promote Black Belt tourism next year, but perhaps most significant for the region's long-term future is Riley's proposal to extend Interstate 85 from Montgomery to the Mississippi line. The project is years away, but if and when it comes to fruition, it will provide the area with the necessary road infrastructure to attract more major employers and tourism dollars to Selma, Demopolis, and other places near the new I-85.

The Black Belt for years has been tagged with the appellation "Alabama's Third World." (It's a misnomer, in my view, but that's a rant for another post.) Slowly but surely, Riley's commission is reaching across party lines and taking some baby steps toward making that moniker, not to mention the state's whale problem, a thing of the past.

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