Designed to Make a Difference
Terri Dalton left Heflin when she was 25. When she came back at 30, it hadn’t changed a bit. That was just the way it was in Heflin–the way it always had been. But in 2004, Heflin’s image began to change after Dalton heard about Alabama Communities of Excellence (ACE), a program started in 2002 to help small towns with community development and planning. Dalton began working as Heflin’s ACE coordinator. She, along with Mayor Anna Berry and others in the community, took on the extensive application process for the competitive program despite warnings of “it’s just too big of a step right now” from skeptics. However, Heflin was accepted into the ACE certification process. Seven years later, Heflin isn’t the same town.”Everything’s changed,” Dalton said. “We’re always trying to find some new activity or new program. We’ve had more people get involved in this than I ever thought possible.”Heflin has seen the development of programs like the adult and youth leadership programs, a farmers market, agritourism, an arts council, a disc golf course and gateway signs that welcome tourists–yes, tourists–to the tiny town.Heflin, currently home to 3,500 people, is growing in population, too.”We’ve grown more in the past six years than we did in the past 30,” Dalton said. A growing agritourism industry has connected Heflin to growers in the surrounding area and has drawn in people from other communities, said Extension agent Debbie Matthews. “It’s a good supplementary income on a seasonal basis, and it brings people into the community and exposes them to a quality of life here in this community that people find most attractive,” Matthews said. So what is it about ACE that has helped transform this sleepy small town along with dozens of others into proud, progressive communities?”What we hear from the mayors is that the best thing about being in ACE is the networking and the resources, and that it’s a vehicle for bringing the community together as one voice,” said ACE State Coordinator Stacey Bryan.Becoming a certified Alabama Community of Excellence is a three-step process.The first step is assessment. “We come in and look at the gateways to the city, education, healthcare, economic development, the historical society, arts, quality of life, the business sector and other areas,” Bryan said. “Then our technical team compiles a report that gives observations and recommendations.”Bryan said the community then decides whether to proceed to the second step: the leadership development and strategic planning phase. During this phase of the process, the city must designate a 501c3 organization. Bryan said this allows the cities to apply for and receive grants.The community must also form a leadership committee and develop its strategic plan, which should provide a compelling vision for the future along with specific strategies for realizing that vision, Bryan said. “The strategic plan has to have broad-based community involvement–it can’t just be the mayor and the city council,” Bryan said. The final stage in the certification process is the implementation phase. During this phase, the community must develop and begin to implement its comprehensive plan, a more technical land-use plan. “Planning is the most important thing you’ll ever do,” Berry said. “The framework that came out of the ACE program is really what has made a difference for us.” After completing all three phases, the community is formally designated as an Alabama Community of Excellence and receives a $5,000 grant to use for a community development or economic growth project. Because agriculture is an integral part of the economy and lifestyle of many of the small communities ACE serves, the Alabama Farmers Federation has recently become a funding and technical partner with the organization.Along with contributing funds for the program, the Federation also allows area organization directors to serve as consultants during the three phases of ACE certification.Federation Organization Department Director Mike Tidwell is an ACE board member. He said the Federation’s participation in ACE focuses on how agriculture fits into communities and can help them grow and prosper. “It is of such vital importance in a community for agriculture to have a presence and a voice in the leadership programs,” Tidwell said. “Where you’ve got a good strong agricultural economy, usually, the community as a whole is going to be sound.”Applications to enter the ACE certification process go out every January, and the program is extremely competitive, Bryan said.
ACE communities also must be recertified every three years, ensuring the long-term implementation and success of each community’s plans. Bryan said success looks different for each community.”We stress that we want to build on assets–you don’t want to be a cookie cutter community,” Bryan said. “You want to maintain your identity, but develop assets.”For more information, go to www.AlabamaCommunitiesOfExcellence.org.