As we prepare for our transition into 2017, there is much talk about the top stories, the top newsmakers and the like in our daily media diet. With the divisiveness of political campaigns and conflicts around the world, it can be a challenge to remember we live in a great community and in the greatest country on the planet.
There are many, many stories among us that highlight the good in our community. We are headed in a positive direction, and this is an incredibly exciting time to live in Decatur and Morgan County. With that thought in mind, the Chamber would like to share the top five stories from 2016 that make us excited to be in Morgan County.
One Decatur plans for the future
This summer, Planning Next from Columbus, Ohio, was hired by the City of Decatur to guide the development of a new comprehensive plan that would shape the next 20 years of growth and progress for the River City in the areas of infrastructure, zoning, residential growth and land use. Following the open selection of a 40-person steering committee, “One Decatur” was born. In late fall, nearly 500 residents from different neighborhoods, demographics, backgrounds and all walks of life took part in community meetings to discuss their dreams and aspirations for what they imagined our city could do together to plan for the future. From that feedback, the steering committee and Planning Next are developing a road map that lays out the needs as well as desires for our city, and more importantly how we can get there together. Set for completion in late 2017, the One Decatur initiative will positively impact each citizen throughout the city, outlining a path for community success.
100 percent Pre-K availability in Morgan County
In June, based on the addition of three Pre-K classrooms in Morgan County and statistics from the State of Alabama, our area hit a long-term goal worked on by state, local and business leaders since 2006: each child in the county has access to quality Pre-K opportunities in their community. The Chamber’s Starting Strong Pre-K initiative – a partnership with State Rep. Terri Collins, the Chamber Quality Education Committee, the Decatur/Morgan County Minority Development Association, the United Way of Morgan County, Community Action Partnership of North Alabama, Decatur and Hartselle City Schools, Morgan County Schools and the City of Decatur – have made Pre-K access a vital part of education and workforce development strategies for the past decade. A wealth of research has shown access to early childhood education helps those who participate in Pre-K outperform those who don’t participate, and a quality community life is built on the foundation of a strong education.
New ownership and development of Decatur Mall
February marked a new chapter in the life of Decatur Mall, the largest shopping venue in Morgan County. Hull Property Group of Augusta, Ga., purchased the Beltline Road property and quickly developed a nearly $13 million plan to update the 38-year-old property. Among the face lift blueprint, Hull plans to address new lighting, landscaping, traffic flow, environmental design and developing a plan to connect the building to the history of our community with murals and local art drawn from our city. Also part of the plan is a revitalized strategy on tenant recruitment, which will strengthen the opportunities for residents to shop Decatur and keep their purchasing power in our local economy.
Alabama Center for the Arts Phase II and the Alabama Art Hall of Fame
November saw the ribbon cutting of the 44,000 square foot, $13.5 million Phase II of the Alabama Center for the Arts (ACA) – a facility and programing partnership between Athens State University and Calhoun Community College located in downtown Decatur. The building, which focuses primarily on the performing arts of music and drama, features a recital hall, “black box” teaching theater, recording studio, rehearsal spaces, classrooms and faculty offices. The same day as the ribbon cutting, the Hall of Fame celebrated its inaugural class, welcoming eight world-renown artists from different disciplines who are natives of or lived in Alabama. The class featured artists including Grammy winner Emmylou Harris, the late actor Dean Jones, mixed media artist Nall Hollis and the quilters of Gee’s Bend. The Hall of Fame is another component of creating an arts-based economy anchored by the Princess Theater Center for the Performing Arts, The Carnegie Visual Arts Center and the ACA.
Decatur as a community development destination
Our community has a long history of visiting other similar-sized areas to learn about their successes and what can be applied to our city vision. Past trips include Paducah, Ky., to learn about their arts-based neighborhood revitalization; Greenville, S.C., to learn about their downtown streetscape and developing a “walkable” city; Savannah, Ga., to learn about the Savannah College of Art and Design located in their downtown and what it takes to support an arts-based economy; and Tuscaloosa/Northport, Ala., to learn about the impact and logistics of establishing a regional arts festival like their Kentuck Festival of the Arts. Results from these trips can now easily be seen outside our front door. Today, Decatur is a city attracting communities to come here. In March, a group of more than 30 community, education and business leaders from Clarksville, Tenn. (pop. 140,000, a city two and a half times the size of Decatur) spent two full days in our area learning about how to establish partnerships across non-traditional fields – something for which Decatur has a regional reputation. During the visit, the group met with business leaders, city and county officials, school representatives, economic, retail and industrial development groups, and tourism staff to learn how to create sustainable relationships for community success. The Clarksville visit follows other visits from cities like Rome, Ga., and Dalton, Ga., in past years to learn similar strategies. Collaboration equates to community success, and Decatur serves as a regional example.