Rural communities in the South can succeed.
Thomasville, a small town in Alabama’s poor “Black Belt,” has thrived under the leadership of Mayor Sheldon Day. Indeed, Day has his folks believing it is “cool to be rural.”
Census data shows Thomasville with 4,209 residents and a low family poverty rate of 13 percent compared with 25 percent for the whole of Clarke County and 19 percent for Alabama. The town’s poverty rate has been in steep decline since 2010 as median household income jumped 28 percent from $28,234 to $36,146.
The 500 student Thomasville High School, with 48 percent minority students and 63 percent who qualify for free and reduced lunches, boasts a stellar graduation rate of 95 percent.
During his 20 years as mayor, Day has attracted more than $700 million in capital investments and increased the number of industrial parks from one to five. He estimated 50 percent of the businesses along the Highway 43 bypass in Thomasville have opened during his tenure and sales-tax collections have tripled.
In 2013, Thomasville beat 62 other sites to secure the $100 million Golden Dragon Precise Copper Tubing plant, the first major manufacturer from China to set up in Alabama.
Day is especially proud of the partnership he built among the high school, Alabama Southern Community College and industries. The dual enrollment program he championed in welding 14 years ago now offers industrial maintenance, information technology, pre-engineering, pre-nursing and sports medicine.
“Today there are more dual enrollment high school students at the Thomasville campus than regular students on Alabama Southern’s main campus in Monroeville,” Day said. Coupled with an intensive work-based learning program at the high school, the dual enrollment program, Day said, has been a “major catalyst to attract industry.”
Fascinated by his success, Betsy Rowell, executive director of Mississippi’s Stone County Economic Development Partnership, invited Day to tour her county and speak at her annual meeting. “He has obviously had great success with partnerships in his area. Our local leadership needed to hear his message.”
How is Thomasville succeeding in an area where most rural towns struggle?
Day said when he was first elected mayor in 1996, he spent time searching out the best models for rural development. He found that model in Tupelo. He studied Tupelo and became a disciple of Vaughn Grisham, director emeritus of the McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement at the University of Mississippi.
Day points to several similarities. One is the broad cooperative spirit he has nurtured. “In Thomasville, the school, chamber, industry and city are all partners,” he said. “Everybody talks to each other to get things done.” Another has been his intense focus on developing the local workforce. And, as Tupelo did with Toyota, he collaborated with an adjacent county, Wilcox, to create an industrial park to house a major industry. Now, he is copying Tupelo’s health-care model and will soon build a new regional hospital.
No longer the student, he now lectures on how to succeed in rural communities at Auburn’s Economic Development Institute.
“His insight,” Rowell said, “was invaluable.”
Bill Crawford is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.