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Opinion | Alabama Black Belt Adventures celebrates long, successful relationship with Raycom Media

Pam Swanner

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For almost a decade, the Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association (ALBBAA) has worked to share the good news about outdoor tourism – the most profitable and attractive industry in a historically economically challenged region of our state.

ALBBAA was formed in 2009 to promote outdoor recreation like hunting and fishing, as well as its rich history and many culinary experiences. The mission: to bring tourists into the Black Belt from all over the country – and world – to visit, spend money and enjoy the many opportunities this region has to offer. A rising tide lifts all ships.   

Our constant partner in this effort has been Raycom Media under the leadership of Dr. David Bronner. Raycom has provided more than $8 million in advertising through its network of television stations in 65 markets and more than 100 CNHI newspapers across the nation.

Thanks to television advertisements aired on stations in 20 states – plus display ads in many local newspapers – Alabama’s Black Belt businesses have received thousands of inquiries about hunting, fishing and other outdoor adventure services. That interest piqued by Raycom and CNHI has paid off in tourism dollars.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2017 report, outdoor recreation accounted for $14 billion in consumer spending in Alabama. Of that, at least $4.87 billion was spent in Black Belt counties. Our state reaped the benefits of outdoor recreation spending in the collection of $857 million in state and local tax revenue. Outdoor recreation generates 135,000 direct jobs in Alabama and $3.9 billion in wages and salaries.

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Alabama’s Black Belt region, as defined by ALBBAA, is made up of 23 counties that span the south-central section of the state from Mississippi to Georgia. The region makes up parts of four of Alabama’s seven congressional districts. As of the 2010 census, just over 500,000 residents – of a total Alabama population of 4.78 million – live in the Black Belt.

The Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association promotes these counties as part of the Black Belt: Barbour, Bullock, Butler, Choctaw, Clarke, Conecuh, Crenshaw, Dallas, Greene, Hale, Lee, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Monroe, Montgomery, Perry, Pickens, Pike, Russell, Sumter, Tuscaloosa and Wilcox.

For decades, Alabama’s Black Belt has lagged economically because of many factors, including a small population base and often struggling public school systems. For the most part, Black Belt counties have not attracted many large industries or they have abandoned the region during times of national economic distress.

The partnership between ALBBAA and Raycom has been successful, in part, because the leaders of both organizations recognized the promise of outdoors tourism for boosting the economy of the Black Belt. Chilly winter mornings with bird dogs flushing quail and warm spring days on a riverbank in the Black Belt inspired Thomas A. Harris to start the Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association. With few traditional industries in the area, Harris decided promoting outdoor adventures in his home region could “be” an industry. Discussions with Dr. Bronner, whose expertise with recreational tourism was already well known because of the wildly successful Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail spanning the state, resulted in support from Raycom and CNHI.

The Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association uses a multifaceted approach to draw tourists to the area. The organization’s website (alabamablackbeltadventures.org) offers a one-stop source for hunters, anglers and other outdoor adventure-seekers looking for places to fulfill their dreams of a weekend in a deer stand with big bucks on the prowl or a week working to draw a big gobbler into range. We also visit outdoors trade shows throughout the country promoting the region and making friends from Houston to the Carolinas and all points in between, including the recent Buckmasters Expo in Montgomery.

Our website currently promotes 54 lodges and outfitters in the Black Belt. The site also provides information and links to public land available for hunting and fishing. Golfers can find information on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail courses in the Black Belt. Civic-minded vacationers can plan their tour of historic Civil Rights sites and find fun activities to do outdoors all across the state.

We also share the Black Belt’s stories with professional outdoors writers, travel bloggers and television producers on a national level who visit to experience the great hunting, fishing and heritage sites for themselves. Alabama writers and producers are also involved in telling the story. We have worked with journalists from outlets all over the state and country publishing items that are sure to spark interest in visiting the Black Belt.

In 2019, the Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association celebrates its 10th anniversary. Thanks to the advice and cooperation of many friends, such as Dr. Bronner, our association has made sure that this region of our state is not a secret unknown to the thousands of outdoorsmen and women who now enjoy spending their time – and money – in the Black Belt. The Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association has succeeded in giving a shot in the arm to our economy.

Pam Swanner is the director of the Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association, a not-for-profit organization committed to promoting and enhancing outdoor recreation and tourism opportunities in the 23 counties that make up the Black Belt in a manner that provides economic and ecological benefits to the region and its citizens. Visit www.alabamablackbeltadventures.org for more information.

 

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Opinion | Our HBCUs are at risk – we need to step up to protect them

Sen. Doug Jones

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Since 1867, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or “HBCUs,” have played a vital role in Alabama’s higher education system. With 14 today, Alabama is home to the most of any state in the country. And as I said in a recent speech on the Senate floor, we don’t just have the most, we have the best.

Tuskegee University is the only HBCU with a College of Veterinary Medicine, and the school produces over 75-percent of African-American veterinarians in the world. It has also just hired its first female university president, Dr. Lily McNair.

Alabama A&M University is the only 1890 land-grant university offering four Ph.D. programs. They are also the leading producer of African-Americans with Ph.Ds. in Physics.

Oakwood University is the nation’s fifth-highest producer of undergraduate African-American applicants to medical school.

Alabama State University is home to the National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African American Culture. ASU is currently doing preservation work on some never-before-seen documents such as court notions, bond documents, and official papers connected to the Montgomery bus boycott.

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And Lawson State Community College was named a Champion of Change in 2011 by then-President Barack Obama.

Today, there are over 100 accredited HBCUs, both public and private, in 19 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. They enroll approximately 300,000 students – 80-percent of whom are African-American and 70-percent are from low-income families. While HBCUs only make up three-percent of our country’s colleges and universities today, they produce nearly 20-percent of all African-American graduates.

Among HBCU graduates, there are countless trailblazing Americans who have quite literally changed the course of our history as a nation: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Marian Wright Edelman, Langston Hughes, Katherine Johnson.

And according to the National Science Foundation, between 2002 to 2011, the top eight institutions where African-American Ph.Ds. in science and engineering earned their bachelor’s degree were all HBCUs. HBCUs annually generate $14.8 billion in economic impact and add more than 134,000 jobs for local and regional economies. Based on a report in 2014, Alabama HBCU graduates can expect total earnings of $130 billion in their lifetimes. I could go on and on.

For all of these incredible achievements, HBCUs in Alabama and across the country are working against the strong headwinds of serious financial struggles.

The Government Accountability Office recently investigated the capital finance needs of HBCUs. Its report estimates that 46-percent of all HBCU buildings are in need of repair or replacement. This is due to deferred maintenance, the evolution of higher education and technology, and the fact that many of these buildings are state or federal registered historic places. For example, Tuskegee University is designated as a National Historic Site by Congress.

That is a remarkable figure – and it is wholly unacceptable.

But this is not a surprise for those who understand the challenges these institutions have long faced. HBCUs lack a plethora of revenue sources – public HBCUs heavily rely on state and federal grants, appropriations, and bonds. Private HBCUs have to rely on private or alumni giving and tuition fees. On top of that, the GAO found that the average endowment of an HBCU is half the size of a similarly sized non-HBCU.

None of the 90 institutions of higher education in the country with endowments greater than $1 billion is an HBCU.

This results in an endless cycle for these schools that have contributed so greatly to our country and the talented students they serve. With their limited revenue sources and the discrimination they face in the bond market, it is difficult to maintain campus buildings that attract high enrollment. Lower enrollment just leads to even less tuition and fees collected. And the cycle continues.

But I don’t just want to talk about problems without offering a solution.

Recently, I introduced the Strengthening Minority-Serving Institutions Act that will permanently extend and increase federal funds to all minority-serving institutions. Most federal funds are currently set to expire after Fiscal Year 2019.

My bill goes beyond just supporting our HBCUs, but is inclusive of other minority-serving schools like those that primarily admit Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians, Native Americans, and Hispanic Americans, among others.

With this legislation, we increase mandatory funding from $255 million to $300 million for these institutions.

They will be able to put that money to good use for infrastructure improvements, technology upgrades, and other critical needs that have gone unfulfilled.

This won’t solve all of the challenges HBCUs are working hard to overcome, but it’s a step in the right direction—and it’s the right thing to do for these schools that are part of the very foundation of our higher education system.

 

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Opinion | Water infrastructure vital to Alabama’s economy

Bradley Byrne

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There are very few places in the United States that can boast the sort of diverse infrastructure we have here in Alabama. There are 11 interstates, over 3,000 miles of freight rail, 5 commercial airports, and more than 132,000 miles of rivers and stream channels in our state.

One of our state’s most important pieces of infrastructure is the Port of Mobile, the 10th largest port and fastest growing container terminal in the United States. With 41 berths, 5 million square feet of warehouses and yards, and covering 4,000 total acres, it has an economic impact of around 135,000 jobs in Southwest Alabama and generates more than $22 billion per year in economic value.

Recent expansions and developments at the Port will only further grow the economic impact of the Port on not only Southwest Alabama but our entire state. For example, the recent announcement about a new roll-on/roll-off vehicle processing facility at the Port will help our state’s automotive manufacturing industry continue to grow.

Even with these impressive facts, it has been clear that our infrastructure throughout the country is in need of updates, repairs, and overhauls to ensure that we are at the cutting edge of transportation and innovation in order to compete economically on the world stage.

Last week, in a major bipartisan effort, Congress sent a piece of legislation to President Trump’s desk that will help to unlock the full economic potential of our region and state.

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America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 passed the Senate last week, after passing out of the House a few weeks back. This bill authorizes funding for waterway projects, port improvement projects, and other important water infrastructure projects in all 50 states. Not only will this allow for much-needed infrastructure improvements, but the bill reinstates a “Buy America” provision for federally funded projects, meaning a boost for American steel producers.

Commonsense legislation like this will create jobs, incentivize the use of American-made products, and build our nation’s capabilities to produce, package, and transport goods all around the globe. It will also make our drinking water safer, improve our wastewater systems, combat algae blooms, and restore our nation’s beaches through grant programs.

The Army Corps of Engineers can move forward on improving our dams, locks, reservoirs, and shipping channels. We have a major Army Corps project that needs attention right here in Southwest Alabama. The project to deepen and widen the Mobile Bay Ship Channel has the ability to fundamentally alter the economic potential of the Port and create more jobs in our state. Senator Richard Shelby has long been a champion for this project, and I am committed to working with him to make it a reality.

Our shipyards, airports, and rail yards will all see an impact from waterway projects like this, and I am thankful to the members of the Senate and my colleagues in the House for passing this water infrastructure legislation to help propel Alabama even further into the 21st Century.

The future of Alabama rests upon our ability to look beyond the short term and into what will set us up for success for years to come. Focusing locally on important infrastructure projects will spur economic growth through business investment and job creation, and it will open up opportunities we don’t even know exist yet.

Investing in our infrastructure today will lead to a stronger tomorrow. I applaud the work of my colleagues in both the House and the Senate in making a better economic future possible through this vital water infrastructure legislation.

 

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Opinion | Retiring Republican state senator: Alabama should expand Medicaid

Gerald Dial

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I was born in Delta, Alabama, and I have spent the majority of my life in Lineville, working as a teacher, a coach, and as a state senator in the Alabama Legislature. I served my country in the Alabama National Guard as a Brigadier General and have a strong sense of duty for the state of Alabama. I know the joys and the challenges of life in rural Alabama, and I am committed to keeping our rural areas strong.

As a retiring legislator and a former chairman of the State Senate Health Committee, I can appreciate the struggles our lawmakers face in trying to fund key state services. However, I also understand the importance of quality health care in our local communities, and I believe that by not expanding Medicaid we are missing a huge opportunity to strengthen our local economies.

For years, we have used state dollars to recruit industries to locate in Alabama, and we have been very successful. We now have an opportunity to support existing health care jobs and make sure every Alabamian has access to care when they need it, and where they need it. Investing in Medicaid expansion will keep our rural hospitals open, save hundreds of local jobs, and provide basic insurance coverage to almost 300,000 Alabamians. These are our friends and neighbors, hardworking Alabamians who don’t earn enough to afford health insurance. They work in our local restaurants, in our local retail shops and build our houses. Medicaid expansion would enable them to continue working while keeping their family healthy.

What happens if Alabama passes up this opportunity? More hospitals will close. Already, six rural hospitals have closed since 2011, and 88 percent of the remaining rural facilities continue to operate but are losing money every day, providing care to thousands of un-insured individuals. Many have had to eliminate services, cut staff and, if nothing changes, a number of them will likely have to close their doors. And when a community loses its hospital, it also loses doctors, pharmacies, and other providers, devastating the community not only in terms of access to health care, but in job and economic losses.

I realize we don’t have all the answers on how Medicaid expansion will be funded. But I do know that for every $1 the state invests, the federal government will return $10 to the state. That’s a good deal for Alabama and one that we can’t afford to pass up. And remember, that federal funding comes from tax dollars we are already sending to Washington, dollars currently funding expanded Medicaid programs in 33 other states and in Washington, D.C. Instead of sending our money out of state, let’s invest that money in Alabama’s health care industry.

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We’ve got to find a way to keep our state’s health care system viable. I urge all Alabamians to find out more about Medicaid expansion and the tremendous benefit it will have, particularly in our rural areas. I’m afraid that the cost of doing nothing is too great.

Gerald Dial represents District 13 in the Alabama State Senate, which includes all or parts of Randolph, Lee, Cleburne, Clay, Cherokee, and Chambers counties.

 

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Opinion | Voters beware: Amendment 1 is a wolf in sheep’s clothing

Randall Marshall

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Alabama is in the midst of what many have characterized as an opioid crisis. Our health care system was recently ranked 46th among all states. Our education system is even worse – 47th in the nation. Only South Carolina, Louisiana, and New Mexico are ranked lower. These are big, important issues, and redressing them should be at the forefront of our legislators’ agendas. Instead, our lawmakers are frittering away their time, resources, and influence to persuade voters to pass a constitutional amendment (Amendment 1) that somehow manages to be both useless and reckless at the same time.

Amendment 1 purports to allow public bodies, including public schools, to display the Ten Commandments on government property. But, there’s a huge catch that legislators are hoping voters won’t notice: a Ten Commandments display will only be allowed so long as it “complies with constitutional requirements.” In other words, the proposed amendment would create no new rights. Even if Amendment 1 passes, the government will still be prohibited from displaying the Ten Commandments if it would violate the U.S. Constitution. Although legislators have hidden this key language from voters by omitting it from the ballot, it will be included in Amendment 1.

If Amendment 1 would change nothing, what’s the harm in voting for it? The answer lies in another effort to hide the ball from voters. Voters won’t see this language on the ballot either, but Amendment 1 also requires that any display of the Ten Commandments be “intermingled with historical or educational items, or both, in a larger display within or on property owned or administrated by a public school or public body.” The Amendment suggests that this will be sufficient to meet “constitutional requirements.” Not so.

While the federal courts have upheld some older displays of the Ten Commandments in very specific circumstances, they also have viewed newer displays as constitutionally suspect. Courts often see these newer displays for what they are – an intentional effort to promote the religious doctrine of certain faiths and send a divisive message that those who don’t share these religious beliefs are second-class citizens. Indeed, although Amendment 1 specifically urges public schools to put up the Ten Commandments, no federal court has upheld their display in the school setting, regardless of the display’s nature or broader context.

In short, whenever the government puts up the Ten Commandments, it raises serious constitutional concerns. Amendment 1, if passed, will encourage public bodies to erect constitutionally questionable religious displays featuring the Ten Commandments and give officials false comfort that they will be safe from costly litigation as a result. They will not be. Although Amendment 1 promises that no public funds will be used to defend the constitutionality of the Amendment itself, local public bodies, such as school districts, will be forced to hire lawyers to defend lawsuits challenging specific Ten Commandments displays. And, should the plaintiffs prevail, the local public body and its taxpayers will be on the hook for the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees, which could run easily into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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Religious expression should come from people’s hearts and faith – not stone monuments and wooden plaques erected on government property. Nevertheless, Alabama’s legislators will surely tout Amendment 1 when they go home to their districts, deflecting from the fact that they’re ignoring our real problems. While it might make a nice talking point for lawmakers, Amendment 1 is a wolf in sheep’s clothing for everyone else. Voters should reject this ill-conceived proposal and send a message to their representatives that this hollow gesture is not what Alabama needs. What we need is for our representatives to get to work on the real issues affecting Alabamians.

 

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Opinion | Alabama Black Belt Adventures celebrates long, successful relationship with Raycom Media

by Pam Swanner Read Time: 4 min
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