That’s the challenge the East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission faces as its leaders make their way through the beginning stages of their Clear Plan 2030 project. Launched in September, the initiative, which uses grant money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is aimed at making more sustainable and living communities by listening to what residents throughout the 10 counties covered by the commission say they want for the future.
The commission originally anticipated an initial survey phase to end in November after collecting 5,000 responses. They ended up with fewer than 300.
“It was long and cumbersome,” said Ashley Myers, a commission planner, on the lackluster response to the project’s first survey. “We changed our approach because this project is really about the people and what they want for the future of their region.”
It’s not exactly starting over, Myers said, but strategies involving collecting resident feedback have been expanded and given more time to develop. A new survey launched on Nov. 7 has collected 300 responses of its own. Myers said as leadership roles develop, teams will actively go into different communities in January to talk to officials and residents about what they see as the challenges they need to overcome to strengthen and unify the region.
Jennifer Maddox, president of the Community Foundation of Northeast Alabama and chairwoman for the Community Engagement Livability Resource Team of Clear Plan 2013, said the biggest snag in the process hasn’t been just the low participation rate, but also the concentration of the participation. Leadership for the project, as well as residents providing feedback, has largely centered in Calhoun County.
“The current challenge we have is getting additional representatives from other counties,” Maddox said. “We need to be able to engage individuals from all 10 counties, and be able to really make this a regional effort.”
Ideally, Maddox said they’d like 1 percent of the population of each county to represent their total input from surveys, meaning 1,200 of the goal of 5,000 collected surveys would come from Calhoun County, which has a population of around 120,000.
Washington D.C.-based group Partners for Livable Communities is helping East Alabama with the project through Tuscaloosa resident Johnnie Aycock, who launched a similar initiative five years ago in west Alabama focused on improving economic conditions through emphasis on culture. While Tuscaloosa County dominated the region targeted by Aycock’s efforts, it actually ended up being a stronger link for the area, he said.
“It was a little better connected because the rural counties poured into Tuscaloosa,” Aycock said. “Tuscaloosa is a little more of a centerpiece than you got in east Alabama.”
The metropolitan statistical areas of Gadsden and Anniston, as well as smaller urbanized areas such as Roanoke means the population doesn’t have a central hub like Tuscaloosa that dominates the economic outlook for the area, Aycock said.
The solution is “basic,” Aycock said, and involves going into the communities and identifying the people who have a stake in the future of what happens to the region.
“You really want the plan to be written by the citizens,” Aycock said. “You don’t want it be the vision of a bunch of planners.”
And that’s why the beginning stages will take more time to develop, Myers said.
“This really is about what people want for their future,” she said. “It’s very important for us that we get that.”
Residents can participate in the project by going to the website clearplan230.org and filling out the survey or finding out when project leaders will be in their communities.
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.