Spotlight on Choctaw, Clarke, Conecuh, Escambia & Monroe: Community Development

These five counties are improving downtown areas, developing workforce initiatives and supporting local schools

Clarke and Washington counties are both ACT Certified Workforce Ready Communities, with active dual enrollment between area high schools and Coastal Alabama Community College.

Choctaw County

Choctaw County recently has unveiled a new website that features information for residents related to county government, governmental and public services, education, area attractions and more. Future updates will provide links to video promotional materials for the county.

The city of Butler, the county seat, has two major sewer projects underway, says Vonda Cook, city clerk. The city also is working on an expansion of Zack Rogers Park to include nature walking trails.

New retail shops include The Ruby Corner, a shop on the courthouse square in Butler that holds more than 35 vendors inside one facility. The Hidden Kitchen features healthy food, meal planning and more and is already expanding.

The county is served by the Choctaw County School System. Both high schools have career technical academies.

Several events introduce students to careers, says Derek Wright, career technical director/central office administrator for Choctaw County Schools. Those include industry tours, college and career fairs and visits to explore STEM careers. The district is also upgrading computers and accessories for student use, he says.

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Clarke County

Clarke County has grants for a new sewer project, along with other community projects that will help fuel development.

Grove Hill, the county seat, purchased and renovated a former National Guard armory into a new home for the police and utility departments, says Mayor Ross Wood. “We were bursting at the seams at city hall, and this really helps,” he says. A new fire station is going up next to city hall.

“One of the first orders of business was improving infrastructure with streets, water access and finding locations for new businesses,” he says, and those improvements needed to happen to attract new business.

New to the city are The Square Cup coffee shop, On the Hill gift/ice cream shop and The Bloom décor/florist shop. “There is a real entrepreneurial spirit here,” says Rosalyn Sales, director of economic development at Clarke Mobile Gas District.

The city of Jackson has added pickleball courts and a wood pellet mill that is a big boost for the area, officials say.

In Thomasville, the new Thomasville Career Readiness Center and Public Library opened in 2023. It has already proven to be a useful free resource for job seekers.

“We work with adults who are not involved in the education system, people who need resources and help to succeed,” says Ryan Johnson, the center’s career coach. “For example, many people aged 18-34 are working but are not fully committed to a career path. There are aged 50-55-plus people who are pre-retired or retired and have tons of experience and we want to help them re-enter the workforce.”

The center also works with higher education and industry to help host hiring events and other resources. “We don’t compete with other local and state entities; we want to support them.” The career readiness center offers a myriad of services that include resume services, career coaching and help for those who are hoping to advance in their job, he says.

“The mayor (Thomasville Mayor Sheldon Day) and I really wanted to offer services to those who have not had access to these services,” Thompson says. “We also offer online information and help to businesses. For example, we can help businesses hold hiring events.”

The next step is to offer a career class to home schooled students who do not have access to those services, Johnson says.

Officials are looking forward to the eventual completion of the West Alabama Corridor on Highway 43, a four-lane highway that would stretch from Thomasville to Tuscaloosa. Phase one is underway. A four-lane stretch already runs from Mobile to Thomasville; this new section would complete the entire stretch. It should open the door to more development in the west Alabama region, says Thomasville Mayor Sheldon Day, who has championed the effort.

The town of Coffeeville recently received a $400,000 community development block grant for a new roof on a former high school building that will be converted into a community center.

Clarke County schools have a new superintendent, Ashlie Flowers, the system’s former career tech coordinator.

City and county schools offer an array of career technical programs, individually, together and in partnership with Coastal Alabama Community College.

Conecuh County

The city of Evergreen, the county seat, has enjoyed retail success, thanks to a new strategy to build economic growth, says Jessica Dent, economic development director for Conecuh County Economic Development. The city has Tesla charging stations on its interstate exit and a Hampton Inn is under construction. This year, there will be a significant push on developing new housing and downtown revitalization, Dent says.

The city of Repton has finished improvements to its park, which includes a splash pad, playground equipment and activities for seniors, and it is about to revamp the former Robinson historic home into a community and welcome center, says Mayor Terry Carter. The welcome center can include a dog park and coffee for travelers and other special features, she says.

Conecuh County schools operate a successful workforce development center for grades 9-12 that includes programs ranging from agriscience to JROTC to welding, and students can take advantage of dual enrollment.

U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (center right) recently visited with school children, teachers and Stephanie Bryan (center left), CEO of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, on the reservation.

Escambia County 

Ground was broken recently for a $2.7 million renovation for the Escambia County High School athletic fieldhouse, and the high school recently opened an IT Academy that will prepare students for careers in technology. It was funded by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, partnering with Coastal Alabama Community College and NAF. The facility will teach programming, data analytics and AI.

In Brewton, the county seat, grants have allowed the city to manage several projects, including paving Bellevue Avenue, a new water tank, downtown water and sewer infrastructure updates and a new pickleball court. The city also just adopted its 5-year strategic plan.

A new community partnership is underway to build an Angel of Hope memorial in the city, a memorial for those trying to cope with the emotional and physical loss of their child. These memorials are located across the United States, inspired by the book and movie “The Christmas Box” by Richard Paul Evans.

In the city of Atmore, the Pride of Atmore, a group dedicated to economic revitalization and preservation of downtown Atmore, has completed its $5 million renovation of the Strand Theatre and Encore.

Also, the Atmore City Council voted recently to establish an “entertainment district” downtown that will offer more flexibility for patrons to walk between restaurants and businesses with open containers. And a $2.6 million citywide road resurfacing project was completed.

The city also purchased a new pumper truck for the Atmore Fire Department. And West Escambia Utilities recently was awarded a $1.4 million loan from Alabama Department of Environmental Management to repair and rehab the sewer system under downtown Atmore, officials say.

Escambia County schools offer the Escambia Career Readiness Center in Brewton, with nine programs serving students in both the county high schools and Brewton City Schools. Options range from automotive to health science to law and public safety and are frequently reviewed to make sure they stay relevant, says Sabrina Wilson, career technical director.

All students are required to earn a career readiness indicator, she says.

Monroe County

The city of Monroeville, the county seat and home of several events honoring the late novelist Harper Lee, is working on updating its strategic plan, says Mayor Charles Andrews. Monroeville is an Alabama Community of Excellence, and there always are plans to add amenities and services, along with events that attract visitors.

The city has added a pavilion to Veterans Park, and several new businesses have located downtown.

For the past few years, Billy Jones, owner of Crowne Healthcare that operates several nursing homes in the area and president of JWJ Investment Properties, has been purchasing empty buildings downtown and transforming them into lofts. He is now working to convert an old jail to four lofts. “There is a lot of demand,” he says. “Now, there are few available buildings on the square.” His company also is working on a wine store and pizza restaurant. The lofts are available for short-term rentals.

Anne Marie Bryan, Main Street Monroeville director, says there are eight new businesses in various stages in the city, and soon there will be a public/private partnership with a local developer for a new, as yet unnamed project.

Monroeville has its own incubator, The Small Box, a Main Street Alabama initiative and USDA funded, that helps pop-up businesses to “test the waters” for moving to a brick-and-mortar location, Bryan says. “We have one pop-up business in there now that will be moving to their new location by the end of the year.”

Monroe County schools have an active career technical center. The district also offers national credentialing opportunities and dual enrollment options.

This article appears in the March 2024 issue of Business Alabama.

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