On Feb. 13, I marked my first anniversary back at the Daily Mountain Eagle, without much fanfare. (Recall that I was here in Walker County from 2003 to 2009.) But before too much time passes, I decided after a year it was time to state some major things that we probably need to focus on in Walker County. I probably could have gone on, but I realize how long the column is, so maybe I will revisit this soon, but here are some ideas that might be useful after some consideration ...
• First, we have to get the county’s finances shored up. I know, we voted on it. Trust me, you got the commission’s attention, and they have been re-evaluating everything, taking some actions. And, yes, they made their first principal payment. But everyone looking at it knows that the overall situation is not going to be solved by cutting waste. The debt is too big, and the road situation is going to get worse due to the efficiency of cars and other fuel conservation measures that have shrunk gas revenue. State and federal officials talk about the same problem on their levels, and to deal with roads, it will likely take more revenue.
The difference this time is that (a.) you can go back and look at property tax and revenue such as that, and (b.) this can’t be a give-something-for-everyone approach. First, pay the debt. Maybe not all at once, but speed up the payments. A lot. Maybe pay it off in three years or something like that, but pay it off. What is left over, give it to roads so that we can have decent repairs and maintenance. Although, let’s look at one other thing ...
• If I had to possibly add one more thing, it would be one-time money to set up courthouse security, which could cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars in one-time money. Officials don’t want to talk much about this subject, because it would expose weaknesses in the courthouse that are too costly for them to solve. They could move on from there with security for year-to-year, but they are nervous they don’t have the funds to do the initial work.
I think we have to get this resolved, one way or another. Frankly, the state should provide some funding, and I think some other grants might could be available. I don’t know what funds are available through the local courts and the sheriff, but I imagine they would have taken action by now if they had enough. But even if a one-time slice needs to be provided in new revenue, it needs to be done as a security issue, although other resources should be found first. (If possible, any new revenue pretty much needs to be kept to debt and roads.) It is hard to know what to review about it all as the plans have not been made public, but I can tell you that whatever needs to be done on the upfront needs to be done before we have the networks camped out in front of the courthouse. I’ve lived through it in Hamilton, and, trust me, a mass shooting can happen at our courthouse.
• I’m about ready to say to heck with the feds and the state and everyone else on the drug crisis. We all talk about it and we need to do something about it; it is ruining this area. We need what I can’t call anything else but a blue ribbon panel, except with a hometown crowd it feels a little upscale to call it that. Suffice it, we need people from the county, the cites, the courts, the law enforcement, the hospitals, the medical clinics, the social agencies, the industrialists, retail managers, and so on. We need to sit down and figure some solutions on what we can do locally to cut back on the prescriptions for the opioids and the like, how to improve treatment, how to improve the workplace conditions — what could be done now to do some things. And I am sure some solutions cannot be performed on the local level, and some items are being done. But I think if we all claim that it is the biggest problem that we have in the county, it makes no sense why we don’t all meet together to look for solutions. I don’t know who needs to call that meeting together — possible leaders could be Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed and the legislative delegation, U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, Walker County Commission Chairman Jerry Bishop, Jasper Mayor David O’Mary, or even David Knight, the executive director of the Walker County Development Authority, or Linda Lewis, the head of the Chamber of Commerce of Walker County, as this threatens economic development. But somehow we need a countywide plan of action instead of sitting around whining about the problem and letting the opioids, the meth and whatever else control our destiny instead of us try at least to control it.
• I won’t dwell about it long, but once again we need that state welcome center built at the state line with Mississippi to take advantage of the tourism trade for our county. I may be the lone voice in the wilderness about this, but with thousands of people coming through the area, it makes no sense to push for it to benefit our region.
• We need public Wi-Fi in more public places in Walker County, especially at restaurants. I am still amazed Jasper has an entertainment district bringing in all these people on a regular basis, while the city hosts a major community college and we can’t spring for public Wi-Fi at many of the top establishments, even government offices. That is no longer a matter of being on the technological edge — that is just being behind in a major way that is embarrassing.
• Perhaps find a way to place a regional movie theater on I-22 in Walker County. Frankly, as movie theaters have gone digital, movie theaters are not cheap, which is why I do hesitate to mention this. But there is such a desire to bring back a movie theater as a place to take your family, and one has to drive such a distance to find a movie theater, I think it would be worth the time of a developer to look into a new theater. I can assure you they would come from surrounding counties, and with restaurants and maybe shops also around them at the interstate, the business model might work. But it will take some doing. Frankly, with so much talk about space at the Jasper Mall, I would even think converting some of that space into a multi-screen would be a valuable option.
• We do need to address litter, and I know saying this I am borrowing a little from Bishop, as he tells me he wants to have an emphasis on finding ways to deal with the litter problem. I think that is a capital idea, but all the citizens need to buy into this idea again and rejuvenate efforts to clean up the roads and teach it in the schools. I say this because I know from the late 1960s and early 1970s that anti-litter efforts undertaken by students was brought home to the parents, and they took up the issue for a while, too. If we get the students involved, the parents will get involved, and then it would spread to civic clubs, churches and the like.
• So much has been done to revitalize downtown Jasper that the long-term next step needs to start at the drawing boards. That is simply that we need to find ways to upgrade Highway 118 (or old Highway 78) with consistent signage, street lights, traffic lights, trees and the like, in conjunction with the Alabama Department of Transportation. This project could go from the Parkland area to the Cordova Cut-off, although it will take some deep thinking in terms of grants, funding, planning and the like. But for many who have felt that area has been overlooked, I don’t think it has been — but the priorities now naturally lead to addressing the needs that they face as well.