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By Cary Estes for the Alabama Newscenter
Separately, the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle are nothing more than bits of randomly shaped cardboard. But when the pieces join through a coordinated effort, they transform into a beautiful picture.
That has been the case for the city of Montevallo in recent years, ever since graduating from the Alabama Communities of Excellence (ACE) program in 2009. About 40 miles south of Birmingham, Montevallo has long had many of the pieces needed for a thriving community: charming shops, a public liberal arts university, magnificent old homes, picturesque parks, a vibrant arts scene and historical attractions such as The American Village, a Colonial-era reproduction.
Seemingly the only thing missing was an organized plan to pull all the elements together. That has changed with the assistance of ACE, which works with smaller communities throughout the state to help them develop the programs and tools needed to ensure long-term success.
“ACE provided us with a platform to consolidate our vision as a community,” second-term Montevallo Mayor Hollie Cost said. “They brought us together to develop a strategic plan, and then we had direction. We had a real path for moving forward, so we were able to clearly define our goals as a community.”
At the top of that list was an increased level of cooperation throughout all levels of the city and beyond. That led to the creation in 2012 of the appropriately named Montevallo Development Cooperative District (MDCD), which operates in conjunction with the University of Montevallo and Shelby County.
The MDCD also provided matching funds with the Alabama Department of Transportationfor the city’s current $4 million streetscape project along Main Street through the heart of downtown, which includes replacing utility lines and installing fiber optics with an eventual goal of citywide Wi-Fi.
“So instead of just laying down a sidewalk, we put conduit under the sidewalk so we can plan for the future,” Cost said. “Our downtown is the face of the city, and we weren’t putting our best foot forward because we didn’t have the funding or the organization. ACE helped us get organized in that respect. Now we’re improving the infrastructure and enhancing the beauty of downtown.”
Under the MDCD, the city’s cooperation with the University of Montevallo has led to the construction of a new women’s softball complex at Orr Park, as well as an NCAA-regulation track-and-field facility that is used by the university but also is open to the public. These types of collaborations have enabled the city to start filling in the missing pieces in terms of economic development and an improved quality of life.
“The Montevallo Development Cooperative District has worked beautifully for us,” said Dee Woodham, a former Montevallo city councilwoman who heads the MDCD. “The key is you have to have a lot of trust and a lot of cooperation. These decisions don’t go back to the City Council or the County Commission or the board of trustees. Instead, they have to all work together to get things done.”
Bringing students downtown
The MDCD’s first project was called Montevallo on Main. The city purchased an abandoned building on Main Street and renovated it to create classrooms for the university. Now, about 800 students each day make the short trip from campus to the downtown area, where they often visit local merchants before or after class. Many of those students – along with university faculty and staff – take part in a prepaid meal card program that can be used at participating off-campus restaurants.
“From a business standpoint, having 800 college students get away from campus and come downtown on a daily basis is huge,” said Steve Gilbert, executive director of the Montevallo Chamber of Commerce. “Most of them are going to buy something while they’re here, even if it’s just a soda. And then the meal card has had a tremendous economic impact, over $250,000 in the first year.
“It took a coordinated effort on the part of the university, the business community and the chamber for this to happen,” he said. “We had to go to these restaurants and explain what we were doing and get them involved. Other restaurants saw the economic impact and have bought into it. We’re always looking for partnerships like that.”
These types of alliances helped Montevallo address an erosion problem at Shoal Creek in Orr Park. The city received advice and funding from a wide variety of sources – including the Freshwater Land Trust, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Arbor and Beautification Board, the Montevallo Water and Sewer Boardand the University of Montevallo – before building a stone retaining wall and adding erosion-controlling trees and bushes.
“That was a great collaboration,” Woodham said. “It’s just an example of how you can accomplish so much more when you’re working together and pulling in the same direction than you can by yourself.
Becoming a hangout
Montevallo’s younger residents are getting involved as well. University and high school students worked with the Montevallo Junior City Councilto craft a petition to bring a Taco Bellto the city, and sure enough, the fast-food chain is opening a location on Main Street this year.
“I encourage our youth to come and tell us when they have concerns about anything,” Cost said. “That’s who we’re building the city for. So we want their input. We want to make sure that what we’re building is something that’s going to interest our youth.”
That is part of the reason the city is embracing its reputation as an artistic community, with projects aimed at making the downtown area more visually appealing. This effort has only increased since Montevallo was added to the Main Street Alabamarevitalization program last year. Colorful murals now decorate the sides of three downtown buildings, several businesses were given $500 grants to be used for improved signs and entrances, and the city has helped design window displays for existing businesses and vacant buildings.
“We’re bringing color and vibrancy to our downtown,” said Sarah Hogan, executive director of Montevallo Main Street. “We want downtown to be a place that’s not only thriving for the business community, but is a place where people want to hang out.”
A better place
All these improvements caught the attention of one longtime Montevallo resident. In November 2013, Elizabeth Mahler donated her family’s 167-acre estate and antebellum home to the city. A group of volunteers has started developing a hiking trail on the land, and a foundation has been formed to determine what the city should do with the rest of the property. Ideas include a teaching farm, an arts community, an event facility, an amphitheater and even zip lines.
“We consider that property to be a great treasure and want to treat it as such,” Cost said. “Ms. Mahler’s gift was a direct result of what we’ve been doing in town. She clearly said she wanted to donate that property to us because she was impressed with what we’ve been doing as a city and how we’re moving forward.
“So we’re getting a lot of interest and attention because we’ve been taking care of the city. We’re trying to make Montevallo a better place for people to live.”
Which, when you get right down to it, is the most important piece of them all.
To learn more about ACE, visit https://www.alabamacommunitiesofexcellence.org/.