Whether it’s completing a sidewalk project or arguing in favor of new zoning rules, a number of community groups have sprouted around Mobile to help accomplish neighborhood goals.
Based on the success of the Village of Spring Hill, members of groups such as Mobile Midtown Movement, The Peninsula of Mobile and the Africatown Community Development Corp. have been active in recent years trying to make positive changes to their communities.
Linda St. John, president of the Village of Spring Hill, said the group started about 11 years ago as a gathering of concerned citizens who wanted to do something about the abandoned commercial buildings in the area near their homes.
“It all started as a grassroots effort of just a few people who felt the community was getting rundown,” she said. “It was just an effort from a small group of people who felt it could be better.”
The group made some calls and placed signs advertising a meeting to discuss the issue. St. John said she was surprised by the turnout at that initial meeting, as more than 600 people showed up.
“Everybody thought what we were thinking,” she said. “The timing was so right and everybody cared.”
From there, St. John had members rank the top five things they’d like to see the group do and installing sidewalks was the top issue. The Village of Spring Hill has since tried to do a sidewalk project each year in order to better connect the community.
Each year the group sponsors a sidewalk-a-thon, where children go door-to-door soliciting donations from residents. A program St. John admits she didn’t think would raise more than about $1,000 has been essential to placing sidewalks in the community.
“The first year it raised $20,000,” she said. “It was unbelievable, so successful.”
The program helps provide the 20 percent match needed for grants to place sidewalks and the roughly $18,000 or so needed for the engineering and design work each time.
In addition to sidewalks, the Village of Spring Hill has been integral in moving the community forward through a neighborhood development plan with optional zoning regulations.
“Thanks to [the Village of Spring Hill’s] efforts there are miles of new sidewalks and improved intersections, pocket parks, lighting, treescapes and much more,” Council President Gina Gregory, who represents the area, wrote in an email. “I have had the pleasure of partnering with [Spring Hill] since the beginning, helping with funding for projects and as an advocate.”
Another group that has successfully developed its own plan is the Peninsula of Mobile, led by Debi Foster. The lack of sidewalks in and around Dauphin Island Parkway was a big issue for the group. Foster said the group recently got its own transportation grant, in cooperation with the city, to fill in gaps in the sidewalk coverage in front of two schools, Gilliard Elementary and B.C. Rain High School.
Councilman C.J. Small provided the group with the $20,000 to $40,000 match through capital improvement money, while the entire grant provided $185,000 for sidewalks.
“It’s called the ‘miracle mile’ in the master plan,” Foster said. “It’s like a central business district.”
For Foster, the proliferation of these community groups has fallen in line with budget issues and was highlighted by a tremendous backlog of capital improvement projects the council and Mayor Sandy Stimpson are currently working through.
“I think at some point in time over the past 20 years, the general citizenry of Mobile has gotten tired of waiting,” she said.
“We reached a point in time where we had to find another way and take matters into our own hands.”
Foster said the groups in Mobile are becoming more popular at a time when there’s a movement toward nonprofits nationwide.
“Government can’t be expected to do everything … solve everything,” she said. “I’ve been on that side of the table.”
St. John said she’s noticed an increase in the number of community groups, as members of the Village of Spring Hill board have helped several move forward with plans of their own.
“I believe it’s important every community has an interest in wanting to improve their place,” she said. “It can only make the city stronger.”
It’s not just about infrastructure, either. Councilman Fred Richardson said if it hadn’t been for a community group in Crichton and Toulminville, the new fire station design wouldn’t have included a meeting room.
“If I hadn’t had those voices, we wouldn’t be getting that meeting room,” RIchardson said.
Councilman Levon Manzie said the myriad groups in his district are very helpful in accomplishing community-based goals.
“I welcome it,” he said. “Any city that isn’t sensitive to the wants and desires of residents is a city destined to fail.”
Change should start at the community level, Manzie said; it shouldn’t be a top-down approach.
While some groups have gone so far as to actually provide grants or funding for infrastructure improvements, Manzie said even when the city has the money, as it does through its CIP program, all groups help advocate for their communities when it comes time to spend it.
“They are helpful in shaping how we spend some of those resources,” Manzie said.
On that same note, Councilman John Williams said various community groups can help councilors prioritize projects. The groups can also focus on projects in an individual neighborhood.
“They are able to accomplish things that would take more time, or more money,” Williams said. “They are the same as a quasi-government facilitator. Really, that’s what they are. They may not be elected … but they are organized citizens and that’s all government is.”
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