Civic leaders, volunteers and organizers from 10 coastal communities met in Coden last week to discuss the future of the South Mobile County Community Development Corporation (SMCDC) as the newly formed group works to bring a “formal voice” to a largely unincorporated area.

It was only last fall SMCDC applied for and received a nonprofit designation from the IRS, but the group is currently laying the groundwork for its mission to connect communities to programs and services that “promote and support community development.”

Last week, Lagniappe spoke with Ret. Col. Roosevelt Lewis, a Coden resident who currently serves as president of CDC’s board of directors. Ten years removed from Katrina and only five years after the BP oil spill, Lewis said there are still a lot of needs “south of Interstate 10.”

“It’s so important our people have hope, and there’re so many folks down here who lost an awful lot,” Lewis said. “We have a number of communities that are not incorporated, so they’re left out of the major discussions that go on in terms of the political needs and solutions to difficulties that might arise.”

Dr. Michael Magnoli, Executive Director of the South Mobile County Community Development Cooperation.

Dr. Michael Magnoli, Executive Director of the South Mobile County Community Development Cooperation.

The reach of SMCDC includes larger communities like Bayou La Batre and Dauphin Island that have established municipal governments, but also areas like Belle Fontaine, Coden, Dixon Corner, Fowl River, Irvington, Grand Bay, Mon Louis Island and St. Elmo — places Lewis says often lack the “formal voice” to make their needs known.

On March 23, the SMCDC held its first summit with civic organizers, business owners, academic representatives and environmentalists to start a conversation about how each community’s needs might fit into the SMCDC vision of “community development, economic development and environmental resiliency.”

The SMCDC board comprises seven members, including teachers, business owners, community planners and academics with ties to the area. The board is unpaid, and so far the only staff member, Executive Director Dr. Michael Magnoli, is also uncompensated.

Lewis described the group as “facilitators,” and said its role is not to tell communities what to do, but to act as a hub connecting all 10 to one another and to outside programs and resources.

“We’re here simply to help all these communities,” Magnoli said last week. “Our role is to bring them together because problems going on in one area are likely going on in another.”

Needs, opportunities in South Mobile County

At the meeting last week, several points were raised including a need for more affordable housing and educational resources like technology, literacy, art and cultural programs.

Others discussed finding opportunities to market the area and take advantage of its unique natural and cultural resources. Board member George Crozier, former director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, described some tourism projects as “low-hanging fruit” that could easily be used to tie communities together.

“The Scenic Byway starts in Grand Bay and runs through Dauphin Island, but the weekend it was supposed to be announced was the weekend of Katrina,” Crozier said. “It’s still there. It’s on the books, but no one has ever marketed it.”

Crozier said revamping the Byway is one possible way to make the area marketable for those already in the region to visit the beaches and birding trails on Dauphin Island. He said it could have an economic benefit “if the communities choose to take advantage of it.”

Lewis has expressed similar ideas, saying each of the communities has something to offer in terms of tourism, even though individually they might not have enough pull to draw tourists in on their own.

According to Lewis, connecting a foot race in Irvington, fishing along Mobile Bay, kayaking in Bayou La Batre and other attractions could create a viable ecotourism opportunity he believes could bring growth and development without affecting the area’s quality of life.

“We understand folks don’t want too much tourism,” Lewis said. “But, we have received amazing support for the idea of sustainable tourism with the understanding that it brings jobs and opportunity for the people here and doesn’t destroy the heritage and the environment they’re used to.”

In addition to tourism, affordable housing was another subject discussed at length — something people in Coden and Bayou La Batre identified as a need. Magnoli has already been working with business leaders and city officials in Bayou La Batre to identify and connect interested homebuyers to U.S. Department of Agriculture loan programs.

A USDA representative discussed low-income mortgage programs for new homes with subsidized rates as low as 1 percent, the type of program Lewis said could be utilized to increase the number of “rooftops” in these coastal communities.

“You’ll see major traffic congestion on a Friday evening, but then you’ll realize there’s a paycheck leaving out of the Bayou to go somewhere else,” Lewis said. “For every dollar someone spends, there’s a possibility of six times that going back into the community, and we can’t have that in South Mobile County until we have more rooftops in these communities.”

Funding the SMCDC
As a registered nonprofit, the SMCDC is funded through grants and donations. While Magnoli said it’s still early in the process to focus heavily on fundraising, the organization could get a big boost from BP funds if a suggested project gets the green light from the Gulf Coast Recovery Council.

In December, Magnoli submitted a $500,000 request for RESTORE Act funding related to planning and development for the SMCDC and ecotourism project opportunities.

“This project will help stabilize the incomes of approximately 800 families in South Mobile County [through the] creation of ecotourism jobs to supplement shipbuilding, farming and seafood harvesting,” Magnoli’s proposal reads.

The project submission lists the cities of Bayou La Batre and Dauphin Island as partners as well as the University of South Alabama, which has already provided research interns to SMCDC to help identify ecotourism opportunities in each of the 10 communities.

More information about the organization, its mission and board members is available at southmobilecountycdc.org.