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City planning needs more organization

In 2002 Elizabeth Driggers, then a driving force in Selma’s Planning and Development District, talked about the dream that was riverfront development. The city had received $500,000 to begin the planning, thanks to the drive of U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby on behalf of the city.

The idea had burgeoned years prior when Joe Smitherman was mayor. He talked about the benefits and value of the riverfront. As Driggers said in 2002, “You’ve got to provide things that will help bring people here, and this would do that.”

Mayor James Perkins Jr. hired an architect firm to produce an artist’s rendering of what the riverfront park would look like once it’s developed.

Flash forward six years. Chuck Kelly Jr. of Gresham Smith and Partners in Birmingham presented a master plan of what a river park in Selma could become. The architecture firm was not the one Perkins hired in 2002, but the work was accomplished. Everyone celebrated the completion of the plans and hailed the park as pulling people into town, acting as a catalyst for economic development in downtown Selma.

In June 2009, a group of notables turned dirt down by the river, announcing the beginning of construction of the river park. The first part of the construction would see about 2,300 linear feet of a 10-foot wide concrete walking path, a 50-foot timber bridge and two overlooks adjacent to the Alabama River.

Last week I walked down by that site. Grass is grown where the symbolic dirt was turned. There has yet to be any construction or burying of utilities along Water Avenue, another portion of the project.

An update of Community Development active and planned projects handed to the Selma City Council several weeks ago shows that property acquisition on the project lacks one piece of land. A bid for the riverwalk multi-use trail was awarded by the city council, but an official start date has yet to be announced.

The original master plan is now in its second or third incarnation with relocation of the amphitheater in the old warehouse down on the river behind 12 Stone. Architects said they will use the warehouse as a stage area.

When asked about the changes by the council, folks in the Community Development Department answered with “it’s just a plan.”

The river park is one of many projects in various stages across the city. Some of them have histories as long as the river park. Some of them do not.

Projects are by their nature very slow to mature. There’s getting money and bids and construction. That’s understandable.

But Selma seems to have more than its share of hanging project; of grants pushing deadlines or missing them. Paperwork seems to get lost or people just don’t know what to do.

These unfinished great ideas seem to indicate a need for organization in the city’s Planning and Development Department. Charlotte Griffeth is the only person who seems to have a grasp of what is going on. She’s assisted by Patty Sexton, who also answers questions at council meetings.

Some of this rests on the back of the council, which has a community development committee. The last person appointed to that committee by the late Geraldine Allen was now-council president Cecil Williamson. He did not hold a committee meeting the entire time he was chair.

When Williamson gave up the chairmanship of the committee recently, he passed it onto council member Bennie Ruth Crenshaw. While she has not held a public committee meeting, she did get the spreadsheet update on projects at Williamson’s request.

The council needs a work session with community development to discuss plainly the issues that prevent projects from moving forward with focus. If the department needs more people, then the council should work with Mayor George Evans to see an adequate number of people are employed. If the wrong people are in positions where their talents aren’t adequately used, then changes are required.

But first, people inside and outside city circles must quit talking about the so-called community development problem and work to straighten it out. There must be openness and honesty. Instead of presenting lots of diagrams and little discussion, Griffeth and Sexton must come out and give a full accounting. That’s the only way they’ll get the needed assistance.

Selma needs this project. It needs the marina. It needs those fuel pumps at the river that money has lingered for months just for the taking. It needs better signage. Downtown needs refurbishing.

Granted, great advancements on the Civil Rights Interpretive Center are under way. But what does the public know about the project? What does the council know about the project? What will the inside look like? Why is the first floor the only floor getting attention now?

Myriad questions.

Selma deserves answers.

Leesha Faulkner is editor of The Selma Times-Journal. You may reach her at 410-1730 or e-mail her at leesha.faulkner@selmatimesjournal.com.