Our upcoming AIF series will be focused on the hyper-local geography of prosperity and, with an eye toward the future, will urge each community to frame its own assets and challenges in order to intimately imagine new futures for the community by asking the question: What’s Next?

At the dawn of the 21st century, we’re confronted with many different Alabamas.

As the state approaches its bicentennial anniversary, we are called to look back at the past two centuries of shared history in order to imagine and create new futures for our state. The state of the State that has emerged in the past sixteen years is one deeply bifurcated between the stasis of historical habitus and the kinetic dynamism of innovative futures.

While the metropoles of Birmingham, Huntsville, and Mobile are poised for unprecedented growth and economic relevance, those building a life beyond these major metropolitan areas have suffered tremendously as small town economies have been decimated, and capital has become more concentrated in big cities and vast suburbs.

There are at least two Alabamas — one rural and one (sub)urban — but there are as many as 67, and the DMC is making it a point to see each and every one of these in our upcoming AIF series, which will find us in each of our great state’s 67 counties over the next two years.

In each community, the DMC will facilitate three individual forums, each reflexively-focused on one of the following questions:

  1. Where are we now?
  2. Where do we want to go?
  3. How do we get there?

We hope to equip local communities with the deliberative tools necessary to engage these questions through an infrastructural framework.

Specifically, we encourage communities to take an asset-based approach to considering three types of infrastructure:

  1. Physical Infrastructurethis includes the “roads, water, gas, electricity, and sewers are necessary to support economic growth.”
  2. Human Infrastructure — including quality schools, robust workforce development, access to healthcare, and economic opportunities.
  3. Civic Infrastructure — which “mobilizes the knowledge, talents, and perspectives of every segment of the community and builds strong connections and partnerships among community stakeholders. Programs of government, schools, churches, the business community, and others, operate in concert with one another, rather than independently.”

It is our hope that these divergent — yet overlapping — conceptions of infrastructure will allow forum participants to craft locally-relevant, community-driven responses to the question of “What’s Next?”

Where are we now?

This question will be the topic of our first forum in each community.

Alabama’s story, while unique, also reflects larger national economic trends; our state, like many others, has been decimated by the decline of manufacturing and the outflow of vital industries like iron and — most recently — steel.

While the state has made great strides in attracting auto and aircraft manufacturers, these “high skill” jobs are not enough to make up for the number of jobs lost, and employers often have a hard time finding a labor force with the education and skills needed to work in such high-tech industries. Additionally, these high-tech jobs tend to be concentrated in or near large metropolitan areas, and the growth of these urban and suburban centers is only one side of an emergent demographic trend that spells disaster for rural counties in Alabama.

Of the top six counties projected to grow the most over the next twenty-five years, all are home to a large metropolitan city, or county-adjacent to one. Of the top six counties expected to shrink the most over the next twenty-five years, all are rural.

So, when we ask “What’s Next, Alabama?” we need to specify which Alabama we are talking about. The state of rural Alabama is not the state of (sub)urban Alabama; the problems facing a family in Hale County are not the same problems faced by families in downtown Birmingham. Our duty throughout this AIF series is to pay deference to the many Alabamas that exist right now, and to make time to sit down, have a conversation, and hear the vernacular experiences and ideas of all Alabamians.

Where do we want to go?

This question will be the topic of our second forum in each community.

Conventional wisdom and common sense tells us that Alabama needs a diversified economy — one that is not over-reliant on any one industry. But what does that diversified economy look like in individual communities across the state? Is it the same in Sand Mountain as it is across the Black Belt or on the Gulf Shore? No.

So how can we as Alabamians play an active role in shaping a future that ensures that “the economy” is not just something that happens to us, but is something that is created by us? There is no lack of imagination or ideas about Alabama’s future, or what the state should aspire to become; there is, however, a dearth of opportunities for Alabamians from all walks of life to come together and engage each other in conversations about our state’s future, and how we as Alabamians can play an active role in improving our local economies.

“What’s Next, Alabama?” hopes to provide these opportunities for civic dialogue by making space and time for thoughtful, deliberative conversations about the economic future of our state. Throughout this two-year forum series, we hope not only to foster conversation, but to catalyze community-based actions and solutions that are tailor-made for addressing the variety of economic challenges facing all 67 counties.

How do we get there?

This question will be the topic of our final forum in each community.

That’s for Alabamians to decide. The purpose of the AIF forums is to give them the opportunity to come together in order to:

  • Better understand the issues involved.
  • Consider the benefits and drawbacks of different approaches that emerge.
  • Identify actions that can be supported with time, energy, and resources.
  • Identify next steps for discussion and action.

These community dialogues are intended as starting points aimed at encouraging further discussions about how we as Alabamians can help create a diverse and vibrant economy with the capacity to adapt to 21st century opportunities, challenges, and changes.

By Justin Wayne Lutz with eternal gratitude to the work of Betty Knighton and the W.V. Center for Civic Life.