Heflin is happening, thanks to Alabama Communities of Excellence

By Cary Estes for the Alabama Newscenter

Heflin City Clerk Shane Smith stands near the entrance of Cahulga Creek Park on the edge of town and points toward the picturesque tree-covered mountain ridge before him. Less than five miles away, through part of the Talladega National Forest, the popular Pinhoti Trail passes by on its way toward the Georgia state line.

“We want to connect the Pinhoti trail to this park, so we can get more hikers to come off the trail and have easy access to our downtown,” Smith said. “We’re working with the Pinhoti Trail Alliance to try to make that happen.”

Actually, this small east-central Alabama town with a population of less than 4,000 is willing to work with nearly anybody to make things happen. Ever since graduating from the Alabama Communities of Excellence program in 2007, Heflin officials have embraced the ACE approach of establishing connections with a variety of entities, and then collaborating toward a common goal to strengthen the town’s long-term economic success.

“One of the things we try to do is partner with everybody we can,” said Smith, who is Heflin’s ACE coordinator. “Small communities can’t do it alone. You have to reach out to everybody and work together as a group, instead of trying to do it by yourself. That’s very important to us.”

Cahulga Creek Park is an ideal example of how such partnerships can pay off. Locals used to refer to the area as “the watershed,” an overgrown piece of land that few people visited. But with the support of businesses (including Alabama Power), government agencies and educational institutions, the park is now landscaped and lively.

Working together

Among the changes at the park that are either completed or in the works are a 5,670-yard disc golf course, an educational classroom for environmental and outdoor recreation programs, new signs and fencing, and possibly a facility to offer canoe and kayak rentals.

Something as simple as installing poles that can be used to support hammocks enhances the park for locals and visitors alike. “That’s something that doesn’t cost much, but can be beneficial to a lot of people,” Heflin Parks Programs and Facilities Manager Jon Swafford said.

“This is beautiful land with so many great views where people can relax. What we’re trying to do is take what we already have here and make it even better.”

That also is the goal of Abby Minter, executive director of the Cleburne County Chamber of Commerce (Heflin is the county seat). She works with local businesses to organize events that promote merchants. Examples include the Cleburne County Fair (which attracted about 8,500 people last year), the Cleburne County Farmers Market, a back-to-school fashion show involving local clothing stores, and downtown parades and festivals tied to such holidays as St. Patrick’s Day, the Fourth of July and Halloween.

“We bring people into the county with these events and show off all the assets that we have,” Minter said. “Our businesses will set up booths and give out information and let people know what we have to offer here. The biggest thing is making those connections with people.

“As a community, we get together all the time and build those relationships and decide what’s our common goal, and what can we do to make that happen,” she said. “We do the same thing with our businesses. They have something to offer; now how can we promote it? It’s all about getting everybody on the same page. I’ve found that if we have an idea and can get together with a partner that has the same goal, we can pretty much make it happen.”

Building business

City officials are working to bring in new businesses through the creation in 2015 of the Department of Economic Development, which operates in conjunction with Heflin’s Industrial Development Board. They recently recruited Cullman-based Rusken Packaging to set up a satellite location in a vacant 186,000-square-foot manufacturing plant just north of downtown. The workforce at the facility will consist of 25 current Rusken employees and 15 new positions.

Heflin Mayor Rudy Rooks points out that for a town of its size, even a modest increase in jobs can have a significant impact on tax revenues. “That’s how cities grow and prosper,” Hooks said. “But nobody is just going to show up and build a plant here. You have to go after businesses. So we made a conscious effort to really pursue economic development by creating a new department and hiring an economic developer (Tanya Maloney), and it has really paid off.”

Maloney and the seven-member Industrial Development Board created an economic-development strategy that aligns with the state’s Accelerate Alabama plan, with a focus on recruitment, retention and renewal.

Under the retention category is the “Keep It In Cleburne” campaign, which promotes local shops and encourages residents to support those businesses. Maloney said sales tax revenue increased 30 percent last year after the campaign was put in place.

“While we definitely want to recruit new businesses, the biggest potential for growth is through the industries that already exist here, helping them to flourish and grow,” Maloney said. “We have created those relationships now. We have an active committee that is speaking to our business community on a regular basis, helping them grow their knowledge and, hopefully, eventually expand their businesses.”

Meanwhile, in the renewal category, Heflin was designated as a Main Street Alabama city in 2016. The nonprofit organization assists communities with all aspects of downtown revitalization, from renovating abandoned buildings to improving landscaping.

Going for the ‘wow’ effect

Heflin, the smallest of the 20 Main Street towns in Alabama, is restoring one of its oldest downtown buildings – the former Heflin Recreation Pool Hall and Café – and the city hired a director of beautification to oversee the landscaping.

“We have this highway (U.S. 78) that goes right through downtown, and we have a ton of people who pass through,” said Beverly Casey, chair of the Heflin Planning and Zoning Commission and the Design Committee. “We want those people to go, ‘Wow, look at this great little community. Let’s stop and go in that shop and have lunch at that diner.’ So we’re working on the aesthetic things that we need to consider within the downtown area.”

Nearly all these improvements in Heflin have occurred since the city received ACE status, and city officials credit the program with making many of the changes possible.

“It was ACE that really got us started several years ago,” Maloney said. “That’s what created this leadership to let us capitalize on the passion of the citizens here, and gave us a strategic approach to moving this town forward. ACE shows you how to do big things with little resources.”