The town of Thomasville sits about 100 miles away from Mobile to the south, Montgomery to the east and Tuscaloosa to the north. Some might say this places the rural community in the middle of nowhere. Longtime Thomasville Mayor Sheldon Day prefers to say that the city actually is “in the center of everything.”
Indeed, since graduating from the Alabama Communities of Excellence program in 2005, Thomasville has proved to be a magnet attracting people from throughout the region. They are drawn by an innovative career-readiness program, a vibrant arts and recreation scene and other big accomplishments that belie Thomasville’s small size (population of about 5,000).
The ACE program helps small towns such as Thomasville identify and maximize their attributes to strengthen long-term economic success. Day, who is in his 21st year as Thomasville mayor, said the city has thrived under the direction of ACE, partly by learning how to work together to achieve wide-ranging goals.
“Even before ACE, we’ve always tried to make sure that everybody in our community – schools, businesses, City Council, Chamber of Commerce – is on the same page and doing what they can in their niche to make our community the best it can be,” Day said. “Once we got involved in the ACE program, we were able to take that to a whole new level in a way we never would have been able to do by ourselves. Small towns need guidance on how to accomplish things, and ACE provided the catalyst to pull all our personalities together and make the progress we needed.”
The progress is being noticed far beyond the Thomasville city limits. For example, in February the Thomasville Public Library opened a career-readiness help desk, helping job seekers and people needing additional education or training. Visitors have access to computers that are connected with the Alabama JobLink network, which shows jobs available within a 50-mile radius and is updated weekly. Library officials assist with such tasks as creating a resume, filling out a job application and finding continuing-education opportunities.
“People are coming here because we are offering a service that most rural libraries don’t have,” said Martha Gramelspacher, the library’s Adult Services coordinator. “A lot of them don’t have access to the internet at home, or a way to print or scan things. So people can use our Wi-Fi and printer. They can have someone teach them how to download their resume and then upload it on an employer site. This is a tremendous service for these people.”
Day said the program has been so popular that the library expects to have more than 50,000 visitors this year, with about 75 percent of them using the career-readiness service. That is the main reason the city plans to relocate the library into a two-story building downtown. Day said the move will quadruple the library’s existing space and allow the creation of a dedicated career-readiness department with more than 30 computers.
Thomasville is actively preparing the next generation of workers through a variety of programs and initiatives. High school, middle school and some elementary school students are provided their own computers they keep throughout the school year. There is a “Geek Squad” of students in the fifth through seventh grades who are charged with doing basic maintenance on school computers. And dual-enrollment opportunities between Thomasville High School and Coastal Alabama Community College provide college credit to high school students.
“We’re preparing our students for industry. We’re preparing them for the future,” Day said. “We’ve been trying to take things to the next level. A lot of that planning was using the ACE program to sit down, talk with our schools and put all those pieces into one collaborative plan and effort.”
This type of forward thinking coming out of Thomasville has helped make the entire region more enticing to businesses, such as China’s Golden Dragon Precise Copper Tube Group, which in 2014 opened a 50,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in nearby Pine Hill. The plant expanded its local workforce from 260 employees in 2016 to 330 this year, and the company recently held a job fair in Thomasville with plans to add another 30 employees.
“Thomasville is small but very progressive,” said KC Pang, vice president of Corporate Affairs for GD Copper. “They have been very helpful in bringing us to this community. Whatever we need in terms of help – especially in getting good, quality employees – they’re always here for us. I am really impressed by what they have done and continue to do.
“We are a company from China, and we don’t know the culture and system here very well,” Pang said. “So the partnership with Thomasville is very important. I call them our free consultants. They pretty much held our hands during the first year, in terms of getting to know the area and the community, and in opening doors for us. I don’t think we could be where we are today without the partnership with the city of Thomasville.”
A well-rounded community
Jobs are not the only thing bringing people to Thomasville. The city provides enhancements ranging from theater productions by the Arts Council of Thomasville, to a children’s park and community garden that were created largely through public participation.
“We’ve really worked hard to become a well-rounded community, and that includes the arts as well as area renovations,” Day said. “A lot of the ACE programs are quality-of-life programs, and we’ve tried to expand our role in that and create more things for people to do here.”
As a result, Thomasville has a local theater troupe and a community band. The two groups combine each year to put on a major musical production at the Civic Center. This year’s show is “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” with nearly 50 actors on stage – ranging in age from 9 to 73 – and 14 musicians in the orchestra pit.
The Arts Council and Thomasville High School hold smaller productions, and the band – which has more than 100 members – performs concerts throughout the year. All these performances draw audiences from Thomasville and the surrounding counties.
“The theater is in its 13th year and the orchestra is in its ninth, and they’ve gotten much bigger from our humble beginnings,” said Karen Dean, Civic Center director and artistic director for the Arts Council of Thomasville. “We have always thought that big dreams grow in small towns.
“We feel about the arts like we do about our sports,” Dean said. “It’s important. It gets you out. There’s something to root for. People can come to the theater and watch people they know on stage, and you’re rooting for them to do well. Plus, you’re also entertained.”
A better downtown
Thomasville has received several grants in recent years to help with downtown revitalization projects, including the construction of new sidewalks and improvements to city streets, lighting and the water system.
“Because of those improvements, we’re now seeing people reinvest in their homes and businesses in those areas,” Day said. “So our investment has spurred other investments.”
Perhaps the best examples of community cooperation are the creation of the town playground and community garden, both of which were handled primarily by volunteers. The playground, which includes two areas for children ages 2 to 5 (The Tot Lot) and 6 to 12 (The Kid Spot), was a $350,000 project that required extensive fundraising and construction. Plans are underway for a second phase that will include a walking trail, picnic pavilions and restrooms.
“The playground project has been fantastic, to see so many people in our community working together,” said Amy Prescott, executive director of the Thomasville Chamber of Commerce. “People volunteered their time. They were out there cutting wood and painting. It was an amazing project that involved everybody pulling together. Those types of partnerships that we have throughout the community are a huge asset to us.”
It is all part of what Day calls “the Thomasville team,” a combination of city officials and motivated residents who are dedicated to improving their town. After all, to them, Thomasville is the center of everything.