Shaping the Future

Posted: January 27, 2021, 12:00 am

Wiregrass Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) program strengthens area through grants and programs

The inaugural LEAD Wiregrass class celebrated its graduation in early December. The program shapes the leadership skills of budding industry and community leaders.

Serving as the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development director for Alabama, Ronnie Davis, managed resources across a wide spectrum of subjects and levels of government.

Shortly after he became the executive director of the Wiregrass Resource Conservation and Development Council — known as Wiregrass RC&D — Davis identified one thing that regionally needed improvement: collaboration.

“We serve 10 counties in Southeast Alabama,” he says. “We have a distribution system for grant money that we give out every year. Then we have community development money. In dealing with all that, we discovered there are some weaknesses in people working together.”

The remedy: LEAD Wiregrass, a program that uses meetings and events to network professionals in an effort to produce the next generation of leaders. Wiregrass Electric Cooperative (WEC) has been a staunch supporter of the program, and its corporate headquarters served as a meeting location in October.

“Our communities are only as strong and as good as the people who lead them,” says WEC Chief Operating Officer Brad Kimbro. “If you don’t have good leaders, you won’t grow. LEAD Wiregrass helps train leaders and encourages them to be involved.”

How the Program Works

Wiregrass RC&D serves a territory that stretches from Russell to Covington counties. Dozens of communities that have a wide variety of resources and a wide array of challenges are in the 6,781-square-mile footprint.

“We have a lot of poverty areas in this state, but we also have a lot of prosperity in this state,” Davis says.

A Wiregrass Resource Conservation and Development grant helped fund this mural and other improvements at Ashford’s McArthur Park.

The LEAD Wiregrass meetings present Wiregrass RC&D a chance to gather budding leaders from these communities to discuss challenges and solutions. WEC Manager of Corporate Services Robbie Daniels graduated from the first LEAD Wiregrass class in December, and he notes that the opportunity has significantly impacted him and his fellow classmates.

“We’re taking the information that we’ve gathered from each other — what’s going on in each other’s communities — and sharing that with our own communities to try to improve them,” he says.

The networking opportunities allow professionals in one industry to glimpse challenges and opportunities in other industries. This knowledge helps the participants know where resources are that can help their communities address significant projects.

“This helps them figure out the political process — what’s available and what’s involved in getting to the resources,” Kimbro says. “This encourages them to be involved in their communities.”

In addition to the networking opportunities, the presentations LEAD Wiregrass class members experience always teach several components of leadership, Daniels says. For example, one presentation at WEC focused on the importance of promoting diversity in organizations.

Participants must also complete a community service project with members of their county’s team. Some members of the first class assisted in the promotion of the 2020 U.S. census, given its impact on federal funding and government representation.

Other Development Efforts

Wiregrass RC&D takes on many other tasks outside of leadership development, though. It mainly serves as an area planning and development organization. And while it receives its funding primarily through the state legislature, corporate partners like WEC and fellow electric cooperatives also assist the RC&D in several projects.

Wiregrass Electric Cooperative Chief Operating Officer Brad Kimbro addresses the inaugural LEAD Wiregrass class during an October meeting.

This allows Wiregrass RC&D to award several grants every year. Many of these benefit education, ranging from funding of groundwater festivals that educate children on the water cycle and how to protect it to funding of area high schools’ clubs and activities like band programs.

Other grants, though, improve quality of life, which in turn can promote economic development. Grants have been awarded to upgrade parks, benefit fire and rescue departments, and promote more COVID-19 testing.

The minimum award is $3,000 per project, and the grants often serve as “seed money” that spurs projects, Kimbro says.

“I can’t say enough about the RC&D. It’s another tool in the toolbox in developing our area,” he says.

WEC Manager of Corporate Services Robbie Daniels was one of several to graduate from the LEAD Wiregrass program in 2020.

Wiregrass RC&D has also played an active role in Grow Dothan meetings, which are held quarterly at the WEC corporate headquarters. Those meetings have influenced several key projects, including development of the Geneva Regional Career Technical Center, construction of a speculative manufacturing facility in Hartford, and preliminary work on improved road infrastructure in Geneva County.

Davis says the meetings encapsulate the spirit of collaboration.

“We all have the opportunity to bring issues to senior leadership, especially the political representatives, and they tell us what’s going on within the legislature or within Congress,” he says. “We do strategic planning on how we are going to utilize our resources and make our community better.”

The teamwork, in turn, develops the Wiregrass into a region that can survive major changes economically or otherwise.

“If one of the major integrators of poultry pulled out, it would be a train wreck here,” Davis says. “If Golden Peanut Company decided to shut down its shelling plant in Headland, it would be a major impact on the peanut industry.

“We’re living in a time when your neighbors need to be your best friends. If each of you don’t have each other’s back, you get in trouble.”

Ongoing Partnership

Kimbro notes WEC and Wiregrass RC&D share the same goals, which makes a partnership like the one that created LEAD Wiregrass a natural one.

Wiregrass RC&D grants support projects like park improvements and several educational efforts.

“LEAD Wiregrass fits into our economic development initiatives,” Kimbro says. “We want to see leaders develop. Robbie Daniels is our first participant, but he certainly won’t be our last. We encourage all of our employees to be involved in their communities, to bloom where they are planted.”

Daniels, who also serves as an assistant football and baseball coach at Wicksburg High School, appreciates WEC’s community-focused mindset.

“Ever since I hired on at Wiregrass Electric 27 years ago, they’ve always been community-minded, especially under the leadership of the last seven or eight years,” he says. “I love it. I’m a big community guy, a big family guy. Being involved in the community is huge to me. A company that supports me and lets me do it is awesome.”

Recent Local Wiregrass RC&D Projects

  • COVID-19 testing sites
  • Curriculum for Coleman Center for Early Childhood Education and Family Enrichment, Dothan
  • McArthur Park beautification efforts, Ashford
  • Slocomb Fire and Rescue training tower construction
  • Purchase of a trailer for Cottonwood High School Future Farmers of America
  • Purchase of Ashford High School band uniforms

For more information on the Wiregrass Resource Conservation and Development program, call (334) 774-2334 or visit the Wiregrass RC&D website.