“You may not see dramatic, concrete specifics come out of it, but the ACE process moves you in the right direction to make needed changes.” With that sentence, Becky Hawkins, administrative assistant to the mayor of Arab summarized her experience as Arab’s Alabama Communities of Excellence (ACE) coordinator since 2013.
She added that developing Arab’s historic district was one tangible outcome directly attributable to ACE team efforts. Other benefits included helping plan for the future, providing support for community leadership development, and establishing a network of experts and agencies to assist with problem-solving on matters such as economic development. It also provides a “report card on what the community needs to work on,” she said. She added that when ACE certification is received, it is accompanied by a $5,000 grant that the city can use as it sees fit to respond to problems or opportunities.
Milla Sachs occupies a similar position in Guntersville, a town that was one of the ACE charter communities in 2006. She was Guntersville’s ACE coordinator then and, as the mayor’s assistant, is the ACE coordinator now, so she’s seen the project develop over the course of 10 years and has firm opinions, based on long experience, of its value. Below are her thoughts, more or less exactly as they emerged during the course of a lengthy interview.
“(ACE) is one of the best things we’ve ever done. It got us going. It was helpful to have people you knew all around the state (met during the ACE process) to call for help. They helped with all kinds of things: downtown renovation, setting up our local historic district, writing grant applications (some of those same people you call for help end up being on the agency committees – like ADECA – that you’re applying to for the grant). Having that designation of being an ACE community matters. Having a strategic plan that ACE makes you do matters. Every grant application you prepare has that question – Do you have a strategic plan? It makes a difference as to how the application is viewed.” City became team
“It helped our city become a team. It got people on board with projects, encouraged people to volunteer, and brought capable people not usually involved in civic affairs into the process. It helped us get the very best people on various committees.
“For example, they formed our historic preservation committee, carried out the survey of our historic area, and got the whole downtown on the National Register of Historic Places. We went to work on an arts and entertainment district with restaurants, retail places, and so on, and now they can serve alcohol and you can even have it on the street within the district. We built a downtown park where they have concerts and civic events. And now we’re working on another district including The Whole Backstage theater, the library, the museum, and homes.
“A lot of it has to do with the partners you develop, in our case, the Chamber of Commerce, TVA, the Economic Development Council and others. Also, a lot of it has to do with developing an attitude of success. It’s like, ‘I live in Guntersville and we’ve got our act together.’ It’s brought the city together and people feel ownership in its success. We’ve developed a can-do spirit – like ‘Watch out! Here we come!’”
Explaining that ACE came along at a very divisive time in the city’s political history with opposing factions crippling its efforts, Sachs said, “I believe ACE was the catalyst for the healing that united the city and began the process of navigating into the future.”
“I don’t think we realized all the resources we had available until ACE came along. The ACE assessment helped us see where we were, and told us where the weaknesses were that we had to work on. I don’t think we’d be where we are today without it, because once you learn the process, you can do it over and over again.”
“ACE healed us. Now we’re united for the future.”
Food for thought.