Community involvement, local leadership lead Notasulga, Alabama’s comeback

“I’ve been in this town 10 years, and I love this little town,” said Juanita Syljuberget, a resident of Notasulga, Alabama, who works as a contract and grant specialist at nearby Auburn University. “There’s nothing fancy about it, but it’s a quiet little place, and everyone is very nice.”

“But it’s going to dry up and go away unless we do something.”

The plight of Notasulga and its 850-some residents in rural Macon County is not unlike hundreds of other small communities across the country. Years of changing economic and development patterns limited growth opportunities, and the very nature of remote towns left local businesses and municipal services more vulnerable than their counterparts in busy urban centers.

But while the story of a “Small Town USA” grappling with tough financial decisions has been played out countless times nationwide and even in emotional books and films, there is something that sets Notasulga apart: strong local leadership.

From the vantage point of Syljuberget and the likes of her close friend at the city’s court office, Hester Hamby, listening to residents and their individual aspirations is the key to unlocking Notasulga’s potential. By encouraging residents to take an interest in improving their hometown from the ground up, Syljuberget and Hamby are leading a charge that will gain added momentum later this month, when Smart Growth America will talk with local leaders about “Smart Growth 101” during a two-day technical assistance session.

“Notasulga has a strong sense of community pride and wants their plans for the future to advance their goals of family, affordable living, and protecting their natural surroundings,” said Roger Millar, Vice President of Smart Growth America’s Leadership Institute.

The Leadership Institute’s free technical assistance program, made possible through a five-year Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Sustainable Communities, seeks to develop local solutions that help communities grow in ways that benefit families and businesses, while protecting the environment and preserving a sense of place.

“When we first got started, we were actually looking at an EPA Brownfield grant application,” Hamby said. Over time, though, that interest in revitalizing a specific property grew to resemble a more all-encompassing desire on residents’ parts to, as Syljuberget said, “just figure out how we could make where we live better.”

“To be honest, some of these things are so small,” she adds. “It was getting the community involved. Things like…I wanted a website for the town. Residents don’t even know when there’s a town meeting, there’s no way to post that, and so there’s no way to get folks involved.”

From addressing a rash of burglaries to hosting small town gatherings, Hamby and Syljuberget have engaged neighbors and acquaintances to grow a sort of community-focused grassroots movement called FUNN – Friends Understanding Notasulga’s Needs. Slowly but surely they’re getting buy-in from important and well-recognized local voices, like Notasulga’s sheriff and a supportive town council member and his wife.

“We don’t have lots of manpower and we don’t have lots of money, but there are ways we can still do things,” Syljuberget said. “We have a beautiful lake…and I was reading, we used to have this watermelon festival. I’ve been here a decade, I’ve never seen or heard of a watermelon festival.”

Hamby and Syljuberget, meanwhile, aren’t the only people in recent years to notice the potential of Notasulga to emerge as a more dynamic, economically strong community. In 2009, Auburn University’s Urban Studio team developed a plan for the town that capitalized on this area’s equestrian interests as well as the natural beauty of the area. Students recommended Notasulga take advantage of its excellent location (within easy distance to both Auburn and Tuskegee University), unique and historic small town character, and potential to capture a piece of the rural-agricultural business market.

“Notasulga is in a good spot near the border of Macon County and between the two [universities], so they have opportunities because of their location for growing a rural economy,” said Cheryl Morgan, a professor who heads Auburn University’s Urban Studio. “We’ve really found in our work that the towns with the most success are the ones with the strongest local community participation.”

With a deep understanding that the most successful plans tend to begin as ideas from local citizens, FUNN participants are actively redefining what it means to be “local leaders.”

“We’re looking to make the most of what we have,” Hamby said, a point Syljuberget echoes as she lists FUNN’s modest but attainable goals, like joining a regional partnership along the I-85 highway or getting the town to be named an Alabama Scenic Byways Site.

Working together, they see a bright future for places like Notasulga so long as residents take advantage of opportunities to claim ownership in how their town adapts and matures in coming years.

“We can’t reinvent the wheel,” Syljuberget said. “We don’t have to.”

Technical assistance