The United States Department of Agriculture recently issued a grant that will help create a vision for the rejuvenation of Ashford’s downtown district.
Chris Beeker, USDA state director of the rural development program, presented the Ashford Downtown Redevelopment Authority with a $59,600 grant on Tuesday during a community event.
The grant will fund a detailed “master plan” for the ADRA to use as a jumping point toward its mission of revitalizing the downtown area through beautification and economic development efforts to attract businesses to Ashford, and to help maintain and create jobs.
“I really think it’s going to be the magic bullet that we need,” said ADRA Chairman Brad Kimbro. “With this plan, we’ll be able to leverage Ashford’s assets, get input, and have the plan there just so everyone knows what we’re doing and what goals we have.”
The ADRA has already started working with KPS group, a design firm specializing in planning and urban design. Representatives will visit Ashford next week to work with city and business leaders to begin the plan.
“This grant is going to help us to do the best possible things we can absolutely do for our city,” Kimbro said. “It will help us to form a vision and have focus with a plan. We’re going to help Ashford be all it can be for the Wiregrass region; without this grant, it would be harder.”
The rural business development grant is competitive and used for projects benefitting rural areas or towns outside the urbanized periphery of any city with a population of 50,000 or more, according to the USDA’s website. Awards range from $10,000 to $500,000 and can be used for community economic development, as in ADRA’s case.
Kimbro said he’s not sure what the plan may look like, but the firm could recommend several things, including new polices, zoning ordinances, recruitment of new businesses, structural renovations, or attention to infrastructure.
“My particular thought is that Ashford not be a go-through city, but that it becomes a destination,” he said. “Ashford’s a great place to raise a family. It’s got that homegrown flavor and localness to it; it’s a place to visit that you can’t find anywhere else.
“It’s a place, if you live here, where everyone knows your name. We’ve got a great school system and the conveniences of being close to the city…”
State Sen. Donnie Chesteen, originally from Hartford, advocated for the grant proposal, calling Bleeker’s office on Ashford’s behalf on several occasions.
“My roots run deep in rural Alabama,” he said, adding that small towns are important to local industry.
Chris Beeker said the rural development branch has more than 50 programs.
“Basically, what we do is we go into rural areas in Alabama and just help economic development, job growth,” Beeker said. “Three of our main focuses are affordable housing, business and economic development, and community infrastructure so we can build a city from the ground up; it’s just got to be in a rural part of Alabama.”
There is already a lot of momentum happening to transform Ashford, Kimbro said. Over the last year, the city put in sidewalks in the downtown area, a mural was recently painted in McArthur Park, and another grant will soon fund the demolition of the IGA building damaged by Hurricane Michael to make space for a parking lot.