Helena looks to improve offerings with ACE program

Sondra Dunaway, leader of Alabama Power Company Economic & Community Development team and city council president Cris Nelson during one of the small focus groups. (contributed)

Sondra Dunaway, leader of Alabama Power Company Economic & Community Development team and city council president Cris Nelson during one of the small focus groups. (contributed)

By LAURA BROOKHART/Community Columnist

On Oct. 17, a large crowd of business people, educators and Helena residents gathered for part one of the Alabama Communities of Excellence program.

“Our goal is to become a part of this program and move the city to the next step,” Mayor Mark Hall told the sizeable crowd.

Part one of the ACE program creates a report card of the city’s assets. A group of ACE team leaders toured the city the evening prior to the Oct. 17 to familiarize themselves with a town that some had not previously visited.

“Everywhere I go, I share what a great community Helena is, but there are things we can still improve on and ACE is here to make recommendations for those areas and offer concrete plans as to how we can accomplish our goals,” said former councilwoman and local ACE coordinator Katherine Ennis.

ACE team captain Sondra Dunaway presented a complete overview of the ACE Program City Development.

“We help communities attract and recruit industry and help identify sites that that hold potential for future development,” she said.

Smaller focus groups gathered further input, both positive and negative.

“It has always stuck in my mind that someone told me ‘there is no place in Helena to buy a pair of jeans or a pair of shoes,’” former councilman Tom Lefebvre said. “We need a range of commercial development. We need development of the bypass and the USX property, because I think that this can bring us some big box stores that offer these kinds of products.”

Ennis said the city needed to discuss innovative ways to provide parking to its residents and visitors.

“We could be one of the first communities of our size to consider an appropriately designed parking garage structure, such as Franklin, Tenn., has, rather than rely on surface parking and postage stamp size parking areas,” she said.

Hall brought up several of Helena’s assets, including the library and the new Walmart that opens in November.

“City services are established and going well. We are looking to upgrade our library; it’s a gem,” he said. “We have Walmart Neighborhood grocery opening on Nov. 6. Everyone involved has made an effort to expedite this and that is a major filler; after that, we feel several vacant shops nearby will fill up.”