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Development work on Elba is getting a boost from the Auburn University partnership

This story is part of a partnership between the Montgomery Advertiser and Auburn University’s Living Democracy program. Now in its thirteenth year, the program spreads students across rural Alabama to spend 10 weeks learning about the inner workings of the community and writing about what they observe.

The Pea River that flows through Elba was never thought of as a recreational spot by Justin Maddox, native and founder of the nonprofit Restoration 154. But when he returned to his hometown after college, he started exploring the river and other spots in the city to see. otherwise.

“It’s all about opportunity,” Maddox said. Seeing challenges as opportunities, he said, motivated him and others to start Restoration 154, with the goal of creating 154 projects designed to promote community, attract tourism and stimulate growth.

It all started on the banks of the Pea River. “This is one of those things that everyone could enjoy,” Maddox said. “But if you don’t have a boat, you can’t appreciate that resource.”

That led the nonprofit to focus on developing a boat shop, Pea River Outdoors, on the banks of the 150-mile Pea River.

Another challenge that became an opportunity, Maddox said, was Elba’s downtown plaza, where more and more buildings sat vacant.

“You just think about the time when it was busy. There were people downtown all the time. You hear people who grew up here talking about how their parents would drop them off at the theater and go shopping,” he said.

This same theater is where the organization then focused their efforts. Last spring, Restoration 154 celebrated when a new marquee was installed in the once abandoned theater.

A lighting ceremony was planned at short notice, but Laurie Chapman, executive director of Restoration 154, said the event was much bigger than anyone expected. With excitement about the new life in the city, more than 100 people eventually attended the ceremony.

“I don’t remember exactly how many showed up. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to run out of ice cream,'” Chapman said.

The Restoration 154 team doesn’t stop. The following plan is a long-term plan to improve the recreational space on Elba. To make their vision a reality, they brought in landscape architecture students from Auburn University.

Frank Hu, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at Auburn, started a landscape architecture studio class for junior students in the spring of 2023 and needed a place for his students to work. Chapman contacted Hu after Elba received a grant from the National Park Service that allowed the NPS to develop a plan for a blueway along the Pea River. The goal was to have his students work on their projects on Elba in collaboration with Restoration 154.

“Last spring we took the students to Elba. We looked around and seized the opportunities that presented themselves in the field of recreational design,” Hu said. “I thought there was a lot of potential for a studio in that area.”

Hu’s students shared his passion. “After the students were actually introduced to Restoration 154, they said, ‘Wow, these people really care about what they want to do here,’” Hu said. He and his students immediately began creating blueprint plans for recreational areas on Elba.

“We are not here to provide detailed designs for them to build, but we are here to provide an immersive and engaging concept through images and drawings that they can use as leverage,” Hu said. That’s how Hu plans to give his students real-world experience for their future careers, while also providing Restoration 154 with plans that will help build support and attract grants.

The process is never easy. Hu said small communities like Elba face unique challenges. “Rural communities are being left behind, forgotten, but the university can advocate for those places and reach those areas and do our work in those areas because if we don’t, who will?

“We love doing work that is in the South East and really focusing on the collective communities that are happening in these rural parts of the country. We think that’s great.”

Hu and his landscape architecture students returned to Elba on April 19 to present their plans to the community, many of which focused on the dam and jetty on the Pea River.

Chapman said she was “very impressed” with the plans the students made. All the designers are students, but Chapman said the plans seemed “professional.” Hu said the Pea River offers plenty of opportunity, and there is hope that these plans will lead to more of the 154 projects Maddox and his team hope to complete in their lifetime.

Elisa Oyolaa Living democracy student at Auburn University, is living and learning this summer in Elba, Alabama, as a Jean O’Connor Snyder intern at the David Mathews Center for Civic Life. The nonprofit program, coordinated by the Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts and Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts, prepares students for civilian life through summer living learning experiences.

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