Various groups within the city of Camden came together to plant flowers and install self-watering flower planters along Broad, Claiborne, Court, Planters and Union streets in a collaborative effort to beautify the downtown area on Saturday, May 20.
The Wilcox ALProHealth Coalition, Downtown Revitalization Committee, Fleur de Lis Garden Club and Department of Public Works all cultivated this project to fruition.
The reason behind each group’s unanimous approval of this seemingly small gesture? Everyone views the planters as a sign of the reinvigoration and is doing their part as citizens working together.
“Camden has something—a certain vibe—that a lot of small towns don’t have,” says Kennon Agee, chairman of the Downtown Revitalization Committee. “It deeply affects our lives. Anything that we can do to encourage people to come out—to bring people here to experience it is important.”
The purpose of the Downtown Revitalization Committee is to formulate and execute ideas to help local businesses attract residential and tourist commerce to the downtown area. One way of doing so is by making downtown Camden more visually appealing.
According to Agee, “Our bread-and-butter is the small-town elements—the Coast-to-Coast, Albritton’s Florist, the Pecan Downtown, Jackson’s Chicken and the Commissioner’s Pit—things that no other small town has. We should support our people, the owners of these businesses.”
Along with Agee, the Downtown Revitalization Committee consists of other like-minded small business owners and managers within Camden, including Sulynn Creswell and Kristin Law, executive director and art programs and marketing director of Black Belt Treasures, Jimmy Pugh, the former owner of Coast-to-Coast Furniture, Betty Anderson, owner of the Camden Shoe Shop and Quilt Museum, Michael Cook, director of the Wilcox Area chamber of Commerce and Lou Albritton, owner of Albritton’s Florist.
The group meets periodically to discuss what would be most effective in drawing in more economic support for local businesses in the community and the most cost-efficient use of the town’s limited funds. While the city of Camden itself cannot afford to allocate much money toward the beautification initiative, there are grants available that are to be used specifically for projects related to community restoration.
Tamika Dial, Wilcox County extension coordinator, and Ruth Brock, extension specialist and ALProHealth coordinator, help seek out these grants and implement some projects of their own.
ALProHealth is a community health program that stems from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System at Auburn University, which serves 13 Alabama counties, including Wilcox County, and initiates a community coalition in each one.
The program’s goal is to combat obesity by increasing access to healthier food options and safer, more affordable opportunities for physical activity. Specifically, to generate the latter, the coalitions are encouraged to search for and enhance public areas in the community to promote physical wellness.
The ALProHealth program receives grant funding from the C.D.C. (Center for Disease Control) program H.O.P., an acronym for the High Obesity Program, which sponsors 15 land grant universities, including Auburn University, in their endeavors to fight and prevent obesity. With funds from the grant, Dial and Brock were able to finance the project’s costs, which, according to Dial, tied in perfectly with the program’s mission.
“More people are utilizing the downtown area because of their attraction to the flowers,” said Dial. “I’ve noticed groups stopping and admiring the flowers. Where people didn’t used to take time and explore before, now they’re walking down Claiborne Street, seeing other parts of the town because of the flowers. It’s beautiful.”
In fact, since their recent installation, the planters and flowers have received nothing but compliments from tourists and locals alike. Dewon Johnson, a city worker from the Department of Public Works, recalls the feedback he received while helping the Garden Club with the process.
“We had lots of people stop and tell us how much they loved the flowers. Some had questions about the types of plants that they were planting and how the self-watering feature worked,” Johnson said. The planters feature a unique wicking system, which releases water to be drawn upward into the soil as needed. They also include large reservoirs that hold enough water to sustain the flowers and avoid daily maintenance.
Johnson also mentioned that some were so intrigued they wanted insight into how to buy the exact planters and flowers for themselves. A few downtown business owners also suggested that more planters be placed in front of their storefronts as well.
The phone calls of encouragement and the positive effect of the plants on the community haven’t slowed down. Last Friday, Kathryn Hicks, Master Gardener and a member of the Garden Club, took a stroll downtown to check up on the well-being of the flowers. While pruning sweet potato vines, she had an experience that made her realize just how significant the work she had been a part of was and what it truly meant.
“There’s something about flowers that bring people together,” stated Hicks. “I can’t explain it.”
“As I was pruning, a sweet, older woman parked beside me and asked, ‘are those sweet potato vines that you’re pruning?’ and I said ‘yes, they are, would you like some to plant?’ and that just struck up a whole conversation. I didn’t know who she was, and she didn’t know me, but instantly we began discussing how beautiful the flowers were and what a difference it has made to downtown.”
Hicks added, “Strangers can be drawn together by flowers. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why God put flowers on earth. To draw people together. They just make people happy.”
Sulynn Creswell, a member of the Downtown Revitalization Committee, also had a theory on why the planters were such a success. “When you have a display of pride in your community, it causes people to feel like ‘there’s something going on here that I want to be a part of,’” she said.
The question now is what’s next in terms of beautifying and restoring the town and what approaches are best for creating a healthier, happier environment for both visitors and residents. According to Ruth Brock, extension specialist from Auburn University, the planters are just the start to enhancing the town, and there’s more to look toward in the future.
“Long term, I’d hope to see increased tax revenue from people staying in town longer, going into more places and being more active consumers in the community. When more money is flowing through a county, money to be spent directly on its people, it’s going to create a healthier community.”
Brock added, “I’m so proud of how the citizens of Camden and Wilcox County have come together. They’re really working to make a difference and make Camden a better place to live. These may be small steps right now, but each small step adds up. Each one matters.”
Kaitlin Stabler, aLiving Democracy student at Auburn University, is living and learning this summer in her hometown of Camden in Wilcox County, Alabama, as a Jean O’Connor Snyder Intern with 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 undergraduate college students for civic life through living-learning experiences in the summer.