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Historic Byler Road effort continues

This article was originally published in the Daily Mountain Eagle
By Ed Howell, Daily Mountain Eagle 
The Byler Road historical project will make a presentation to the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in the coming weeks for support — and the project will likely need another $200,000 for funding a full-scale tourism program.
The developments were announced during a presentation to about 40 leaders at the Jasper Civic Center on Monday, May 13. Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Department of Tourism, and Brian Rushing, director of Economic Development Initiatives for the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development, stressed they were impressed with the large turnout.
Besides Sentell and Rushing, Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, and state Reps. Tracy Estes, R-Winfield, Matt Woods, R-Jasper, and Tim Wadsworth, R-Arley, also attended. Also seen were Jasper Mayor David O’Mary, Eldridge Mayor Don Tucker, Walker County Commissioners Steve Miller, Jim Borden and Jeff Burrough, and representatives of U.S. Senators Katie Britt and Tommy Tuberville.
President Paul Kennedy of the Walker Area Community Foundation, President Linda Lewis of the Chamber of Commerce of Walker County, Winston County Circuit Clerk J.D. Snoddy, and other supporters were present, including area historians Joel Mize and Wheeler Pounds.
Most of the meeting involved a presentation seen in October at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Regional officials then announced a major three-year tourism project to get at least 50 historical signs along the old Byler Road — Alabama’s first state road, which runs through Walker County — with long-term plans to make it a scenic highway.
Officials — with support from the state Tourism Department and the University of Alabama — have envisioned historical and interpretive signs along the route, a website and possibly a Native American museum at the Eldridge Town Hall as part of a multi-media marketing effort to bring tourists to look at the region. A long-range goal is to gain National Scenic Byway status for the general route.
During the meeting, Reed noted success in getting officials on board with the project. He said Estes, Mize and supporter Skip Tucker successfully got state tourism funds for the markers, with help from Sentell. Wadsworth thanked Estes and Mize for extensive research and work, adding the project was very worthwhile.
“I became enamored on what could happen,” Woods said, having read Mize’s book on the road. “I’m excited about this project and I want you to know I will support it every way that I know how and can.”
Estes noted that if the Poarch Band of Creek Indians gets involved, they may help financially and educationally. “Their history predates ours. There are things they may want to document along this area as well,” he said.
Rushing said the Center for Economic Development does much work for rural areas who have opportunities for outdoor recreation and historical heritage.
“We have an incredibly rich history, pre-history and even natural history along the Byler Road corridor,” he said. “This creates an opportunity for us to … get the word out to celebrate the Byler Road and more largely Northwest Alabama as a wonderful place to learn about history, pre-history and natural history.”
The “hyper focus” for the moment is getting out historical markers in the region, Rushing said. He said he hopes the markers will be rolled out in the “not-too-distant future.”
Over the next three years, the project will assemble a tourism program, he said. The website will tell about the histories and connect visitors with the road and its communities, as well as gateway communities such as Jasper and Red Bay. That might allow them to stay one or more days in a community, leaving an economic impact.
“I want to give a huge shoutout to Linda Lewis and the Chamber of Commerce of Walker County,” Rushing said. “They are incubating this program from a fundraising perspective. We’ve got the legislative funding which is earmarked for the historical markers. But we have a heady fundraising lift. Hopefully, things will come through with the Poarch Creek Indians but we have the opportunity to do some additional private fundraising and do some grants from some foundations.
“We need a 501(c)(3) to do that effectively so we are going to be establishing a 501(c)(3) to kind of house the Byler Road tourism program this fall, with the help of the UA Law Clinic.” In the meantime, he said the Chamber would receive tax deductible funds for the program.
After the meeting, Estes noted Kennedy has been “a wealth of information” to help out, as well as Pounds and Mize.
He said supporters also want to reach out to “a couple of heavy hitters” in Walker County and some other smaller organizations for assistance. Estes said he will work to get more state funds, and he said Sentell knows a second request will likely come for more help.
He said the meeting with representatives of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians still has to be arranged. He met with their lobbyist and a couple of members of their tribal council in Montgomery several weeks ago in his office for a 45-minute meeting. The lobbyist told him later the group was “very impressed” with the discussion.
“I couldn’t help but think to myself, my goodness, if they were impressed with my little bit of knowledge, wait until they meet Joel Mize,” he said.
Officials hope a meeting can happen later this summer, Estes said. He said it is not clear yet whether Poarch Creek trails are involved in the Byler Road area. If that can’t be documented, the tribe will help in getting in touch with other Creek tribes who could be of assistance.
Asked if the Poarch Creeks would be involved financially, Estes said, “Well, they know the request in coming.” He said the tribe has been philanthropic in the state.
“We want them to be very philanthropic in here in northwest Alabama and partner with us if we can make that connection,” Estes said.
He said the markers cover maybe 40 percent of the costs of the overall project, which will also involve the website, interpretive signs with more historical details and marketing.
“There is much fundraising to be done beyond just the markers,” which should cost $200,000 for about 50 markers — which is what the Tourism Department has committed, he said. He said he would go back to Tourism for more funding for more markers.
He noted the work of the UA center will be above its normal operational cost.
“There is a cost of about $16,000 or $17,000 per year that we are trying to provide (the center), not to make a profit but just to help offset some of their costs,” he said.
Rushing said after the meeting he is “very optimistic” on the project.
“We’re still very much on track and very optimistic” for a tourism program and markers. “Yeah, we’re all systems go and it is moving along nicely,” he said.
“Over the course of the three years, it is about $150,000 to $200,000 that we’ve got to bring, in addition to the legislative funding for the historical markers,” Rushing said, agreeing that the markers had already cost $200,000 – meaning the overall project may cost about $400,000. However, he said the additional $200,000 will fund a tourism program as it needs to function.
Rushing indicated the center would likely look at public-private funding, including local counties and municipalities and maybe some federal funds. He anticipates looking at foundational, corporate and individual donations in the private sector.
Sentell said the project would be a great history lesson.
He said it would “educate a lot of young people who don’t know there is historic support and the fact that what happened on this road was the beginning of state government and the beginning of doing what a state is supposed to do, which is to develop facilities so people can grow and bring more people into their territory.”

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