An Editorial By Ethan Van Sice
Small towns in rural America face many challenges when it comes to progress. Most are keen on the idea of growth, but the usual suspects tend to derail ideas before they can get off the ground. A poor economy, lack of political support, and meager infrastructural resources can be seen as major detriments to a town’s potential. However, there exist a handful of once struggling, tiny towns across America that have managed to defy the odds. Sometimes all it takes is one, small push to get the ball rolling.
Today, Camden AL sits at the helm of perhaps one of the most significant economic strides in recent history; ironically enough, it’s all being done with things we’ve had structurally for quite some time. Already, two of Camden’s oldest buildings have been purchased with intentions of positive use after several decades of neglect.
The old Wilcox County Jail building on Water Street was purchased by a team of dual-investors in the Fall of 2018. Ryan Dunagan and Christopher Bailey fell in love with the area after just a few retreats from a contrasting, hustle and bustle Chicago life. “The people of Wilcox County have been extremely warm and welcoming,” says Chris, “The more time we spent here, the more we became convinced it is where we wanted to plant roots.”
With thoughts in mind to kick-start a new renaissance, to chase a dream many have dreamt, to depart from painful histories and stigmas, Ryan and Chris are choosing to use the jail as a reflection of their admiration and belief in Camden’s potential. The idea is to repurpose the building as a welcome center and museum. The buyers have offered to cover all costs to renovate the building as a benefit to the community and it’s tourists, and work is expected to begin on the exterior of the building in April of this year. “I believe the heart of a town is it’s downtown and especially those towns which have so many vacant historic structures,” says Chris.
Not far from the jail’s front steps is the old Williams Pecan building on Broad Street. As a nod to the building’s pecan manufacturing roots, “The Pecan on Broad” will retain as much of it’s original façade as possible, this time as an up-scale dining establishment. The restaurant will also boast a retail component, wine bar, even candy and ice-cream for the kiddo’s. It will be a refreshing new twist on the downtown scene that’s expected to be a tent-pole location for future endeavors.
Still, a lot of small towns have some tough lessons to learn. Every big city was once little, so why do so many small towns never really grow? Oftentimes it’s because so many of the current, long-time residents choose to retain a stagnant mindset. Some people drawn to governing positions are not visionaries and believe that change is something to fear and not encourage. Fortunately, a large amount of community support can be witnessed with just a simple stroll downtown.
The progress on “The Pecan” has become a daily spectacle of sorts for people traveling along their daily business. Friends are stopping by, dropping in, just to get a peek at exactly what’s going on in there. Excitement is brewing, and an opening is imminent. But these investors are hoping this is just the beginning of something even bigger for Camden. “We can see the potential for Camden to become a regional destination location,” says Chris, “a place where small businesses not only survive, but thrive. We are not interested in competing with any existing businesses, but instead hopefully our endeavors will help bring more people and revenue into the downtown area.” With continued support, the vision for a vibrant and rejuvenated downtown Camden is not only achievable, but already very much in the works.