Jean O’Connor-Snyder intern Vaughn Gingerich reflects on small town America in his thought piece from Walker County.
I kept an open mind, having spoken with a previous intern who had a great experience, but didn’t quite know what to expect. Having grown up in Anchorage, Alaska, I had never spent much time in a rural setting before, let alone in the American South. So, when I first came to Jasper, my eyes mostly picked out what confirmed the stereotypes and assumptions people have about small, rural towns: vacated industrial properties, abandoned storefronts, and empty streets.
Yet when I came to Jasper, I realized there’s much more here than I expected. Underneath the sleepy, rural town facade, the city has a surprisingly engaged, enthusiastic, and dedicated civic core belying the direct challenges the community faces.
Like other communities in rural America, Walker County has a population that is both shrinking and aging. It is critical to the City of Jasper, and to the County as a whole, to find a way to attract young people and give them a reason to stay. Before I came to Jasper, I thought the extent of the problem was finding people who were willing to stay and work in the same town they grew up in, an assumption surely rooted in my own experience. Yet speaking to Jessica Cook, a part-time employee at City Hall, the reality of Jasper’s shrinking population is much more complicated than I imagined.
Cook was born and raised here in Walker County. Her family lives in the county, and has done so for generations. She’s currently working towards a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting while working at City Hall, and plans to pursue a Master’s in Accounting as well.
I worked at a desk next to hers, by the window where the Jasper Revenue Department. handles trash pickup and business licenses. Sitting on swiveling chairs, we would turn between tasks, and, during lulls in people coming up to the window, engage in conversation. I spoke to Jessica about the significance of hometowns, the uncertainty of life post-graduation, and likelihood of spending our working lives away from where we grew up. Talking to her, I quickly realized that the desire to leave Jasper is only a part of why the population is shrinking.
Cook’s plans to find work away from Jasper are partially driven by necessity, not want. She told me she enjoys her job at City Hall, and wishes she could work there full time —only there isn’t the opportunity, and the full-time positions don’t see much turnover.
With little chance of finding a full-time position, Jessica expects to leave to find work. She is apprehensive about leaving Jasper, and about moving to another city or county where she can obtain a full-time job.
Cook won’t be the only person to have left Jasper for work. I worked with Brent McCarver during my internship at City Hall, and got to know him fairly well; he too had left Jasper for work, at least at first.
Brent is in his 40s, and walks around City Hall with a smile on his face day in and day out. As I would speak to him in his office, he’d alternate between leaning back in his chair with a grin and leaning over his desk with a more serious look, moving his hands slightly to gesture or cross his fingers in front of him.
McCarver first met his wife while working on a political campaign that passed through Jasper and has been living here since, around 20 years. When Brent first arrived, he never intended to stay in Jasper, but it wasn’t up to him. Leaning back in his chair, he told me how he ended up in the city: “The day I said ‘I do’ my intention was to leave Jasper… but my wife had no intention of leaving Walker County. I never intended to be here. I didn’t like it when I was here working, didn’t like it during the campaign, but it kind of grows on you,” he told me.
After moving to Jasper, McCarver had to find work in neighboring counties and cities. According to him this was partly because Jasper has always been fairly trade- and industry-oriented: “with a college degree there was nothing … to do here. If you could drive a bulldozer or weld, there was a job.” Brent was here to see how the city changed as coal gradually left. He told me “it completely [died] off… retail, and even the community… it really went through a drying-up period.”
The last few years have seen significant change, however, starting with the extension of I-22 through Walker County. This also coincided with a number of people who have invested time and effort into the city. According to McCarver, there’s a group of people who have stepped up and been the change they wanted to see in the community. People from the Mayor of Jasper, David O’Mary, to the recently elected Judge Williams, and Mike Putman, the Executive Director of Jasper Main Street, have worked to revitalize the city in many ways—and they have brought about results, too.
Thanks to this concerted effort by both invested individuals and the Mayor’s Office, new industry has come to Jasper and the downtown area; along 19th Street has seen a renewal, with old storefronts filling up with boutiques and restaurants; the town square has outdoor speakers to play music, and the whole of downtown sees regular foot traffic; murals span the Main Street, from the gate to the downtown area in the East to the railroad tracks West. The town is lively, unlike anything I have seen before, with even the streets turning into impromptu meeting rooms as people pull off to the side for brief conversations with passersby.
Jasper has also recently attracted a number of major car parts manufacturers as part of the City Government’s effort to draw industrial development to the area. With new manufacturers brought in, the city has new employers whose employees spend time and money in the community. Brent told me he doubts these new plants brought in workers from outside Walker County, but that they do provide people in the area with more secure and better paying jobs. Most importantly, these new employers help give people a reason to stay and work in the Jasper area.
On that point in particular, I spoke with Jack, a rising high school senior, who plans on leaving Jasper. We met in Lavish, a fairly new coffee shop-boutique on the east end of downtown, across from the Civic Center. Over coffee, I asked him about his future and what he sees in Jasper. Jack is optimistic for the city’s future, but also expects to leave Alabama, both for his college education and for his job afterwards.
Jack plans on pursuing career opportunities foremost, and doesn’t expect the best opportunities to be in Jasper. “By the time I get out of undergrad it’ll be a completely different story,” he told me with a nod. Jasper may never have the best opportunities for young, career-minded college graduates, but even Jack is drawn to his hometown. He told me just that: “I’ll be I’ll be back once a month, once every two months, to see [my friends] and everything.”
As a small town, Jasper needs to focus on what it does best. Those who are career-driven will likely have reason to leave Jasper; yet there are many, like Jessica, who wish to live here for what it does have: family, friends, and a familiar town. By all means, Jasper is well-served by an incredible sense of community. And as the city continues to develop, that very community will be instrumental in retaining those who would otherwise leave Jasper for better economic opportunities. The City has enough of a draw that it doesn’t need to offer the best jobs everyone could have—people want to live here regardless. Those growing up now seem to truly value Jasper, and what it has to offer outside of economic opportunities, and by preserving this there will always be those who want to spend their lives in Jasper.
Brent emphasizes this, often talking about how critical the next generation will be to sustaining this development. He told me that Jasper needs to focus on cultivating a sense of civic engagement and interest in the next generation: “If you don’t have the generation behind stay committed it just sort of stays the same. Nobody young, nobody innovative comes in, and that’s what worries me. How do we keep the foot on the gas, how do we ensure that people stay active and that people will come in to Jasper and do the right things?”
Despite recent growth in the city’s manufacturing and industrial sectors, there are still few opportunities for skilled workers, both in the town and around the county. As McCarver said, Jasper has always been a manufacturing-focused town. And even though Jessica may be planning on leaving the city for now, she told me she would like to come back to Jasper, even though the best opportunities may exist elsewhere. For her, like many in Jasper and Walker County, family and home are important—and certainly worth coming back for.
The photo of Vaughn was taken by Ms. Nicole Smith for the four-piece series on the 2019 Walker County Interns featured in the Daily Mountain Eagle.
–Vaughn Gingerich, University of Alabama New College