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Elba Rotary Club members network to learn, serve

Inside of the First Baptist Church in Elba, just around lunchtime on Tuesday, you can find the intersection of community service and community business.

The members vary in age, background, profession, but they all make up the Rotary Club in Elba. Whether they sell insurance, run a local bed and breakfast, or direct the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club brings together influential citizens so they can learn how to do good for their community.

"The Rotary wheel really sums up how a town like Elba has to operate," Sandy Bynum, director of the Elba Chamber of Commerce, explained. "The whole town makes up this wheel, and it is each members' job to keep that wheel going by striving to make an impact in the community. Without that focus, that wheel is just about as good as a flat tire.”

The Rotary Club operates similar to most meetings and organizations in Elba, focused around food, faith, and fellowship. The draw of a lunchtime break allows members to step away from work to eat and learn.

Of course, in true South Alabama style, the most recent meeting featured a fine meal of pork chops, green beans, tomato rice, and collard greens.

Between bites, each member I spoke to had a firm belief that they were called to do more than just work and play in Elba.  Many members spoke fondly of the old days, growing up in Elba, and knowing that they were called to serve their home.

However, what might set the Elba Rotary Club apart, is the focus on networking. The folks I met all seemed to have sway in the community, whether it was operating a business or being connected to the local political scene. All seem to be the movers and shakers who bond over improving their community.

The speaker of the day was Marty Lentz, a Coffee County engineer who has worked with the department for over 20 years. Despite his status, he speaks in a language that any layman can understand as he introduces the topic of the day, the recently enacted Rebuild Alabama Act.

The controversy surrounding this bill is felt in the room after a mere mention. The so-called "gas tax" is still a fresh issue, especially for those in rural Alabama. However, as Lentz noted, he was asked to speak on the challenging subject to a group that always seeks information no matter how complicated the issue.

Lentz's presentation, filled with hard-hitting statistics, explained the need for an increase in infrastructure funding. He said, over his two decades of working for Coffee County, the cost of building roads has nearly doubled while the funds to build roads has remained stagnant.

He defended his approval of the Rebuild Alabama legislation, discussing the dire circumstances the state would face if infrastructure funding did not change.

Lentz's comments reflected his knowledge of roads and bridges in the area as he referenced specific dirt roads that should have been paved years ago and county roads that are in disarray because of the lack of funds for proper maintenance.

Bynum and others at the Rotary meeting were eager to hear more about how to improve infrastructure. 

"I think, the best thing we have going for Elba now, is that people aren't afraid to start a life here anymore," Bynum said referring to past struggles with Pea River flooding in the region. "Now, with the improvements to the levee, people can finally build a business and focus on the river as an asset to the community."

Lentz noted that successful improvements of the infrastructure on the Pea River help make the case for the improved roads and bridges that the Rebuild Alabama Act will bring to Elba.

While all the Rotary Club members might not all support the means of a gas tax, their business instincts tell them that infrastructure is needed in Elba, and the tax might be a necessary evil to accomplish this goal.

The members have seen the economic benefits of shoring up the infrastructure on the Pea River and know that, with maintained roads to connect Elba to the rest of Alabama, the town ought to benefit in the long term.

The Rotary Club offers a safe haven for learning and for growing, with members from around Elba coming together.  They hear different perspectives, like the one Lentz offered, to guide their thoughts on issues of the day.

In my first week of Living Democracy, it has been a thrill to see the members of the Elba Rotary Club coming just about as close to truly living democracy as any organization can.