At first glance, the town of Edwardsville, Ala., with a population of 194 people, might raise a few eyebrows with its bid to receive $375 million from the economic stimulus package being assembled by Barack Obama and lawmakers in Congress.
The tiny town, located near the Georgia border and 26 miles from the nearest "big city" of Anniston (population: 24,276), added 33 proposals—about two thirds of them related to "green" energy—to the list of "ready- to- go" projects assembled by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Total sum: $375,076,200.
That comes out to nearly $2 million per Edwardsville resident, although E. D. Phillips, the town's representative to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, says the projects would affect a wider region that comprises about 80,000 people. That number includes residents of nearby rural areas that aren't already incorporated into towns, along with the residents of Talladega Springs (population: 124), which partnered with Edwardsville and local municipal utilities on the projects.
There's certainly no denying that Edwardsville has big ambitions. Through the various proposals, which include a renewable energy museum, scenic railroad, and vineyards, these small Alabama communities envision themselves becoming a cutting-edge demonstration project for energy sustainability and a hub for tourism.
"I know we look like some little Podunk town, and by the census, we are," Phillips says. "But we really think we've done some amazingly progressive things in the past two years."
The town's proposals began to develop more than two years ago, when Phillips and another town official became intrigued by the argument that renewable energy could create a rural renaissance. If any community needed economic revival, it was Edwardsville—even before the recession. At 28.7 percent, the town's poverty level was nearly equal to that of Nepal and more than twice the national average, according to the 2000 census.
Along with the more traditional proposals to replace streetlights with solar-powered lights (cost: $3,479,200), to install solar panels on the town hall (cost: $77,000), and to build solar-powered recharging stations for electric golf carts and vehicles (cost: $620,000), Edwardsville and Talladega Springs have assembled a set of even more far-reaching projects.
An outlay of $50.4 million, for example, would go toward installing water pipelines beneath roads to soak up the sun's rays, transferring heat. That technology is currently being used in the Netherlands, which found that while the cost of installation was double that of normal gas heating, the system halved the amount of energy required.
With big dreams, however, come big price tags.
"Do you know how hard it is to fund some of these projects when your tax base is so low?" Phillips says. "So we just breathed this sigh of relief when we found out about the stimulus package . . . especially when it had a focus on renewable energy."
Not everyone shares the sentiment.
"This really exemplifies the problem. Why are we buying light bulbs for a local community?" asks Tom Schatz, president of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. "If a municipality wants to save money, [it can] go out and buy the light bulbs. There is no reason the federal government should buy them."
One of Edwardsville's biggest proposed expenditures is for a "renewable energy museum and information dissemination center." Phillips envisions exhibits, audio tours, seminars, a research center, and a satellite lab run by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
To fund the museum, Edwardsville is requesting $32.1 million. That makes the facility the fourth most expensive museum proposed on the U.S. Conference of Mayors list—following facilities planned by Miami, Las Vegas, and Scottsdale, Ariz. (Some of those facilities have drawn their own controversy: Las Vegas's proposal for a $55 million "mob museum," for example, was used by Sen. Mitch McConnell this week as a prime example of pork spending.)
Some might wonder how many people a renewable energy museum in rural Alabama could attract. And there are other routes for museum funding, like the Institute of Museum and Library Services. If a project can't get funding through competitive grants, Schatz says, perhaps it shouldn't get funding at all.
"Clearly, no one else has been interested in funding this, so why should we be doing it now?" he asks, referring to all the projects on the U.S. Conference of Mayors list that are using the stimulus as a last-ditch funding effort. "Why should the federal government be doing something now that you couldn't do yourself?"
But with city and state budgets tight, says Ford Bell, the president of the American Association of Museums, it's small wonder that many are turning elsewhere. And, he adds, just because a museum is rural doesn't mean it's doomed to fail, noting the success of a living history museum in Fishers, Ind.
The energy museum speaks to Edwardsville's larger hope: becoming a tourist destination. The town has requested $37 million for a solar energy-enhanced "scenic railroad line." It's also asking for $9 million to go toward establishing an eventual 640 acres of vineyards, 160 acres of which would be launched first. Each of the four vineyards would be designed around the theme of a different European country and, in a bid for weddings, dotted with gazebos and chapels.
To some, the vineyards, in particular, seem dubious. The Southeast is subject to a disease that puts traditional European grape varieties out of reach, usually limiting vineyards to the muscadine grape. Partly as a result, vineyards haven't exactly been the region's strong suit. Georgia has just 1,100 acres of vineyards, while Mississippi has 400. (Compare that with California's 800,000 or even Pennsylvania's 12,000.) The 640 acres for vineyards that Edwardsville ultimately wants to establish would nearly double the vineyard acreage of the entire state of Alabama, which is currently at 650.
Funding more than "a fraction of the scope" of neighboring states' vineyards with public money, therefore, would distort the market, says Bill Nelson, president of WineAmerica, the National Association of American Wineries.
It's not yet known whether Edwardsville will get any money from the stimulus package at all. There's no guarantee as to how many projects, if any, on the mayors list will get federal funding. And although $375 million may seem like a lot of money, it's also a fraction of the $96,638,419,313 requested by all the towns on the list.
But for Edwardsville, that money—whether seen as "pork" or not—would make a fantasy come true.
"We would love to be the poster child for rural America, for attempting to change through concern for the environment and clean energy," says Phillips. "We think if anyone can do it, we can."