Why a Tiny Alabama Town Wants a $375 Million Chunk of the Stimulus

Edwardsville, Ala., wants to become a model for rural renewable energy and a hub for tourism.

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"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."

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Update
Small Town Rescinds Request for $375 Million