Well done, Fort Payne. My hometown is “in a good place” right now. We all need to do our part to keep it that way.

I was born and raised here, so I can say this town is in my DNA. It’s in my heart and soul.

As I grew up, I felt a longing for a quality of life that I wasn’t sure this little Alabama town could offer. One day at Fort Payne High School, I raised my courage to suggest to Mr. Burkhart that the school add a video production class to the curriculum. His reply: “Yeah, that would interest you and maybe two other students.”

I was crushed. But when I discovered, years later, that FPHS had added a TV production class, I grinned with glee. That’s just one of the specialized classes they’ve added at my alma mater, giving our kids options we never had. At last week’s Made in DeKalb Expo, I learned just how much Northeast Alabama Community College has grown its offerings as well. That’s how it is supposed to work in an ascendant community. We are supposed to prepare our kids for the outside world while working to make home a place they’ll want to return to so they can raise families of their own.

I did look elsewhere for opportunities and worried that I’d only see the people I love on a computer screen. Since returning, there have been multiple instances when I’ve asked myself, “Is this really happening in Fort Payne?”

It’s thrilling to watch new restaurants and pubs opening in town. You can’t say, “There’s nowhere good to eat” or “There’s nowhere to go out and have a drink with a friend” anymore.

Such an emotional high at the Boys in the Band tribute show at the DeKalb Theatre as my friends and neighbors lost ourselves in the memories we associated with Alabama’s many hits. That was most definitely a “good place to be” type of moment. Another was at last fall’s Brewfest where so many people who’d never heard of Fort Payne mingled beneath the Rotary Pavilion, enjoying themselves without it descending into some chaotic drunken mess. Everyone who puts together the Boom Days Festival does a great job of replicating those June Jam Weeks when it felt like Fort Payne was THE place to be.

The Courtyard Concerts that Ryan Keef and friends have every other Tuesday are remarkable. They make me feel almost like I am back in Chattanooga enjoying Nightfall. Perhaps you have to move elsewhere to appreciate just how special Fort Payne is.

It’s still a small enough town where one ordinary person can propose something that takes off and grows into bigger things. Our leaders are bold and progressive enough to take what works in other places and try it here.

Of course, no place is perfect. We do have crimes to report and contend with the sorts of tragedies that plague every town. But how fortunate we are to have organizations like the DeKalb County Children’s Advocacy Center and law enforcement led by Chief Randy Bynum and Sheriff Nick Weldon. Maybe I’m seeing through rose-colored glasses a bit, but even the way the bad stuff gets handled now feels exceptional.

Not every place can take a gut punch like we did with the hosiery industry, bouncing back. That sort of resilience says a lot about us. Some towns just lay down and die in the face of adversity.

Great things don’t happen without people stepping up and saying, “I share that vision.”

I salute everyone who volunteers your time.

Things are good, and they can become even better.

I attended a brainstorming session this week where Darlene Rotch of Fort Payne Main Street asked downtown businesses for ideas to promote our city. The energy and enthusiasm is encouraging. I realized the embarrassment of riches that Fort Payne enjoys… Scenic beauty (hiking, camping, Little River Canyon, DeSoto State Park, DeSoto Falls, etc.), Alabama’s legacy (Fan Appreciation Week, the Fan Club and Museum, etc.), fun events for grown-ups (Courtyard Concerts, tribute shows at the DeKalb Theatre, etc.), great new bars and restaurants (F.C. Weiss and NYMD come to mind), great schools (innovators and leaders in our state), diversity (Latino Festival), family-friendly events (Pete the Cat Festival, Third Saturday Sunset Cruise-In, Trunk n’ Treat, Christmas in the Park, etc.), amazing industries (too many to name), a strong faith community and precious historical landmarks (Opera House, Depot Museum, etc.).

A hidden gem. Not what most Americans imagine when Alabama comes to mind. We have to support it today and every day if we want it to become a destination people want to visit and a place our children want to return to and can find good-paying jobs after graduating.

How? By keeping our streets clean and safe. By reaching out to people we know elsewhere and inviting them to visit, sharing those Facebook events far and wide, then showering them with hospitality when they arrive. By providing things for them to do and ways for them to spend their money. And most importantly, we have to spend our own dollars at our downtown stores, pubs and restaurants to keep them going.

We have to come out to enjoy performances on nights when we’d maybe rather stay in and watch Netflix. We have to let our government and business leaders know what we want and then have their back when they stick their necks out to fund it. We must demand excellence and set high expectations. A high quality of life pays dividends when companies look for places to put their people.

Each of us has a role to play in this evolving story, appreciating our remarkable history while vowing that our best days are still ahead of us.

— Steven Stiefel is a staff writer at the Times-Journal. His column appears in Saturday editions. Email: steven.stiefel@times-journal.com.

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