January 20, 2022

Bringing Back to Life a Community Hub in Midway, Alabama

Omar Hakeem
Local residents and CIRD Resource Team Members from Auburn University (Kevin Moore, Ambar Ashraf, Drew Haley Smith, Meagan Mitchell, Victoria Shay and Naomi Tony-Alabi) talk with Dorie Phillips (fourth from right) and Mayor Mildred Whittington (second from right) outside the Merritt Community Complex, a school that was shuttered in 2012 and now is being reimagined for new community services. Photo by Omar Hakeem.

The Citizens Institute on Rural Design (CIRD) has been working with the community of Midway, Alabama to transform a shuttered school into a multifaceted community services hub and entrepreneurship center. After several months of engaging remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CIRD team traveled to Midway in early December for an in-person design workshop with over 70 residents to solidify plans for the Merritt Community Complex.

As a hub for 15 other towns within Bullock County, the town of Midway (population 421) and the Merritt Complex area are well positioned for success geographically, though this geography is not without its challenges. Bullock County is one of the most impoverished counties in Alabama’s black belt and, like many rural communities, has been hard hit by COVID-19. The majority of the Midway’s residents are adults and elders (ages 30-80) and the community faces many of the challenges that affect rural communities nationally, including low literacy rates, high unemployment and a lack of access to critical services. 

The Merritt school building at the center of CIRD workshop is 50 years old and sits right next to one of the few remaining Historic Rosenwald schools, which were built in the early 20th century to support rural black literacy. After the Merritt school closed in 2012 due to low enrollment, the building lay vacant for a number of years, during which it was vandalized and fell into disrepair. Finally, the town of Midway was given ownership of the structure and in 2018, community members cleaned it up and began reenvisioning what the site could offer.

“The experience of working with the CIRD team was incredible – the community here never expected anything like that to happen in Midway. I think it helped people open their minds to what is possible.” ~ Mayor Mildred Whittington
Community members look around the empty hallways and former classrooms of the Merritt School, part of the CIRD workshop exploring design concepts for new uses in the building and campus. Photo by Omar Hakeem.

Merritt Community Complex 

The community has come together around a vision to transform the shuttered school building and surrounding property into a multifaceted community services hub and entrepreneurship center. The Merritt Revitalization Team was awarded a CIRD technical assistance grant in Spring 2021 to help solidify a cohesive vision for the site, bringing them one step closer to meeting their goal.

Like most projects, this one was delayed and shifted due to the global pandemic. Over the past year, CIRD lead design partner, To Be Done Studio, held a series of virtual community engagement meetings in partnership with the Merritt team. In addition to the virtual community engagement activities, over 700 people in Midway and surrounding towns responded to a  survey to help determine the greatest needs and opportunities for programming within the new complex. Considering the dispersed population of Bullock County - with only 10,300 residents across the whole county - this level of response is extraordinary, reflecting the energy and importance of this project to the community, and the tenacious work of the Merritt Revitalization Team.        

An overgrown breezeway and paint-chipped metal door show the work needed to bring the complex back to life. Photo by Omar Hakeem.

On-site Workshop

December 5-8, 2021

The CIRD workshop brought together local residents and local officials with architects, architecture students, and economic development experts to develop design concepts that build on the existing vision for the main school building, auxiliary facilities, and 29 acres of surrounding property. The main goal of this on-site workshop was to create a cohesive vision for the multifaceted goals the community presented. This meant not only finding a practical and economically viable way to achieve the residents goals, but to do so in a way that is uplifting, inspirational and of course, beautiful. Over the course of the time in Midway, the CIRD team worked on creating phasing scenarios, programming diagrams, and a design language for the exterior spaces. 

Over 70 community members attended the main portion of the workshop, including Mayor Mildred Whittington, Town Counselors, County Commissioners and School Superintendent Dr. Christopher Blair. Many of the residents who were there attended the Merritt School as children and were energized by a commitment to building something for the next generation. A group of architecture students from Auburn University joined to learn about the community-engaged design process and helped the CIRD team integrate community feedback into a set of drawings that were presented on the final day of the workshop and will be incorporated into the design book. 

Dorie Phillips, the volunteer project manager for the Merritt Revitalization Team, said the workshop itself energized the community, as did the process of coming together to prepare for the workshop activities and to host the CIRD team. “The process of team building required to get prepared for the workshop has laid the groundwork for future momentum.” 

Dorie Phillips leads an activity during the workshop, with community members spaced out for social distancing. Photo by Omar Hakeem.

Challenges & Learnings 

As with any community-engaged design effort, the CIRD program seeks to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard. In the final stages of a project, the goal is to take an incredibly diverse set of needs and desires and put them together into a singular vision without losing the beauty of that diversity. This is always a challenge, and of utmost importance in the work that CIRD strives to do. 

Working in a rural environment amidst the ever changing landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic presented a whole new level of challenges regarding our process and the timing of the project.

Many rural areas lack strong internet infrastructure, typically a critical aspect to the virtual community engagement environment. Thanks to Merritt Revitalization Team Project Manager Dorothy “Dorie” Phillips, the team adapted to paper surveys, handouts and flyers. Her team spread the word around town, and handed out flyers and church meetings, school board gatherings and any other venue possible. 

Another challenge was figuring out how to phase the project and building improvements in a way that makes sense for the realities of planning, funding, and construction. How do we solidify the long-term vision and ambition, and then break it down into realistic phases that the committee can fundraise for and build over time? For Merritt, each phase needs to make sense individually and can ultimately operate as a multi-dimensional whole – ensuring cohesion over time is a challenge both technically and creatively.  

Midway is not alone in the challenges they face. Many rural communities are being forced to deal with aging building infrastructure and the critical need to bolster their community identity before it is lost. Yet what ultimately made this project successful was the energy that the community brought to this work and their commitment to developing a cohesive vision for this building that has meant so much to Midway, and will again. It was a humbling experience to see the skill at which the Merritt Revitalization Team gathered, connected and supported the voices of local residents. 

Mayor Mildred Whittington speaks with Council Member Parker during a site tour. Photo by Omar Hakeem.

Next Steps 

In the coming weeks, the CIRD team will finalize the drawing package and compile a design book for the building committee with all of the project materials. The design book will include a summary of all of the historical research, community efforts research and final design drawings. This compilation will help the community continue to fundraise for the next phases of this project.

Over the course of the coming year, the Merritt Revitalization Team will continue to engage with other communities in the CIRD Design Learning Cohort, all of whom will receive support through technical assistance & educational materials. 

In addition, the community of Midway has raised funds and garnered strong collective support for this project, which will begin in 2022 with the construction of a health clinic. 

“I hope the CIRD team understands the infusion of energy this brings to rural places. For people who feel forgotten and like nothing is going to happen – something like this comes along and lights a fire. This workshop has been a spark and now it’s up to us to keep the fire alive.” ~ Dorie Philips, Volunteer Project Manager