Background and Workshop Challenge
“There’s Magic in Midway, Alabama”
The Merritt Community Complex Foundation’s CIRD application reflected optimism and grit along with a clear-eyed understanding of the enormity of the challenge. Transforming a shuttered school site into a hub for education, health care, and commerce in a town and region where residents struggle to access basic services isn’t easy. It requires buy-in from public and private sector institutions and community engagement across all income levels, races, and ages. In outlining their need for CIRD’s design assistance, Merritt’s application emphasized the layers of support already in place for the project. CIRD’s design assistance would help the community bring pieces together toward a level of design excellence commensurate with both the Merritt School’s proud history and the Midway community’s eagerness to show what they describe as “Midway Magic” at work.
The town of Midway (population 421) and the Merritt Complex area have the geographic advantage of being a hub—a crossroads of sorts—for the county and the region, but the county is also challenged by deep, long-standing poverty. The Merritt school, the CIRD workshop’s focal point, is 50 years old and was closed in 2012, a victim of Bullock County’s population decline. In 2018, the city of Midway took over the school and surrounding property after it had fallen into disrepair and a group of concerned citizens began tending to the school grounds. These efforts led to the formation of the Merritt Community Complex Foundation. Midway’s residents—including Merritt School alumni—are eager for the campus to once again be a hub for hope and progress.
The CIRD workshop that took place on December 5-8, 2021, yielded renderings of classroom spaces, a fitness center, gardens, and an outdoor amphitheater coming to life, all anchored by the Merritt School—a living monument to a community’s resilience. The process that informed these drawings began with a series of virtual community engagement activities, hosted throughout the fall. The digital platform allowed for safe gathering amidst COVID concerns. CIRD worked with the Merritt Revitalization Team and their local partners to ensure that all voices, including those lacking internet access, were heard during these critical pre-workshop engagements, even knocking on doors to make it happen. More than 700 people in Midway and surrounding towns responded to a survey and weighed in on the greatest needs and opportunities for programming within the new complex. Data from the survey informed the workshop’s hands-on offerings; the community’s response rate and accompanying rich data underscored the resonance of this project, and the importance of CIRD’s workshop, in the local community.
Building on the pre-workshop community feedback, the CIRD team prepared programming scenarios, co-design activities, and a visual preference exercise as primary engagement tools during the workshop.
Omar Hakeem and Candace Maloney-Franklin, representing CIRD’s partnership with TBD Studio, led CIRD’s engagement at the workshop. The workshop’s Resource Team also included:
Kevin Moore, Chair of Interior Architecture, Auburn University School of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture. Five of Kevin’s students Ambar Ashraf, Drew Haley Smith, Meagan Mitchell, Victoria Shay, and Naomi Tony-Alabi, also participated, bringing invaluable perspective and energy to the workshop and to post-workshop activities.
Matt Leavell, representing the University of Alabama’s Center for Economic Development
Dr. Wesley Henderson, representing Tuskegee University’s Robert R. Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Science.
The Resource Team brought Alabama-rooted architecture expertise to the workshop.
CIRD shared three planning options at the workshop’s conclusion, all based on community input. As the project proceeds, these options will inform next steps.
The project is already moving ahead. In 2022, the construction of a health clinic on the site will anchor the project.
The CIRD team is finalizing and will soon post a drawing package and design book that will serve as a guidepost for the Merritt Community Complex Foundation’s next steps. The design book will include a summary of engagement activities, project and community history, and final design concept drawings along with recommendations from CIRD’s team for additional funding opportunities across the project’s phases.
The Merritt Revitalization Team will continue to engage with other communities in the CIRD Design Learning Cohort throughout 2022. The cohort program offers additional access to CIRD’s technical assistance and peer learning with other rural community leaders. It also allows the ongoing work in Midway to inform national rural design conversations.
To learn more, read the CIRD story about the Midway workshop.