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March 31, 2011

2011 Distinguished Citizen: Sammie Danford

She knows Cullman county by heart

Sammie Danford is a private person. She doesn’t like to talk about herself. Sitting in her office in the old, one-story Bledsoe building, a block south of the Cullman County Courthouse, it’s a futile effort trying to pry any self-congratulation out of her.

She could. Beginning her career as head of the Cullman County Economic Development Office (CCEDO) 10 years ago; starting out with no supporting staff, Danford grew the agency from bringing in a trickle of grant money in her first year to hauling in an exceptional $10 million in 2008. For an encore, her office brought in a “mundane” $4 million in grants last year.

Under Sammie Danford’s leadership, the Cullman County Economic Development Office has become not just an asset to our county — it’s become all but indispensable.

Trying to get her to take a little credit for the work she does; trying to find a connection between her private thoughts and the public face she puts forward — the one that has made her office so successful and vital to the dozens of communities, agencies, volunteer fire departments, parks, libraries, playgrounds and a host of other beneficiaries of her gracious navigation of a very complex funding puzzle — it’s impossible to get her to praise herself.

She’s not stingy with praise, mind you — she will talk about her staff, about her good fortune in encountering the right people at the right moments in her career; about the contacts she’s made — most of whom she’s helped along the way — and she will talk unreservedly of what makes all those other people so special.

But she just doesn’t have what it takes to speak highly of herself in anything but the most general and abstract of terms. The closer Sammie gets to revealing any indication of self-satisfaction, the more reticent she becomes.

She’s had some tough times. Not just some little bumps along her life’s path — some tough, tough times. And she’ll admit to that — again, in general terms. But she has that rare quality one sometimes sees in people who’ve seen much and learned much from it: she keeps that which matters most to her close to the vest; she knows the value of keeping the dearest or the deepest parts of her life — whether it be family, faith, tragedy, joy or mistakes both instructive and costly — secret, and thus all the more dear.

The county economic development office is one that knows its role; that knows the role of other major players in the sometimes-complex economic recruitment and assistance puzzle that makes up Cullman’s economic development program, both city and county. Sammie, about as successful at keeping a strong base of savvy players in the county’s many small communities happy as any revolving door of elected county commission employers could have dreamed, says her office hones in on helping Cullman County in the ways for which it’s best equipped.

“We stay on top of stuff — what’s being funded, what’s not; who needs the money and who doesn’t — you have to be on top of people’s needs and also be very aware of what is going on in other areas, what other agencies are doing, at the same time,” said Sammie. “What we’re here to do — this office — is to make a difference in this community, and we are. The grants we’re able to get for people can really put them in a different situation; a better one, if we’re successful, than they had been in before.”

Knowing Cullman County by heart is her job. To get to know its people; its needs; the needs of those who strive each day to improve the community in which they live. Mayors and town clerks in little towns like Garden City; volunteer fire fighters in small communities like Berlin; part-time volunteer librarians, park caretakers, maintenance staff, school aides in every corner of the county. Nearly all of them have benefited at one time or another from an award of money or services the economic development office was able to obtain.

Chances are, you’ve seen the handiwork of the economic development office and not known it.

Been to Sportsman Lake recently? That new pier — the one you’re comfortable letting your kids walk out on, now — wouldn’t be there without the CCEDO’s going after, and getting, the grant funds to cover its cost.

Driven through Garden City lately? See those squat, round-topped white storm shelters? The ones that cost half a million dollars? That can withstand wind blasts of 250 miles per hour and can fit the entire town’s population inside? Yeah, Sammie’s office helped get the free money for that. The town of Garden City only had to pay 25 percent of the shelters’ cost.

If you’re a police officer or fire fighter anywhere in the county, you probably do recognize the power of a good grant-getting agency. From Hurst tools for volunteer rescue squads to computing and radio equipment in patrol cruisers to entire fire engines — the kind that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars — much of the equipment these services use is obtained freely through grant monies the CCEDO secures.

Though these funds are available, getting them is not easy, said Sammie.

Every factor you can imagine can make or break a grant application. Knowing about the availability of a grant in the first place, of course, is key — not every county has an office that effectively tracks grants as does Cullman.

Maintaining a good relationship with everyone — everyone, Sammie stresses — is important: Congressmen, legislators, law enforcement officials, county commissioners, mayors and council members in every town, school leaders, leaders of business and industry, members of just about every board you can name in Cullman County...that scratches the surface.

Writing a good grant application; one that tells the applicant’s story in such a way that elicits genuine empathy from decision makers well outside Cullman County, can make the difference in getting funded. Sammie has a staff member for that — project coordinator Buchanan Jackson.

So can marketing Cullman County and its towns as an appealing place where the leadership is stable, fiscally and morally responsible and galvanized by consensus. Sammie has a staff member who does that, among many other things — Webmaster Rich Partain.

So can being a good custodian of grants that have been awarded; creating a history of good stewardship with free money that has come the county’s way in the past. Sammie has a staff member for that — office manager Cherrie Haney.

Sammie would be quick to point out that those job descriptions are terribly oversimplified; that everyone’s role overlaps; that there’s really no limit to what her staff is willing to do not only for the CCEDO office but for other county offices who need assistance. And, with typical modesty, that her staff — and not Sammie herself — is the driving force behind her office’s success.

“I love my staff. They are great. I can trust each of them to represent our county well, whether I’m around to witness it or not. They’ve all been here a long time, we all like each other and we all work well together. If I’m good at anything, it’s putting good people around me and taking the credit for it,” she says jokingly.

Buchanan Jackson, the grant writer, overhears this and counters it quickly: “Don’t let her fool you with that talk — it’s all about Sammie.”  

Sammie, who worked for the county in other capacities long before being placed over economic development — almost, some observers at the time would argue, as an afterthought — said her early experience in the courthouse prepared her well for the work she does now.

“I’ve been in this department for ten years, but I’ve been with the county for 25 years,” said Danford. “I started out in the county garage, in the road department, as a clerk.

“Then I spent ten years in the revenue office. The time I spent there, I think, was very critical to making the job I have now easier. I learned the county; where the communities are, and saw some of their needs while I was there. Learning how to read the county maps and deeds makes it so much easier now, if somebody calls here and wants to know who owns a building, or what can be done with property out along a county road. It helped me to get to know Cullman County.”

For those familiar with the way personnel moves often go among county departments; who know the delicate politics involved with surviving and thriving in any county job over the long haul, it’s perhaps understandable that Sammie’s so reluctant to trumpet her department’s success. When she says she’s happy with the good her office has done for the county, she’s given herself about as much credit as you’re going to wring from her.

“I ask God for wisdom every day,” she says. “You should never stop learning; you should never stop being open to improvement. I love being a part of making things better; of making a difference in this community. Every day that things go right, I know it’s by the grace of God. It’s not always easy, but I’ve learned so much, and I look around at the people I’ve got, and the difference we’ve been able to make, and I know that I’m so blessed.”

* Benjamin Bullard can be reached by e-mail at bbullard@cullmantimes.com or by telephone at 734-2131 ext. 270.

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