GEE'S BEND, Ala. -- In a building off a winding, isolated road, Nancy Brown joins other elderly women working together to gently sew the brilliant colors of the fabric, a large quilt of yellow, red, green, blue and white squares.
It's a Gee's Bend quilt -- a new one from the black women whose startling designs brought national attention to this remote river community: an exhibit at the Whitney Museum, a tour of other art galleries, network television exposure. Even 10 quilt designs honored on stamps as part of the U.S. Postal Service's American Treasures series.
With more national notice arriving when a ferry finally was restored, the 74-year-old Brown and other Gee's Bend quilters looked for the windfall of interest to bring an improved quality of life. But it didn't happen, not the way they expected.
They say change has come slowly at best for the mostly poor community of about 400, many the descendants of slaves who worked in the plantations that dotted the Alabama River and its expanse of fields and woods before the Civil War.
"We need something else here. We need stores, we need our roads fixed, we need day care, we need a washeteria," Brown said.
Nancy Pettway, a 71-year-old quilter, agreed.
"All of the publicity would be good if it would help build up our community. But the quilts are the only thing going on here. We need grants, we need help from the outside," she said.
Government and economic development officials say the kind of improvements the quilters would like to see in Gee's Bend may be more difficult to achieve than it was to reopen the ferry, which was funded by a federal grant.
"When someone determines they can make money over there, they will open up over there," said John Clyde Riggs, executive director of the Alabama-Tombigbee Regional Commission, which works with local governments in southwest Alabama on economic development and other issues.
Riggs said the community's small size and isolation make it difficult to persuade business owners to open stores, restaurants, coin-operated laundries, gas stations, day-care centers and other types of businesses.
A new play, titled "Gees Bend," chronicles the lives of the quilters over the past 60 years, when they created the stunning geometric patterns out of scraps of fabric and old clothes, mainly for warmth and comfort during cold, desolate winters. Performed at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery in recent weeks, it has spawned new tourist interest in Gee's Bend.
Visitors are arriving daily on the ferry, which opened last year and connected Gee's Bend with the Wilcox County seat of Camden. The original ferry was closed by white officials amid racial strife in the 1960s, isolating the mostly black community.
But the tourists driving their cars off the ferry are finding Gee's Bend's roads pocked with deep, nasty-looking potholes and little to do but drive around and look at the trailers and modest homes, some with cows and horses grazing in the front yard.
"When they come down here, they can witness the fact that we don't have decent roads," quilter Annie Kennedy said.
If tourists want to eat lunch, or even buy a soft drink or a light snack, they must get back on the ferry for the 20-minute ride to Camden. The tourists often stop to visit the white block building where the members of the Gee's Bend Quilting Collective sell their quilts, some which cost as much as $3,000, or drop by the senior citizens center next door, where they can watch the women create the quilts.
The exhibit of Gee's Bend quilts that has toured museums was put together by Atlanta art collector William Arnett, who with his son, Matt, began collecting Gee's Bend quilts in 1998.
Arnett said the national attention has given the quilters' community something to be proud of while helping the women sell their quilts and improve their personal quality of life. He said it's now up to politicians and others to strengthen the community's infrastructure.
"We've done everything we can to draw attention to Gee's Bend," Arnett said.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who helped obtain the grant to reopen the ferry, visited Gee's Bend last weekend.
"I can't create stores or gas stations, but we are trying to create conditions that will help the whole area and help market forces grow," Shelby said. He said he is working with county officials to try to bring in more industry, which he said would create jobs to put money in the pockets of the people of Gee's Bend -- money that would provide an incentive for businesses to locate there.
Wilcox County Commissioner Mark Curl said better roads and businesses will come to Gee's Bend. He said the county is working on plans to build terminals at the ferry landings on both sides of the river. The terminals will include restrooms, and visitors will be able to buy soft drinks and snacks.
Curl said part of the problem is that the national interest in the quilters has caused the price of land to increase sharply in and around Gee's Bend, making it too expensive for some to consider opening stores or other businesses.
Curl and County Commission President David Manzie said government can't force businesses to locate in Gee's Bend.
"The only thing the county commission can do is fix the roads," Manzie said, pointing out that roads in other parts of the poor, sparsely populated county are in similar condition.
"We're working on getting it all fixed, but it's going to take time," Manzie said.
But at the collective, the quilters, mostly in their 70s or older, said they believe it's time for their fame, the ferry and the tourists to translate into real improvements in the community.
"We just need so much more than that. You're in the heart of town now. The nearest gas station is 10 miles up the road," Brown said.