Residents, officials hopeful Anniston’s downtown can thrive again
by Daniel Gaddy
Every few years for nearly half a century, the city of Anniston has unveiled a new project to restore its downtown.

In the late 1960s, an independent study suggested turning a portion of Noble Street into an enclosed mall, but the plan never came into place.

By 1974, the City Council had launched Project Anniston: Rebirth of a City. Though it led to the establishment of 15 businesses and the remodeling of 50 structures, the program failed, against city leaders’ hopes, to lessen the economic pain caused by the opening of Quintard Mall.

In 1977, the city paid $272,000 of a $462,000 project called Anniston Arcade to beautify Noble Street. It included the erection of cross-street metal beams that many residents referred to as monkey bars.

In 1984, city leaders hoped a $1.1 million project to turn the Lyric Theater into a 21,000-square-foot office space would bring an injection of upscale businesses to downtown.

In 2003 and 2004, the city spent $2.1 million to complete its Streetscape project, which repaved and installed brick walkways on Noble Street.

Despite all those programs, building owners today still struggle to get tenants downtown. But fresh faces in City Hall are studying the problem again. They hope to draft a plan for the district — developed from feedback from residents and business owners — that will capitalize on resources like the area’s cycling trails.

Local setbacks

Many of the issues hurting the development along Noble Street are beyond the control of city leaders, from a national economic recession that has taken five years to abate, to layoffs at the Anniston Army Depot. And then there is the general exodus of shoppers toward Oxford’s big-box retailers.

But there have been local setbacks, too.

The city’s Downtown Redevelopment Authority, an entity created to provide bond financing to businesses, has been inactive for years. Its chairman called it a “dead board” in 2007.

The City Council last year voted to establish a commercial development authority that will consolidate many of the city’s inactive development boards.

Mayor Vaughn Stewart said the council will hold a work session in the next few weeks to determine how the authority will be organized, who will lead it and what entities it will consolidate.

Many people blame Anniston’s leadership prior to the 2012 elections for the city’s slow pace in downtown redevelopment.

Agreeing with that view is Ray Bryan, chairman of the board of the Spirit of Anniston, a nonprofit seeking to bring businesses downtown and preserve the area’s historic architecture. Spirit officials saw a lack of support in the previous city administration, he said.

“It was just different. I think there were a lot of issues going on that made it hard to function,” Bryan said.

The Anniston City Council in 2011 cut the Spirit’s funding in half, to $95,000, an allocation it kept in 2012, too. And the nonprofit’s 2013 budget was cut to $70,000.

Ann Welch, who was the chair of the Spirit board in 2010, said the organization had to go to extraordinary lengths to justify its existence at budget time despite the investment of more than $23 million of private capital in the downtown since it began.

“The lack of investment was really extraordinary,” said Betsy Bean, the last director of Spirit of Anniston, who was fired by the board in October.

In a phone interview Thursday, Bean said Bryan told her the day she was fired that the incoming council would not support the Spirit of Anniston with her at the helm.

Bryan said he would not comment on Bean’s firing. He said the Spirit board is taking resumes for the position and has purposefully not set a deadline for hiring a director in the hopes of attracting the best possible candidate.

“The key is having someone with a heart for Anniston and the people here,” Bryan said.

Stewart said that if things are to turn around for Anniston’s downtown district, it’s important the Spirit of Anniston gets the resources it needs.

“I think the Spirit needs to be an independent entity outside of City Hall,” he said.

Spirit is associated with the National Main Street program, an initiative to revitalize America’s downtown areas and preserve their history. The program started 30 years ago and now has more than 1,600 participating communities.

Kennedy Smith, a downtown development consultant who served as the director of the National Main Street Center for 19 years, said Main Street follows four main steps: organization, which includes a full-time, paid director; promotion, through marketing campaigns and events; design, through maintenance programs and revamping historic structures; and economic restructuring, by creating a mix of businesses that can thrive in the local market.

“They’ve got it down to a T,” Stewart said. “It’s almost like following a recipe.”

Main Street programs throughout the country seek to organize community groups, development authorities, citizens and private nonprofits so that they’re all working toward the same goal.

Kay Moore, the director of Downtown Gadsden, which is also part of the National Main Street Program, said having a full-time director is crucial to supporting that public/private partnership and seeing a Main Street program thrive.

“It’s huge,” she said.

Gadsden’s downtown had an occupancy rate of about 60 percent in the 1980s, which had improved to about 92 percent last year.

“It was an absolute wasteland, but they’ve built it back up and now it’s booming,” Harris said.

On a misson

Rebecca Moryl, an assistant professor of economics at Emmanuel College in Boston, has researched what allows some municipalities to reach their economic development goals.

She looked at the initiatives of three Massachusetts cities, all of them former mill towns experiencing some stage of economic downturn.

Her data showed two major findings: Mission statements matter and those mission statements must be part of the decision-making process.

Moryl said many cities simply write mission statements because everybody else does. But such statements must contain be a concrete, tangible goal, and all entities involved in the development project must work toward that goal, she said.

“You create that list of priorities, and it’s important that those don’t go into a binder on a shelf,” she said.

Stewart said city leaders will develop a mission statement for downtown Anniston once the city’s strategic plan is put together. That will be done after city leaders complete a listening tour, a series of town-hall-style meetings, to get feedback from the community, he said. When they do compose the mission statement, Stewart said, city leaders will lean heavily on the advice of consultants like Smith.

The council held its first stop on the listening tour in January. So far, city leaders have made four of the six stops scheduled.

Stewart said he’s been happy with the turnout as city leaders have received important feedback from residents, which will be crucial in developing a mission for downtown revitalization.

The council members have no shortage of ideas to revamp the area along Noble Street.

Councilwoman Millie Harris said she believes the downtown district needs an anchor to draw traffic to the area, such as Gadsden’s Mary G. Hardin Center for Cultural Arts.

Both Stewart and Councilman David Reddick said the city should publicize programs like the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce’s mentoring program, in which retired entrepreneurs provide guidance to local business owners.

Councilman Seyram Selase said the city needs to put a high priority on attracting local businesses rather than chain stores or big-box retailers.

Councilman Jay Jenkins said that if downtown revitalization is ever to be successful, it will take the community, civic organizations and city leaders working together to promote every resource the area has, from the civil rights landmarks to the biking trails.

“All of those are pieces to the puzzle and it’s a big puzzle,” he said.

Perception of crime

Both Bryan and Stewart said that to attract more local foot traffic, city leaders must also work to promote the area as safe.

Stewart said that though crime statistics do not show the area to be particularly dangerous, “perception is reality.” He said combating the perception of danger could mean improvements like better lighting and more police patrols.

Shane Denham, Anniston’s interim police chief, said more patrols and better lighting will always be of help to the community. But he said the area along Noble Street doesn’t have that much crime.

“I think the perception is more wrong than it is correct,” Denham said.

He said the Anniston Police Department at one time had officers patrol the downtown area on bicycles or on foot. He said those officers’ jobs were usually boring.

Denham did point out that crime rates increase the farther one travels to the west in the city.

According to documents provided by Anniston police, the department received 146 reports of robbery and burglary throughout 2012 for a 16-block area centered on Noble Street. That area runs between 8th and 16th streets and Gurnee and Wilmer avenues.

Denham said business districts typically have less crime than most residential areas. He said many of the bars in the downtown area have security staff who handle many issues without having to call police.

Robert Downing, the owner of Downing’s General Store on Gurnee Avenue, said he’s not particularly concerned about safety downtown. His family has owned the store for 50 years, and he can’t remember the last time he had to call the police.

“The people who are going to be afraid of that are going to be afraid of anything,” he said.

Downing said the best thing the city could do would be to strengthen codes that would make property owners better maintain vacant structures downtown, making them more appealing to potential tenants.

Smith, the consultant, said many cities deal with the same vacancy issues downtown Anniston has. However, she observed, Anniston seems to have more home-grown businesses, such as restaurants, attracting traffic to Noble Street.

“If those things are there, that means there’s a market, and there are things you can begin to do,” she said.

Just before the 2012 elections, Smith came to Anniston for a speaking engagement that was part of a candidates forum. What impressed her most about Anniston, she said, wasn’t any particular resource or building, but rather the residents’ enthusiasm when they talked about reclaiming their downtown.

She said she remembered about 150 people showing up for the event.

“And there was lively discussion,” she said.

Business owners

Bill Folsom said he would love to open a small pub downtown, but he still thinks it’s just too much of a risk financially.

“It scares me to death,” he said in an interview in December.

Folsom owns City Market Buffet and Grill on South Quintard Avenue, well outside Anniston’s downtown district. He said he has had to reduce his operating hours because traffic in the area fades as residents flock to the Oxford Exchange in the evenings.

“You can wish all you want but the reality is they’re growing business down there (in Oxford),” he said.

Rodney Snider, CEO of Cheaha Brewing, said he and his partners felt the location of their planned brewpub at 12th Street and Walnut Avenue was the best spot for them in the county.

Snider said they believe in the new council’s vision for downtown, and that that vision will bring more people to the district. The owners of Cheaha Brewing also believe bicycle trail projects nearby — the Chief Ladiga Trail and the biking trails on Coldwater Mountain — will bring in cyclists from the area, and Snider said brewpubs are popular among bike enthusiasts.

But Snider admitted a big reason for Cheaha Brewing choosing the downtown location was the building itself, a century-old rail depot.

“A lot of things there need some TLC and need someone to believe in it, and we want to be a part of that,” Snider said.

Sam Sutchaleo, owner of Thai One On, said a big factor in coming to Anniston to set up his restaurant was the city’s Revolving Loan program, a project that provides financing to businesses looking to make capital improvements.

“It’s going to be helpful, very helpful,” he said. “I had not seen anything like this in any other city,” Sutchaleo said at the council’s listening tour in January.

Lewis Downing, manager of Downing’s General Store, said he would like to see the city put ordinances in place that would force owners of downtown properties to maintain the buildings. And he would like to see them enforce those ordinances.

“If you just started there you could get a lot of things done,” he said.

Bean, the former Spirit director, said Anniston’s ordinances regarding upkeep of buildings downtown are incredibly weak when compared to those of other cities.

Bike City USA

Patrick Wigley, owner of Wig’s Wheels, said the city needs to keep focused on projects such as completing a park on Monsanto Road that will serve as an entryway to the Coldwater Mountain trails and an initiative to make a path connecting downtown Anniston to the Chief Ladiga Trail.

The council seems to support that idea. Stewart has said he wants Anniston to gain a reputation as “Bike City, USA.” And on Feb. 13, the council voted unanimously to fund $450,000 worth of work to extend the Coldwater Mountain trail system into Anniston and connect it to the trailhead park on Monsanto Road.

Wigley said that once those projects are in place, Anniston would likely see growth in the hospitality industry.

Wigley pointed to Louisville, Ky., which this year hosted United Cycling International’s Cyclo-Cross World Championship. He said that event brought 10,000 people to the city — all of them spending $100 to $200 per day.

“That’s a pretty hefty weekend,” he said.

Wigley said cyclists gravitate toward mom-and-pop businesses rather than big-box stores, a trend that would further the economic boost of the bike trails.

In that regard, Wigley said he’s hopeful efforts to allow Sunday alcohol sales in Anniston will help local pubs and restaurants cater to cyclists used to having such choices in larger metropolitan areas.

Bryan said he’s confident the bicycle trails and the other initiatives city leaders are pushing for will work out.

“I have a great expectancy that in the next few years it’s going to be a tremendous place to come. It’s going to be a destination,” he said.

Assistant Metro Editor Daniel Gaddy: 256-235-3560. On Twitter @DGaddy_star.
© 2013