Mile after mile of water lines. The steel rods that strengthen the concrete of a bridge. Distant plants devoted to pushing water through pipes and electrons through wires.
Jim Miller loves the buried frameworks that hold cities together. He gets a gleam in his eye when he talks about the 135-year-old pipes beneath the streets of Anniston, or the difficulty of finding leaks in a water line that hasn’t seen daylight for decades. He’s just as passionate about the forgotten stuff above ground – jails, offices, historic buildings.
“People forget that all this infrastructure has to be renewed,” Miller said. “Somebody built it all, and from time to time, somebody has to rebuild it.”
Miller, longtime director of Anniston’s Water Works and Sewer Board and a quiet, tireless worker on the structures that undergird the Model City, is this year’s choice for The Anniston Star Citizen of the Year award.
H. Brandt Ayers, The Star’s publisher and chairman of Consolidated Publishing, announced the recipient at Thursday’s Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce annual meeting.
“It's our duty to often bring bad news to you but only once a year do I get to finger some deserving person and pour sunshine all over him,” Ayers said. He called Miller “a true Alabama conservative. He knows precisely the value of what he wants to conserve."
Miller said he was surprised at the honor.
“It makes me want to work a little harder," he said.
"I've made three great decisions in my life: I chose my parents well, I tricked my wife into marrying me and when this job opened up, I took it and started the next day."
If you don’t know Miller’s name, it’s largely because of the way he works. Like the infrastructure he’s been trying to save, Miller operates mostly in the background – not hidden, but visible only to those who care to look.
But soon, you won’t be able to drive through Anniston without seeing the fruits of his labor.
Miller was a driving force behind the renovation of the old AmSouth building – the 10-story tower that loomed, gutted by fire, over downtown Anniston for years. Now known as the Watermark Tower – a nickname Miller gave the project in its early stages – the building now sports a fresh exterior, and will soon house four stories of offices.
Not far from the Watermark Tower, the steel framework of a new Department of Human Resources headquarters is rising from the old Chalk Line property, a once-contaminated industrial site. Miller is the man city leaders put at the head of that project.
And near Zinn Park lie an underused block of buildings, destined to become the city’s new justice center, a combination jail and police station. Again, Miller is the man city leaders have entrusted with the details of the project.
“It’s a headache,” Miller said in an interview last week before he learned of the award, leaning back in his office, fingers laced behind his head.
But the gleam in his eyes tells a different story.
He likes this work.
Two Birminghams, one Anniston
As public officials go, Miller is surprisingly easy to reach. And little wonder: he’s been on call for the last 38 years.
“That’s how it works in the water business,” he said. “If something breaks, you need to be there. It can’t wait.”
Miller claims he got into water management by accident. A native of Sandusky, a small town just west of Birmingham, Miller was hired by a Birmingham-area industrial water authority before he turned 20. Supplying water to factories wasn’t exactly a lifelong dream, but it was good work.
“It’s an honorable profession,” he said. “You’re providing something people need, and to me that was appealing.”
And it provided a challenge for each of his varied talents. Miller holds an associate degree in engineering, a bachelor’s in business management and a master’s in environmental management. To hear him tell it, running a water authority takes all those things – a knowledge of the technical stuff, an ability to manage people, and an eye for the downstream effect of what you do.
When Birmingham began merging industrial and residential water authorities in the early 1990s, Miller found himself looking for work. A friend pointed out that Anniston was looking for someone to run the city’s water works. Miller fell in love with the city.
“I wouldn’t trade two Birminghams for an Anniston,” he said. “It’s a friendly place. It’s a city where you can know a lot of people, and you can get things done.”
The downtown is beautiful, Miller said. And it’s clear he believes it. Miller and his wife, Debra, still own a cattle farm west of Birmingham, but years ago they to an apartment in Lyric Square downtown – a rare move for a professional in the Model City.
“He loves downtown Anniston,” said Betsy Bean, executive director of Spirit of Anniston, where Miller serves as ex-officio board member.
“He definitely sees that the downtown is the city’s reputation, and the county’s too,” Bean said.
He wouldn’t be here long before he’d find himself fighting to save that reputation – by saving one of the city’s most prominent landmarks.
Sticking with it
When the top floors of the AmSouth Building were gutted in a fire in 2003, it seemed like the beginning of the end for downtown Anniston. The 10-story building had been a downtown icon, known by various names, since 1927. Tenants abandoned it, and it loomed, unrepaired, a reminder of prosperity that Anniston was missing.
The Water Works office wasn’t in great shape either. Miller runs the Water Works from a small office in a decades-old 11th Street building. Miller knew, years ago, that the Water Works would need to move eventually. And there were rumors that the 11th Street location would need to be torn down to make room for a federal courthouse.
Miller knew where he wanted to go. He presented the Water Works board of directors with a plan to refurbish the AmSouth building and put the Water Works headquarters there.
“That tower was so identified with the health of the community, the board felt the need to do something,” he said.
That was in 2004. It took years of work to make it happen. The Water Works looked for a private company to manage the project, but development plans fell through.
“He stuck with it,” said Bean. “If he hadn’t, there’d be a parking lot where the tower is.”
Eventually, some investors – a Birmingham doctor and his business partner – stood up to take over the renovation of the project.
“One advantage of going with a private company is that they could get tax credits for restoring a historic building,” Miller said.
But Miller left his mark on the project. The building was rechristened the Watermark Tower, a name Miller created for the project when it was in the planning stages. Work began in 2010, and tenants – enough to fill four floors – are expected to move in this month. A renovation of the tower has already wiped away the stain of the 2003 fire, restoring the building’s original 1927 look.
“I think we’ve already made a change downtown,” Miller said.
More than enough
Miller’s persistence with the Watermark property may be the reason the city invited him to head the Public Building Authority, a body created to oversee the building of a new $16 million local headquarters for the state Department of Human Resources. The building – now a steel skeleton rising on the lot across from Miller’s office – would give a new purpose to what’s known as the Chalk Line property, an industrial site that has undergone extensive environmental cleanup.
Originally, the PBA was supposed to cover only that project. But soon the City Council tasked the agency with a second job: building a new justice center on 13th Street, to replace the city police department and jail.
The old jail, built in the 1950s, is riddled with problems. Sewage dripping from leaks onto police officers’ desks. A bilge pump running in the basement. Cells built when Eisenhower was president and George Wallace an obscure country judge.
“In the 1950s, people didn’t care much about the welfare of prisoners,” Miller said. “We’re going to have to build a new jail, or the courts will make us do it.”
The project has faced opposition, most notably from City Councilman Ben Little, who said $5 million of the judicial center’s total price tag should be spent on improvements to his ward. Little’s concerns were voted down by the rest of the council, and Miller expects construction on a jail to be complete by the summer of 2013.
People who know Miller believe he can deliver on that. James Lloyd, former Water Board member and manager of the Watermark Tower project, said Miller’s quiet professionalism allows him to get things done.
“His even demeanor is a real advantage,” Lloyd said. “He’s got a good personality, and most important, he has the ability to step back and look at the larger picture.”
Anniston’s problems present a large picture indeed. But Miller hopes the three new building projects underway downtown will be the start of a turnaround.
“It’s hard for people to imagine,” he said. “But when you get brick on all these buildings, it will create a synergy. When people see the change, maybe we’ll get off our cans and move forward with confidence.”
Asked if he’d be willing to take on another building project, Miller says yes, but only if he has to.
“I’ve got more than enough to do already,” he said.
But he’s quick to note that he’s happy with the work the city’s leaders have given him.
“I didn’t get roped into this,” he said. “I love Anniston.”
Assistant Metro Editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560.
Jim Miller Profession: Director, Anniston Water Works and Sewer Board
Other positions held:
Chair, Public Building Authority
Ex-officio board member, Spirit of Anniston
Board member, Alabama Water Resources Commission
Married to Debra Miller, an organizational consultant and principal in the firm Ken Chapman and Associates
Associate degree – applied engineering – Jefferson State Community College
Bachelor’s degree – business administration – Birmingham-Southern
Master's degree – environmental management – Samford University