“When I do something, I’m usually doing it away from here,” Williams said. “(There’s) not a lot for us to do in Anniston, but it would be great if we had some restaurants downtown that could have jazz bands a few nights a week.
“We just need different things downtown that everyone in the community can enjoy.”
Those in the Anniston community who want a fusion of food, theater, live music, shopping and fun for the entire family in one centralized location — in other words, an arts and entertainment district — have to travel to nearby cities like Gadsden, Birmingham or Atlanta.
Each of these cities has or is working to establish a thriving downtown scene. Anniston might soon take steps to join them.
Toby Bennington, city planner for the City of Anniston, said the topic of an entertainment district was brought forth recently by the City Planning Commission and some local business owners.
“It has surfaced again with the Planning Commission, and after the election and going into the next city council, I know it is going to be a topic of discussion,” Bennington said. “But more so, it will hopefully be a topic of implementation.”
It’s important to incorporate an entertainment district into a downtown area and its central business activities, Bennington said — adding that Anniston offers a good opportunity for an arts and entertainment district.
“Any city this size that has a lot of land area, that gives you the opportunity to set up, identify and plan for that area to be an entertainment district,” Bennington said.
“And over time, if that area happens to include an old theater and old historic buildings, then they can become more attractive and marketed for restaurants, lounges, businesses and other cultural locations.
“People need to be able to park, get out of their cars and walk on the sidewalks to make it an experience.”
While there are many factors that go into creating and maintaining a successful arts and entertainment district, Bennington stressed that people need to get rid of the misconception that an entertainment district is simply a string of bars.
“It’s a mixture of nightlife activity, but it also blends in cultural activities such as museums, performing arts, restaurants and clubs that people can go to,” Bennington said.
“Entertainment districts are common, very popular and much needed features and components to downtowns. A downtown needs to be a destination in and of itself.”
THE GADSDEN MODEL
Gadsden, a city not far from Anniston and similar in layout, has developed a successful arts and entertainment district. With a population of about 37,000 people, Gadsden attracts people to its downtown a few days out of the month because of its local merchants and annual festivals like Riverfest.
Events such as Third Thursday, First Friday and First Saturday happen every month. Six blocks of downtown Gadsden are regularly closed down for fun, music, food, shopping and walking.
“This all started from one business owner and it caught fire with the rest of them,” said M. Kay Moore, director of Downtown Gadsden Inc. “It’s a huge way to bring your downtown together successfully when they (business owners) all want to participate.”
The buildings on Broad and Court streets in downtown Gadsden are 90 percent occupied by local merchants, according to Moore. Businesses include small boutiques, The Pitman Theatre and The Coffee Well.
Downtown Gadsden Inc. also incorporates art walks into the monthly events. The Mary G. Hardin Center for Cultural Arts, the Gadsden Museum of Art and The Walnut Gallery are all downtown.
In 2006, Moore said, First Friday only attracted 75 people. On July 6 of this year, the event brought in approximately 15,000 people.
“People come to First Friday to look at the classic cars, listen to the entertainment and enjoy the food from different vendors and restaurants,” Moore said. “But mostly they come to fellowship with other people and meet up with their friends. It’s a constant flow of people.”
Could Anniston look to Gadsden for ideas? “I think Gadsden has a tremendous model that Anniston could emulate with street entertainment, car shows, music and small park areas,” said Bennington. “We need to look at more events like Gadsden has, and create something similar that caters to the Anniston community.”
So what are some of the pieces that make up a successful arts and entertainment district?
Music and concerts are the No. 1 attraction to bring people into an entertainment district, Bennington said.
“Nothing brings people together more and makes people feel good than music,” he said. “It gives people a sense of taking a break from the stresses of life, and music does the heart and soul very good.”
Similar to Gadsden’s summer concert series, the recent Model City Music Fest concert event at Zinn Park in downtown Anniston on July 14 featured city officials, local bands and a major headlining act: Who’s Bad, a Michael Jackson tribute band.
“When you bring people downtown for an event like that, typically, people are going to stay downtown anywhere from two to six hours,” Bennington said. “When people are downtown, it starts benefiting your businesses, restaurants and other places, because they’re going to make a day of it.”
Williams said she wished a concert like the Model City Fest could be done at least once a month. “It was a good turnout and a good thing for the Anniston community.”
Bennington agreed that repetition is the key to success. “If you have something once a month, people get it in their minds and it becomes part of a routine.
“Gadsden has the First Fridays every month, which is a very successful event,” Bennington said. “People don’t just come downtown for that particular Friday, but they may come down the week after for something else. It just creates a place.”
An arts and entertainment district should fit the theme of its city, Bennington said. “The worst thing to do is to try to create some different type of environment that doesn’t fit. We want it to feel like you’re in Anniston, not like you’re in downtown Phoenix or somewhere else that’s a totally different culture.”
Gadsden may not have the pomp and flash of prosperous entertainment districts like Atlanta’s Atlantic Station, or Birmingham’s work-in-progress BJCC entertainment district, or Montgomery’s historic entertainment district, which includes the Riverfront stadium and Riverwalk Amphitheater. But Gadsden has proven that if the city council, business owners and communities work together, it can produce economic and cultural success.
“If you have more of an upscale downtown with trees, art and planning, it kind of unites and brings people together,” said Hugh Stump, executive director for the Etowah County tourism board. “It makes them want to come downtown, and anytime you can get people downtown, it’s a good thing.”
Cultural events are crucial, Stump added. “You have to have those cultural things. Birmingham is looking to do that with the big sports stadium downtown with the entertainment district to go with it. Each needs each other, and there’s a different way of doing it, but they all have an arts and entertainment aspect.”
“If you don’t have nightlife and your downtown closes up at 5 p.m., it’s hard to bring people back down,” Stump said. “The restaurants have to make a point to stay open, and it’s hard to develop that nightlife. But all it takes is that one business owner that decides to stay open and takes a leap of faith.”
Gadsden has a block of two or three bars that stay open late and are lined with people every night, said Moore.
Anniston has several popular restaurants and bars that would fit easily into a nightlife scene, including the Smoking Moose Saloon, Noble Street Billiards and the Peerless Saloon.
“There are some nice restaurants and evening-life establishments downtown,” Bennington said. “Yes, there can be more, but I think there are still good places to go eat and good places to go visit and listen to music.”
It’s all about the mix, said Moore. “You’ve got people who work downtown Monday through Friday that keep the restaurants going for breakfast and lunch — but on Saturdays, you have to have something different.”
But with an active nightlife come concerns about safety.
In May, the Alabama legislature passed a bill allowing cities to establish entertainment districts in which people could drink on designated streets.
Bennington noted that the safety concerns and open container laws would be addressed when the Planning Commission meets later this year to discuss developing an entertainment district.
4. BUSINESS SUPPORT
Bennington stressed the importance of the entire business community embracing downtown and marketing themselves during activities and events, whether it is through discounts or promotions at restaurants or stores.
“Anniston has a large number of privately owned or mom-and-pop type businesses, which are great,” Bennington said. “It would be a big benefit to them — and may entice that individual to open up a new business or another business in the downtown area. But it has to be viewed, seen and counted where there are people.”
The potential payoff can be great. “Your downtown is the heartbeat of your community, and if you have a dying downtown, your whole community suffers,” Moore said. “When your downtown can be a part of the success of the city, it makes the whole county.”