Phillip Tutor: Crafting an Anniston message
Jan 14, 2011 | 1898 views |  0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
When the first leg of Veterans Memorial Parkway opens next week, you’ll hear two distinct sounds.

One will be applause.

Another will be the audible noise of potential being sucked out of Anniston’s much-beleaguered downtown.

Right?

Well, if you listen to Anniston’s abundant critics — those who throw stones but propose no viable solutions — then the parkway isn’t a road. It’s a dagger stabbed deep in the flesh of the city’s downtown corridor. Think Jack the Ripper, lurking on Quintard Avenue, doing his bloody deed.

Forget the City Hall spiel, they say, that casts the parkway as the best thing to happen to Anniston since the city’s founders planted oak trees in the Quintard median.

Instead, they wholeheartedly believe a pair of points: (1.) If you give people a convenient way to bypass downtown Anniston, they will; and (2.) there is nothing in downtown Anniston to see or do anyway, so what’s the big deal?

I’m not sure if these gloomy Guses kick their dogs each night for fun, but their overt and irrepressible negativism makes it seem that way.

I’d rather not embolden those folks, but let’s at least admit this much: Anniston’s downtown is both a work in progress and a place of transition. The downtown of 1950 was buried long ago. The big boxes left; a hodgepodge of bars, restaurants and niche shops replaced them over time, some successful, others not. Quality lives next door to decay, still.

If residents expect downtown Anniston to be Oxford Exchange — with a Target and a Kohl’s and a Dick’s and an Olive Garden — it ain’t happening. If that’s the only thing that will make people happy and allay the critics, then downtown Anniston is doomed to fail.

It isn’t, of course.

Instead, downtown Anniston has to carve its own plan. It can’t be what it was. It can’t be Oxford. It has to be something else, something new, something unique, something attractive, utilitarian and appealing.

If that happens, then concerns about the parkway’s impact are irrelevant.

People are earnestly trying to remake that part of the city, despite what the negativists purport. Shop owners on Noble Street who believe in the potential, who see the possibilities. Loft residents who embrace the downtown atmosphere. City leaders who are leading the renovation efforts of Watermark Tower and other important buildings.

If you don’t think small progress and larger promise exist in the city’s downtown corridor, well, you likely already have your mind made up, anyway.

What we may be able to agree on is that downtown Anniston suffers from the same malady that affects virtually everything in this city. Dysfunctional elected leadership is common; effective elected guidance is atypical. That malignancy bleeds into everything.

Like it or not, The Spirit of Anniston is a vital city-funded agency whose role in downtown’s redevelopment is critical. Like humans, Spirit isn’t perfect. But the City Council has slashed its funding to the bone, sending a clear message of priorities.

Oh, yeah. That’s right. The priority of Anniston’s council is the Grand Inquisition, an embarrassing power-play employed by small-town politicians with unveiled agendas. It makes for an odd scenario, especially when councilmen such as Ben Little seem to admit that downtown should be a planning priority. “We have to do things downtown that will draw them downtown,” Little told The Star earlier this week.

Here’s some free advice for City Hall: Don’t waste next week’s opening of the parkway’s first leg.

The lazy political move would be to stand at the parkway’s Golden Springs entrance, cut the ceremonial ribbon and send motorists off with a few platitudes. If that’s the plan, I’d suggest revamping it.

The better path would be to trot out a collection of people — the city planner, downtown business owners, smart residents who love the city — who will dedicate themselves to shaping the message of downtown Anniston’s future. Make it official. Give them a title and power.

These people can’t let naysayers craft the message. If negativists lead the way, then downtown is an entrenched, exaggerated failure of street crime and downtown boredom. And that’s good for no one in Anniston, whether you appreciate it or not. Cities with decrepit downtowns will struggle; cities with vibrant downtowns are vibrant themselves.

That’s why all Annistonians should care.

That’s also why next Wednesday’s parkway opening should be paired with a new message about downtown. Let that message be transparent. Take a cue from the U.S. 280 Corridor Transit Study in Birmingham, a planning project that holds public workshops, recruits residents’ opinions and crafts the plan — plus the message — for that vital route in Jefferson and Shelby counties.

In other words, be proactive. Use the parkway’s opening to kickstart a community-wide project that aggressively discusses and markets downtown’s future, not its parkway-caused funeral.

There’s no doubt the parkway will take Calhoun County to new heights. Where it takes downtown Anniston is up for debate. Let’s do it the right way, for the city’s sake.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is The Star’s commentary editor.
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