HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. — Doug Friedlander is on a diet. It’s worked; another patron in the restaurant compliments Friedlander on his slim frame. He opts for a salad.
“When you’re starting to fall off the wagon, the time you have to dig in and turn the ship around is the most difficult,” he said. “The same is true for decline in towns.”
Having put himself on the path to good health, Friedlander now focuses his attention on turning his town around. He thinks the same qualities — commitment and persistence — are needed for both challenges.
“The time when you have to exert superhuman leadership is the time when it is the least desirable and least hopeful. But what’s your alternative? Self-pity,” he continued while gesticulating with his fork.
Since moving to Helena in 2004, Friedlander has been at the forefront of several initiatives to turn the town’s fortunes around. And he has advice for Anniston and any town struggling with a dwindling population and city politics labeled as dysfunctional.
Change comes from residents, not City Hall
Helena-West Helena — two towns that consolidated in 2006 — shed population in every decade since the ’60s, going from a combined 25,000 residents to about 15,000 over that time. The new city’s population in 2010 was 12,282, according to the Census Bureau.
Many of Helena’s major businesses, like a prominent rubber factory, left town years ago. Agricultural mechanization has stifled farming, Helena’s primary industry. Until recently, nearly all of the stores in its historic downtown were boarded up.
Southern Bancorp, a rural development bank with a Helena subsidiary, took action in 2003 by leading the effort to create a comprehensive strategic plan. Since then, Helena has made slow but steady progress.
After a national consultant group conducted a baseline study of the community, a professional facilitator began steering community meetings around the county. Input from 300 residents in 500 meetings over 18 months spawned the Phillips County Strategic Community Plan.
The master plan encompassed 46 county-wide goals and nearly 200 necessary “action steps” to achieve them. A swath of individuals and groups endorsed the plan after its January 2005 ratification, including local business, universities, nonprofits, and local, state and national public officials.
Change, in short, came from regular residents, not from City Hall.
“People will give this a chance, but they will lose interest. You really need to nail it the first time,” Friedlander, now the executive director of the county’s chamber of commerce, said of the strategic plan.
Southern Bancorp created a public-private partnership, dubbed the Delta Bridge Project, to implement the plan. The Walton Family Foundation — the philanthropic organization organized by the family behind Wal-Mart — provided funding. To garner extra money, Southern employs full-time grant writers. In total, the Delta Bridge Project has amassed around $25 million for initiatives like a health and wellness center, a Boys & Girls Club and several tourism projects.
Friedlander said Helena’s success could be recreated without super-wealthy donors like the Waltons. He said half of the $3 million collected for the Boys & Girls Club came from donors inside Phillips County.
“They need something to believe that if they will hope again, if you give them a reason to believe that their wealth will not be squandered, there will be people who are willing to invest,” Friedlander added.
‘A matter of joining forces’
H.L. Mencken, that piercing critic of 20th century American culture, once labeled Arkansas the “apex of moronia.”
The state was not flattered — they were, at the time, trying to cultivate the “Wonder State” brand — and the state Legislature passed a motion to pray for Mencken’s soul.
The writer, always quick-witted, replied, “I didn’t make Arkansas the butt of ridicule — God did.”
Given this reputation, the notion that Anniston — itself located in a much-maligned state — ought to seek advice from Arkansas may seem puzzling. But indeed, it is in a small town on the banks of the Mississippi River that the once-Model City may find inspiration.
Helena faced many of the same problems that Anniston is now dealing with: population decline, vanishing industry, a shrinking retail base and a fractious local government. And local residents feel that Anniston could employ many of the same solutions.
Anthony Humphries, the president and CEO of Noble Bank in Anniston, thinks the Model City could benefit from a public-private partnership like Helena’s. He said banks are natural leaders for economic development efforts.
“It takes the whole business community. But you’ve got to first have the political leadership on the same page,” he said. “Everyone has to put personal agenda or biases or animosities aside and look at what’s best for the community.”
Humphries posited that division hampers Anniston’s ability to attract new industry.
“That’s what I hear most from economic developers: that they don’t know sometimes who to talk to and that we seem divided,” he said.
Betsy Bean, executive director of the downtown-development agency Spirit of Anniston, attributes the lack of new industry to the disheveled appearance of Anniston’s downtown district.
“Industries look at the downtown as the first impression. If they don’t see an attractive, vibrant downtown, it will send the wrong message,” she said.
Bean argued that local residents are not complacent, but disorganized.
“People are sort of in their own little civic world. It’s a matter of joining forces,” she said. “There have to be regular, ongoing meetings between your school board, city council, county commission and chamber of commerce.”
Bean says a master plan would provide the impetus for different groups to share resources and ideas with one another.
“If you want to create a plaza or make new sidewalks, the first thing you need is a master plan. Otherwise, it is haphazard,” she said. “You have to involve a lot of people. Go to their neighborhoods. It can’t be the vision of just a few people.”
Despite the town’s problems, Jim Miller, the general manager for Anniston Water Works, is optimistic about Anniston’s future. Miller likened growing public engagement in Anniston, driven by social media, to recent protests in Egypt.
“A lot of people are paying really close attention to local politics for the first time. That kind of public interest and mobilization is encouraging,” he said.
Miller said that heeding the lessons of towns like Helena is crucial to Anniston’s progress.
“People think that our issues politically are unique to us and they are really not,” he said.
‘Time for everybody to step up and be leaders’
Maudine Holloway, the executive director of Community Enabler Developer, witnesses the struggles of Anniston’s most vulnerable residents every day. For the homeless, the elderly and the poor in Anniston, she says, it has never been worse.
“Utilities are being cut off and people are being forced to move because they don’t have any income. People are staying in their family’s basement and are happy to be there,” she lamented. “We can help folks get dressed nice and touch up their resume, but at the end of the day, no one is hiring.”
Holloway said a master plan for sparking growth in Anniston should focus on investments in education and should include input from both the most- and least-affluent Annistonians. To accomplish that, though, she stressed the importance of civic action.
“We should stop blaming the leadership and get up and do something ourselves,” she insisted.
Eric Stringer is no stranger to master plans. As the community and external affairs liaison at Gadsden State Community College, he has helped write them. And as the president of the Hobson City Community and Economic Development Corporation, he has lobbied for a master plan in his hometown of Hobson City.
“If you’re going to follow somebody, you need to know the direction they’re going in,” he offered as a rationale for a county-wide master plan.
All of the municipalities in the county have a symbiotic relationship and therefore must work together, Stringer said.
“I have no problem stealing good ideas. You can think you’re in competition with Oxford, but I care about this whole region,” he said. “We’ve got to stop fighting amongst ourselves.
“It’s time for everybody to step up and be leaders. Successful communities have multiple leaders, and that’s what we’ve got to have in Calhoun County.”