Only 5 percent of the city’s residents said the city was moving “in the right direction” in the poll of 400 Anniston residents, which was conducted months before last week’s alleged fistfight at City Hall.
“In focus groups, residents made it clear they felt Oxford had out-worked Anniston,” said Jim Jager, president of Birmingham-based New South Research, which conducted the study. “That they made it clear that government dysfunction in Anniston is the reason Oxford was able to get ahead.”
Jager held focus groups with local residents early this year, followed by a telephone survey of 400 residents — roughly 100 in each City Council ward — held in May. His group was hired by GETT Moving East Alabama, a nonprofit group funded by a number of local people and organizations, including The Anniston Star and Star publisher H. Brandt Ayers, in addition to Alabama Power, Regional Medical Center, Sunny King Group, Lee Brass and other businesses. The study cost $21,250.
GETT Moving is a “non-partisan, nonprofit organization formed to promote progress across Calhoun County by identifying the public priorities of area residents,” according to its website, gettmoving.org.
“We wanted to produce data, unbiased, statistically balanced data on what people in each of the four wards wants for Anniston,” said Julia Segars, spokeswoman for GETT Moving.
‘Loud and clear’
The poll results show a stark dissatisfaction with the direction of the city — a dissatisfaction that crosses lines of race, age and income. More than 90 percent of respondents citywide agreed with the statements that the city as “lacking leadership” and “missing opportunities.” Every racial group, income bracket and age group hovered around the 90 percent mark, and the results were consistent across the four City Council wards.
Jager, the pollster, said the study began with focus groups, which were convened prior to the April 27 tornadoes. Telephone polls, originally planned for April were postponed for a few weeks because of the tornadoes, said Jager.
The poll showed all of the city’s wards and demographic groups united in their opinion on Anniston’s highest-priority issues. Roughly nine out of 10 residents in every group said attracting new business, bringing new jobs and improving schools were the city’s most important issues.
In focus groups, GETT’s documents show, residents repeatedly compared Anniston to a Model T car — outdated and slow. In the poll, strong majorities identified the city as “struggling,” “declining,” and “divided.”
“Whether they were young or old, African American or Caucasian, in every ward, people said the city is dysfunctional,” Jager said. “They recognized that the city is dying.”
Focus group members said the city’s government was a key to the problem.
“They said loud and clear that personal friction between city leaders is keeping the city from moving forward,” Jager said.
‘It’s dying, but it’s your dog’
Jager acknowledged that the study’s respondents aren’t an exact match for Anniston’s population. Sixty percent of the respondents were women, 33 percent had college degrees, and 60 percent were white. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Anniston was 51.5 percent black in 2010, with about 23 percent of residents holding college degrees. Respondents were also older and wealthier than the median, with most above age 45 and about half reporting a household income of $50,000 or more.
Those results, Jager said, reflect the difficulty of polling in modern America. Young people and other demographic groups, he said, rely on cell phones and are hard to poll by phone, he said.
“If we hadn’t capped it at 60 percent, we’d have a sample that’s 80 percent female,” he said. “Men, generally, don’t pick up the phone. But we tried our best to reflect the makeup of the city and the wards.”
Jager’s task was made more difficult by the fact that information on the racial makeup of Anniston’s council wards is hard to find. The East Alabama Regional Planning Commission, which will help redraw the wards, has yet to assemble that data, a commission official said. The current wards were drawn from the 2000 Census and don’t reflect the growth of civilian settlement at McClellan in Ward 1.
Nearly three-quarters of residents described the city as “racially divided,” though perceptions varied based on the respondents’ race. Sixty-four percent of white residents identified “improving race relations” as a priority, while 81 percent of black residents said the same.
“African Americans recognized it, and were passionate, and they verbalized it,” Jager said. “Caucasian residents recognized it, but they said less about it.”
Curiously, three-quarters of respondents also described the city as “friendly” — which means that at least half see Anniston as both racially divided and friendly. Jager doesn’t see a contradiction.
“I’d say it’s the same here in Birmingham,” he said. “If you walk around, you’ll find that people are cordial, and this is the South, where that’s expected. But when you go back to the root of our biggest issues, they’re an outgrowth of our history of racial division.”
In a similar vein, while two thirds of respondents saw the city as “dying,” 75 percent said it was “a nice place to live.” That means a large segment of the population believes both things.
“It’s like your old dog,” Jager said. “It’s worn out, and it’s dying, but it’s your dog.”
In the running?
In focus groups, Jager said, Anniston residents identified division in government as the problem, but usually didn’t call out city councilmen by name.
“People didn’t point the finger at Mr. A or Mr. B.,” he said.
GETT Moving, the group that funded the study, isn’t naming names, either. Spokeswoman Julia Segars said that as a nonprofit, the group isn’t allowed to endorse specific candidates.
“We want to promote a longer-term focus on intergovernmental and community cooperation,” Segars said.
Marcus Dunn, pastor of Kingdom Place Ministries and a member of GETT Moving’s board of directors, said he would like to see some new leadership emerge in the community. With Anniston in crisis, he said, residents need to try to do something.
“It’s like Forrest Gump,” he said, referring to the 1994 film in which Tom Hanks accidentally starts a jogging craze. “Forrest just started running, and people started following him. And soon he had a movement going.”
But it’s strongly implied that running, in this instance, means running for office. If you click the “get involved” tab on GETT Moving’s website, you’ll find a page of instructions on how to qualify for 2012 city elections.
Is that a tacit vote of no-confidence in the current City Council? And is The Star, by supporting it, effectively endorsing any opposition candidate?
“I don’t think GETT Moving is,” Star publisher H. Brandt Ayers said. “But who is going to stand to defend this council?”
Ayers said he is supporting GETT Moving because it could provide direction for the city over the long haul — beyond the term of any politician.
“They’re endorsing a spirit,” he said. “They’re endorsing an idea. They’re endorsing a direction for the city. This community badly needs that. It’s been poorly led.”
Birmingham lawyer Charlie Waldrep is another board member and donor to GETT Moving. Though he doesn’t live in Anniston, the 1971 Jacksonville State graduate said he has a “fondness” for the area. He also does business here; Waldrep is the attorney for the employees’ union local at Anniston Army Depot.
Waldrep, who accompanied then-Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. on trips to Germany to recruit Mercedes to Alabama in the 1990s, said he sees development potential in Anniston.
“I think Anniston and Calhoun County are low-hanging fruit for economic development,” Waldrep said. He cited McClellan’s large acreage of available land as a plus for the area — but land isn’t the only thing industries look at when they think of investing in a community, he said.
“They look at education,” he said. “They want their employees to have something to do in the evenings other than watch television.”
GETT Moving supporters say they hope to build on the positive facets of Anniston. The group’s logo features a runner, an apparent nod to the popular Woodstock 5K run.
“We’ve got location, we’ve got natural beauty, we’ve got good people,” Segars said.
But the poll numbers suggest that even Anniston residents have a hard time seeing the positive. Fewer than one in five respondents described the city as “leading,” “forward-thinking” or “growing.”
“I asked focus groups what was nice about the city,” said Jager. “And the first response was usually, ‘Gee, we fight a lot.’”