In a sagging economy, McClellan’s future is cloudy
by Tim Lockette
Dec 11, 2011 | 5317 views |  0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A section of McClellan is seen in foggy conditions. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
A section of McClellan is seen in foggy conditions. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
More than a decade has passed since a soldier last stood guard on Baltzell Gate Road.

But the guard shack still stands in the middle of the street. It’s enough to make a driver slow down, half-expecting to be halted by someone in uniform.

To Robin Scott, it’s a symbol of how many local residents view McClellan.

“People think it’s a gated community,” he said. “People know McClellan exists, but they don’t know what it consists of.”

As director of the McClellan Development Authority, Scott is charged with finding new industries to bring life to the 18,000-acre former Army post that many locals still call “the fort.”

Established in 1917 as Camp McClellan and upgraded to a fort in 1929, Fort McClellan was once a solid partner contributing to Anniston’s prosperity, bringing thousands of soldiers and hundreds of families to the city, each with a reliable paycheck. In 1999, post-Cold War cuts closed the fort.

Even in its glory days, Fort McClellan was a hazy concept for many Calhoun County residents. Everyone knew it was the place soldiers came from, with their paychecks. But unless you had business there, it was still just a shaded patch on the map, without landmarks.

Twelve years on, it seems, the perception of the former base is even hazier. Scott says many local residents believe the place is off-limits. It isn’t. They think all 18,000 acres of the former post is open for development, Scott says. It’s not.

And they think redeveloping the fort is key to bringing back Anniston’s fortunes. Scott believes that’s true.

But for some residents, the sense of McClellan’s promise may be waning.

A recent poll of 400 Anniston residents, funded by the organization GETT Moving East Alabama, found strong support for efforts to bring new investment to the city. Ninety-one percent of residents citywide said attracting new business was a top priority for the city. Ninety-three percent said bringing new jobs was a high priority.

Only six out of ten cited “development of McClellan” as a similarly important goal. And only half said improving access from Interstate 20 to McClellan was of major importance.

Triumphs and failures

Scott is glad support is even that high.

“It’s a sign that, after all these years, most people understand that McClellan is an important priority,” he said.

When McClellan closed, local residents greeted the news with anxiety but also hope. It was 1999, the apex of a long economic boom. With thousands of acres of land in hand, the theory went, local governments should be able to foster a new age of private development here.

Yet beating swords into plowshares proved tougher than anyone imagined. The Joint Powers Authority, the organization that for years was charged with redeveloping the property, became mired in legal battles. The MDA — the successor organization headed by Scott — encountered legal challenges from day one.

Drive around the former post and you can see the triumphs — and the failures.

There are glimpses of the old days. The National Guard facility, still called Fort McClellan, where soldiers carry on a military mission on a much smaller scale. The Center for Domestic Preparedness, the Homeland Security facility where thousands of law-enforcement officers and firefighters train to respond to terror attacks.

And there are glimpses of the new McClellan. Howard Core, a musical instrument company, where people build violins in old military warehouses. A medical mall in the former PX. Old base housing now occupied by new civilian homeowners.

But turn down the wrong street, and you’ll find yourself face-to-face with the ghosts of McClellan. Blocked-off roads where weeds are devouring the pavement. Long, rusting buildings behind chain-link fences. The hulk of an F-4 fighter jet, parked on an old lot like a dead Chevy.

In many ways, those ghosts still define McClellan. The city’s population has declined by 5 percent in the years since the base closed. Despite all the new investment, the area never attracted an investor as massive and monolithic as the U.S. Army.

Perhaps it never could.

How to compete

“I guess if you live with the military, you die with the military,” said Chris Westley, an economics professor at Jacksonville State University.

Westley believes the fort closure caught the area unprepared. Local leaders knew it was coming, he said, but after decades of lobbying for federal funding, they just didn’t know how to compete for private capital.

“I think we messed up, by trying to let politics, rather than the needs of investors, dictate how the base was used,” he said.

Scott, of the MDA, can attest to how hard it is to get investors to come. He says every potential industry is looking at 25 to 30 locations. Standing out, he said, can be hard.

And it’s even harder given McClellan’s challenges. More than half the former fort’s massive acreage consists of conservation land that will never be developed. Much of the rest is still being cleared of unexploded ordnance and other problematic material left behind by the military — a grant-funded effort of more than $200 million.

“In reality, we’re working with about 1,200 acres that are active,” he said.

In 1999, all that military infrastructure seemed like a gift. But it’s a burden, too. Decades-old plumbing and wiring underground may need to be upgraded before industries can move in. One of the MDA’s biggest recent accomplishments was a complete inventory of the infrastructure on some of that land. Scott can now hand developers a plan showing what’s under those lots.

“I’ve got 600 acres for which I can hand someone a document and say, this is construction-ready,” he said.

But what are the competitors giving? Cities have been known to offer tax breaks to new industries. The state of Alabama has lured in automakers by promising to build infrastructure.

Scott said that for the right investor, he’d lobby for tax breaks. But the MDA itself doesn’t have taxing power. It operates on the revenue from land sales and rents, which have brought in about $350,000 annually.

If all 600 construction-ready acres were fully built out, MDA officials estimate, more than 7,000 jobs could be created. But that would take almost $7 million in infrastructure work. So it’s more likely to happen piece-by-piece than with one major employer riding to the rescue.

“This is a crucial year,” said Scott, who has been with the MDA since 2008. “In a way, we’re just getting truly started.”

A land sale for a proposed new assisted living facility, he said, will boost MDA’s 2012 revenue to $500,000. From there, he said, the group can build to bigger and bigger tenants.

Asked what local residents can do to help, Scott paused for thought.

“Having the support of local political leaders is very important,” he said.

Differing approaches

Anniston’s city leaders, however, have widely divergent ideas about how the property should be developed.

Councilman Herbert Palmore thinks the next development hot spot could be just off the former fort. Asked about his plan for McClellan, Palmore touted his proposal to move Anniston Middle School to a new location.

By freeing up the current school property — across from Lowe’s near Summerall Gate Road and McClellan Boulevard — Palmore believes the city can attract commercial development.

“That’s a convenient area for business,” he said.

Palmore said the middle school project could help draw more investment that would benefit McClellan. But when it comes to attracting development to McClellan proper, Palmore makes it clear that it’s not the council’s job.

“There’s an independent organization to do that,” he said. “They’re developing McClellan. You need to talk to them.”

Mayor Gene Robinson has proposed using part of the proceeds from a proposed one-cent sales tax to fund the MDA’s efforts. It’s unclear how much money that tax would yield. Robinson has also suggested revenue from the tax could go to schools and other projects.

But Robinson, who has a stormy relationship with the other councilmen, hasn’t been able to garner political support for the tax. Last year, council members changed council rules to prevent Robinson from introducing the tax at meeting after meeting.

Repeated attempts to reach Robinson and city councilmen John Spain and David Dawson were unsuccessful.

‘Until the ownership is settled’

As for Councilman Ben Little, he said he wants development at McClellan, but not before “ownership of the property is settled.” It’s his belief, he told The Star last week, that the land at McClellan belongs to Creek Indians, the native people who occupied much of Calhoun County prior to the 1830s.

It’s a claim Little has made before.

In 2009, he brought leaders of the Kialegee Tribal Town, a federally recognized Creek tribe in Oklahoma, to Anniston to discuss the idea of taking ownership of the land. Little also in that year made the rounds of local banks, urging them not to invest in McClellan projects. Little cited historic documents that, he said, showed the land belonged to the Creeks. Yet county officials who in 2009 reviewed those documents determined that they described land in Jacksonville, not Anniston — and that they showed no clear title to any property.

But so far, the only lawsuits over the ownership of McClellan have come from within Calhoun County, with Little himself as a plaintiff. In 2008, Little, Palmore and former Councilman Stan Bennett filed a lawsuit challenging the McClellan Development Authority’s right to exist. Sales of land at McClellan came to a halt for two years while the court case was settled.

“I wonder if this claim is on anybody’s radar except Little’s,” said Westley, the economics professor.

Taking care

of the basics

Westley, a Jacksonville resident, said he’s reluctant to criticize Anniston elected officials. And he says Anniston’s city staff has done a good job of trying to make Anniston more friendly to business.

But, he cautions, city leaders need to have their act together. It won’t pay off immediately in this economy, he said, but city leaders have to work to eliminate administrative barriers to development — and they have to develop a good public relations image.

“If you take care of these basics, and the economy is doing well, you’ll see things happen,” he said.

Scott hopes the new Veterans Memorial Parkway and Iron Mountain Road will help re-introduce local residents to McClellan’s potential.

Built to give drivers a quick path from I-20 to the heart of the former base, the multi-million-dollar road was built, in part, to sweeten the pot for industry — making it easy to drive a truck into parts of the base that were once hard to reach.

So far, the road has seen more cars than trucks. Local officials estimate that the parkway sees 3,000 to 4,000 vehicles per day. The road past Scott’s office, once quiet, now sees a steady flow of traffic. Scott says people who were turned off by the old gatehouses and fences are now taking rides along the wide-open parkway. Some might be seeing the former base for the first time.

“The parkway has done more to bring people here than anything else,” he said.
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