It’s still on.
In two hours Tuesday night at Anniston’s last political forum, we witnessed flashes of smartness alongside images of people who may mean well, but they’re not the answer to the city’s needs. Thanks for playing, anyway. We heard mediocrity mixed in with bright concepts. But we had to wait until the end to hear the most-important phrase.
It came from Julia Segars, chairman of the board of GETT Moving, the local non-partisan organization that partnered with other groups on the event.
In essence, Segars said: Thanks to those who have helped change the tone of our conversations about Anniston and its future.
Change the tone.
If you’ve snooped around Anniston politics the last two years, you’ve heard that phrase more often than not. In one form or another, that concept — changing what we hear about Anniston — is a common theme that’s part criticism of the last four years and part hope for the city’s immediate future.
At times Tuesday, a few candidates shed figurative tears about the Anniston of yesteryear: When Noble Street rocked, when the city school system was lauded, when other Alabamians envied the eclectic vibe coming from this longtime industrial and military town. Their sentimentality sounded sincere.
But the “change the tone” catch phrase is less sentimentality and more progressive expectations. It screams urgency, and for good reason. Its harkens to the reputations and perceptions of today’s Anniston, real or otherwise — about high crime and under-performing schools and a tepid business climate and shoddy, embarrassing leadership. All of those are negatives that, if turned into headlines, cloud Anniston’s superior points from public view.
In this way, Anniston hasn’t fallen far from Alabama’s tree. As author Allen Tullos wrote last year in Alabama Getaway: The Political Imaginary and the Heart of Dixie, Alabama is no stranger to the demons of bad reputations.
“After the May 2007 announcement that German conglomerate Thyssen-Krupp planned to build a $3.7 billion foundry for the production of stainless steel near Mobile, the director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) suggested that it was time to quit paying attention to late-night TV jokesters’ humiliation of Alabama and Mississippi: ‘It’s interesting that international business people view our states as hot places to be, yet they still make fun of us on Jay Leno and David Letterman.’
“No matter that Birmingham is home to a medical center of international reputation, or that Huntsville (where Wikipedia founder Jimbo Wales played with computers as a child) practices aerospace science and hatches tech startups in its four-thousand-acre Cummings Research Park. In some ways, reputation hasn’t caught up with reality.”
Tullos’ point is supreme: Even with its steep political faults, Alabama offers much — in science, in high-tech research, in opportunity — yet the late-night punch lines live a thousand lives. They seem impossible to stamp out, especially when today’s mistakes pile on the pain. It’s the quintessential example of a bad reputation.
The modern-day version has been through the wringer; recounting the reasons is a waste of time. Annistonians know what they want: Political competence, quality leadership, business opportunities, and most of all, a sense that those piloting the city’s course aren’t driving the blasted thing round-and-round in a deserted parking lot like a teenager in their buddy’s Trans Am.
As Tullos wrote, it’s about reputation catching up with reality.
And, as people are saying here this summer, it’s about changing the tone of conversations about Anniston. Instead of discussing failings, concentrate on answers. Instead of listing frustrations, focus on solutions.
Time may prove that to be mindless public-relations babble, but this much is clear: Anniston’s tone has been sour for too long. Changing it may be the first step to rejuvenation.
Phillip Tutor is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.