The Spirit Must Survive
By Ann Welch
Spirit of Anniston Board Chairman
Three years ago when we interviewed for the position of executive director for the Spirit of Anniston, the Spirit personnel committee sent all of the finalists copies of news articles, which clearly showed there was mixed council support for the “Main Street” revitalization organization. For that reason, the Spirit Board and our chosen candidate, Betsy Bean, decided on a six-month contract, with arrangements for temporary housing until we could be sure the organization would survive for another year.
Each year since then, and, for many previous years, the Spirit has had to go to extraordinary lengths to justify its existence at budget time despite a proven track record of over $23 million of private investment in the downtown area since 1993 when the organization was founded; thousands upon thousands of hours of volunteer work in downtown by caring citizens from all walks of life; well executed merchant and community events and promotions, and broad-based partnerships on a wide variety of projects. I invite you to visit www.spiritofanniston.org to see our new website and to read the full range of activities reported to city council each month. (Click on Spirit of Anniston and then About.)
I’ve never understood why some of the city fathers didn’t understand the nature of economic redevelopment in a historic downtown. It’s a simple strategy that creates “economic revitalization within the context of historic preservation,” and no model of economic development has been more consistently effective than the Main Street approach under the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Dozens of programs – many heavily funded by federal or state governments – have come and gone over the past 40 years. Not one can remotely compete with Main Street as a cost-effective, grass-roots, bottom-up process for local economic development.
Since 1981 over 2,000 communities in 43 states have pursued downtown revitalization using Main Street principles. In the first 30 years, Main Street communities created 417,919 net new jobs, saw the creation of 94,176 new businesses, benefitted from the rehabilitation of thousands of buildings, and realized a total of $48.9 billion in investment.
For every dollar invested in Main Street by the public sector, $27 was invested by the private sector nationally. What other economic development initiative has that kind of cost effectiveness? Certainly not the programs where state governments spend $50,000 or $100,000 or $200,000 of taxpayers’ money for each job created.
And despite the lukewarm council support in Anniston in recent years, there have been some remarkable building and business transformations in each block downtown, including The Classic on Noble, Still Midtown Ceramics, The Rabbit Hutch, Wig’s Wheels, just to name a few.
To go to the next level economically in Anniston will require a master plan for downtown, more capital investment in public infrastructure such as plazas, parks, and streetscape improvements as well as a substantial revision of downtown codes to prevent “demolition by neglect.” While the Spirit can recommend and encourage these steps, we’re not legally authorized to implement them.
However, we can continue to develop The Anniston Civil Rights Heritage Trail in coordination with the upcoming publication of a new, state-authorized trail book, and organize the 50th anniversary Freedom Ride events, which will put the city in the national spotlight once again in May, when millions will watch a public television broadcast of a documentary about the events of the spring and summer of 1961. The incidents in Anniston at both the Greyhound and Trailways bus stations on that May 14 will be featured in the opening segment of the film, which is based on a 2006 book by Dr. Raymond Arsenault.
Executed and promoted properly, the trail can give a huge economic boost to downtown, W. 15th St., and ultimately the entire county, especially if there is agreement to add Hobson City, Choccolocco, and McClellan sites. Just as importantly, the trail can recognize those people, black and white, who rose to the occasion and held the community together during dangerous and trying times in our nation’s history.
We have so many partners working with us on this project but I do want to point out that Ms. Bean, our executive director, worked tirelessly to get us on this new state trail when she found out Anniston was not included. She invited the author to see our bus stations and to learn of the dramatic civil rights history of this area. Ms. Bean has also reached out to create partnerships with Jacksonville State University, the public library, the Anniston Star special publications unit, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Dr. Arsenault, and WGBH/Boston. And she is continuing to seek partnerships with other people, institutions, and corporations locally and around the state. This project is growing! It is a tremendous opportunity to tell the world the true story of Anniston.
In addition, we will also continue to recruit niche businesses for those downtown buildings that are habitable, and work with existing businesses and the Anniston Business Association to create and implement merchant promotions and merchant education.
We are out of the event business for the time being. Budget cuts prevent us from running the Downtown Farmers Market, which we created and have run for the last three years, as well as the January bridal show, the Art Bike contest at the Noble Street Festival and any major Christmas events.
Regardless, the Spirit will continue to survive and even thrive because all of the previous boards and the current board have always worked as a team, understanding the value of being in the same boat, rowing in the same direction.
Spirit by-laws allow a 21-member board. The current board comprises a cross-section of the community. As all of those board members before, this group is made up of smart, independent, thoughtful people who are generous, creative, and willing to make tough decisions when the occasion calls for it. They have spent untold and unpaid hours in meetings and planning sessions as well as volunteered for such mundane tasks as cheerfully handing out watermelon slices at the market or staffing a ticket booth at a loft tour.
While the Spirit is an independent 501c4 nonprofit corporation, our by-laws do provide for the city council to be an ex officio member, and we make every attempt to communicate with each of them on a regular basis. We have hand delivered monthly reports to city hall, briefed them individually at various times, mailed written invitations to all of them to attend and speak at press conferences and annual meetings, and always welcomed them at our various events.
Further, our meetings are open to the public on the fourth Friday of each month, 8 am at the Chamber. We also have active committees that include many volunteers who aren’t board members because effective Main Street programs must be broad-based and inclusive.
In the end, the most successful Main Street programs are always, without exception, public-private partnerships. We have tried to hold up our side of the partnership in the past, and will continue do so in the future. You can count on the Spirit Board and staff to remain steadfast in its work to improve downtown Anniston because success here benefits the entire city, the county, and the region. As always, we appreciate your continued support.