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The mayor's right -- Anniston needs wins, indeed

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Jack Draper, Anniston’s mayor, sounds like a football coach whose team is mired in a confounding streak of averageness.

Anniston needs wins — and quickly, he says.

Not next season. Not next month. Now, in other words.

That’s what the new mayor said this week when he stopped by The Star for a chat. He brought up other things, too — City Council camaraderie, friendliness with Oxford City Hall, most things Anniston’s mayor should mention — but his overarching theme was the thirst for immediate and profound success in economic development.

Boiled down, what Draper really wants are “big” economic-development wins, not only the nickel-and-dime announcements of hamburger joints and niche shops. Those places add up in time, but you don’t bolster a struggling city’s post-recession economy on a steady diet of minimum-wage jobs with few, if any, benefits. I’m going to put words in his mouth here, but what the mayor really means is Anniston needs an influx of economic-development victories that produce middle-class wages, good benefits, stable industries and the added benefit of projecting Anniston as a Deep South city moving toward prosperity, not more of Alabama’s same ol’ same ol’.

He’s not asking for much, is he?

Two thoughts about the mayor’s theme:

1. Why not focus strongly on the essential improvement of public education in Anniston?

2. Likewise, why not make crime reduction the immediate win the city needs?

In Draper’s defense, he discussed those issues with The Star’s editors this week. He didn’t unnecessarily sugarcoat them or dodge the questions. But he left no doubt that the focus early in his first go-around at City Hall will be on jobs and economic development. His logic is sound and defensible. Oh, and here’s the key part: Of those three topics — economic development, education improvement and crime reduction — the former is the most doable for a new mayor with a first-year city manager, a reconfigured Board of Education and a City Council hopelessly destined for four years of unimpressive 3-2 votes that will appear, to outsiders, at least, to break along racial lines.

Remember that the Draper City Hall is following four years of former Mayor Vaughn Stewart’s “One City, One Vision” strategic plan that brimmed with positive vibes and sought public input. It was the first time since the Army first announced in 1995 that it would shutter Fort McClellan that an Anniston mayor and council weren’t overtaken by steep job and population losses, fears of Army incinerator disasters, environmental pollution and ordnance cleanup or widespread political dysfunction — or some combination thereof.

The Stewart City Hall, though imperfect, improved Anniston.

And yet, Stewart, who didn’t seek re-election, left Gurnee Avenue as the city continues to struggle with unacceptable crime rates in certain areas, a public school system that does job-creators few favors and tepid economic-development results. An amicable City Council with a workaholic mayor and a strong city manager knew early on that taking Anniston to its 21st-century possibility was a generational slog, not a quick fix, and that nothing is guaranteed. Certainly not with Anniston’s often-destructive form of ward-based politics that favors elected bosses more than citywide improvement. That’s what the Draper City Hall faces.

If anything, the mayor’s push for quick wins in economic development would provide this version of Gurnee Avenue with a splash of first-year positive PR. Whether at McClellan, downtown, on South Quintard or in Lenlock, a smattering of these victories would lend instant credibility to Draper and City Manager Kent Davis’ offices — proof, if you will, that the new faces of Anniston government aren’t overmatched. Plus, let’s face it: PR-boost aside, luring new industries with sustainable wages is an embedded requirement for the city’s future.

Draper’s been on the job only a few weeks. He’s hardly an expert; he freely admits that, which is wise. But as the coach of Anniston’s team, he’s right to speak bluntly, even with an acerbic, Nick Saban-like tongue. Anniston needs victories of all sorts, sooner than later.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.