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October 31, 2014

Phillip Tutor: Dreaming about Anniston's brand

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Posted: Thursday, August 7, 2014 6:25 pm

Deep inside Anniston’s City Hall, on a conference-room wall easy to overlook, hangs a framed print. It resembles something you’d see in a doctor’s office. But its symbolism is profound.

The print features five black-and-white photographs highlighting the city’s architectural beauty, such as decorative stonework at the Calhoun County Courthouse that sits just across Gurnee Avenue.

That courthouse, more than a century old, was conceived, designed and built by people, many of them Annistonians. Renovated and revered, it stands tall today.

And the symbolism?

It’s hokey, but hang with me. Vaughn Stewart, the mayor, and his “One City, One Vision” campaign are trying to build — rebuild, if you will — this city. Most of his efforts, and those of the City Council, are old news: Sunday alcohol sales, public smoking ban, infrastructure improvements, the McClellan compact, Chief Ladiga trail expansion, even a potential new site (or sites) for city offices.

Stewart’s a lawyer by trade, but he’s also a dreamer. Don’t blame him. Anniston’s in his blood, much as it was for former Mayor Chip Howell, and he can’t help but dream about what Anniston should be when its reclamation is complete. That’s refreshing, frankly, having someone on Gurnee Avenue not afraid to envision the impossible. There’s nothing wrong with swinging for the fences.

He hasn’t shown it to me, but Stewart’s agenda must read like a dinner-party shopping list. On that list, figuratively scribbled under “things for down the road,” is a re-branding of the city. It’s both complex and simple.

To re-brand Anniston, you must answer these questions:

What is Anniston?

What are Anniston’s strengths?

On what does Anniston hang its hat?

What is Anniston known for?

Before we start, a few ground rules. If you’re willing to play this re-branding game, bring something to the table other than “Anniston is known for crime and PCBs and bad public education.” That’s cliche and sophomoric. That’s also like telling Oxford and Jacksonville that they’d be little more than cowtowns if Interstate 20 (for the former) and Jacksonville State University (for the latter) didn’t exist. To participate, you must buy into the concept.

In other words, grow up a little.

Stewart calls this “place branding,” which sounds like something out of a city planner’s college textbook, but it makes sense. Once those questions are answered, this re-branding would include signage in different city neighborhoods, improved “Welcome to Anniston” markers on Alabama 21 and elsewhere, pamphlets, travel-magazine advertisements and all sorts of website components.

In reality, this is small potatoes. I’m not inclined to give Gurnee Avenue a pat on the back for wanting to do this. It’s akin to cheering someone for paying their bills on time.

But this is Anniston, and things are different here. It’s fact, unfortunately. Howell spent his two terms trying to keep the place afloat amid landmark PCBs litigation, the firing up of the chemical-weapons incinerator and the first (disappointing) years of McClellan redevelopment. Improved signage and travel-mag ads were the least of his worries.

That was then, this is now, and Stewart the Dreamer sees a time nearing when Anniston can join the real world and promote itself — the way Selma promotes its history, the way Monroeville promotes its literature, the way Huntsville promotes its marriage with NASA, the way Auburn and Tuscaloosa promote their universities. Just not now.

“We don’t want to invite people to the party and we’re not ready for it,” the mayor said earlier this week. On this, Stewart the Dreamer believes two things: (1.) those aforementioned questions haven’t been fully answered; and (2.) Anniston is a city of trails.

By trails, he means a city of historical trails, civil rights trails, military trails, biking trails and hiking trails. He wants to capitalize on the importance of iron and sandstone in the city’s industrial past. He can see an Anniston re-branded as a City of Trails that capitalizes on the Army’s presence, Coldwater Mountain and the Ladiga Trail’s promise, and the city’s place within the state’s difficult racial past.

In the mind of this dreamer, that brand is attractive, marketable and sustainable.

“At the end of the day, you want to be a quality-of-life Mecca,” Stewart said. “You want to set yourself apart, who you are and what you have been. If the city of Anniston can bring Shakespeare to Alabama … that (was) a pretty big thing.”

So, too, are these: better schools, more jobs, reduced crime. So any discussion of Anniston’s future starts there, and nowhere else. Stewart, from what I’ve seen, agrees.

That doesn’t stop him from dreaming, however, and it shouldn’t. You gotta try.

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