The Anniston City Council approved dipping into its reserves to fund four night-shift employees who will, among other things, clean and maintain the parking lots.
The maintenance of the lots was once the responsibility of Spirit of Anniston, the organization charged with promoting the downtown area. However, budget cuts over the last couple of years have left the organization without the manpower to continue the maintenance.
In September 2010, as the council members struggled to cut costs and balance the budget, they voted to cut the organization’s funding in half, from $190,000 to $95,000 for fiscal year 2011. In 2011, the council maintained the $95,000 allocation for fiscal year 2012.
The council members’ expectations of Spirit did not change, though, and the parking lots have been suffering.
“The Spirit has had their funds reduced over the last couple of years, although their role was not reduced,” said Councilman Jay Jenkins. “Obviously something’s got to give.”
Betsy Bean, executive director of Spirit, said after the budget cut, she had to reduce staff. Now Spirit, which had two full-time employees, Bean and an event planner, and two part-time employees, an office administrator and a parking lot administrator, is down to Bean and a part-time office administrator who devotes 20 percent of her time to patrolling the parking lots.
The money she used to hire a landscaper and handyman to maintain the 10 or 12 lots also disappeared in the budget cut, Bean said.
“They all need pruning and new landscape fabric and mulching,” Bean said. “There may need to be some re-striping and renumbering.”
At the same time as the budget cuts, parking revenue has fallen because of the downturn in the economy, she said, using the Noble Building as an example.
“The Noble Building across the street was full and that parking lot, Number 7, was under a lot of pressure,” Bean said. “Well, that building is now in foreclosure and a lot of business has moved out.”
Just in the past year, the parking revenue has dropped about 25 percent from $9,500 in fiscal year 2011 to $7,000 this fiscal year, Bean said.
The $7,000 just covers the time of the employee who patrols the lots, Bean said.
Bob Dean, director of Anniston’s public works department, said he needed to add the night shift to be able to work in the parking lots when they were empty. The crew will be concentrating on the area between Quintard and Gurnee avenues from 15th Street to Alabama 202.
The four employees will be cleaning the streets, alleys and parking lots, using a street sweeper to get debris, weeding and killing weeds.
“Making the place look halfway decent,” Dean said. “If they get caught up, they’ll go outside that area. But that is the area of primary concern.”
But while the change is simply a reallocation of responsibility, Bean said she hopes it will be a change in direction for the downtown. She has submitted plans for the parking lots to make them more attractive with additional landscaping, and environmentally friendly, with pavement that allows rainwater to pass through instead of running off, for the city’s capital improvement plan. But so far the changes have not been included.
“There’s a lot that can be done with those parking lots beyond just a superficial freshening up,” Bean said. “They need to be part of a comprehensive downtown master plan.”
Jenkins also thought the change could lead to a deeper discussion of the downtown.
“I really see this as an opportunity for us to begin a reassessment of where we really are headed with downtown development,” Jenkins said.
Mayor Gene Robinson said the city does need to start concentrating on economic development in the downtown area. However, he doesn’t see that as Spirit’s role. The city is creating a Commercial Development Authority and it has a Downtown Redevelopment Authority which has not been active. The downtown authority should be reconstituted and both the authorities should coordinate with the new planning and development department to be headed by Toby Bennington, Robinson said.
“We’re going to come out this fall with several meetings for the public and make some major decisions,” Robinson said. “The new department is going to be basically the coordinator of the whole economic development policy of the city.”
As to where Spirit of Anniston fits into that conversation, Robinson declined to offer his own view but indicated future funding will play a part.
“We’ll find out pretty soon because budget hearings are coming,” Robinson said.
Star staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545.