A major reason for the growth in St. Clair County was and is the commerce that comes from two major interstate highways that cross the county’s borders. The interstate highways, coupled with forward thinking leadership and a number of other factors, have helped drive an increase in population, as well as increased industrial and retail activity.
While no one denies the value of the interstates, nor the value of those businesses that wish to locate near them, many of our towns are now struggling to balance that activity with their historic downtown districts. The downtown areas are the souls of their communities, and provide a real link with their cities’ historic past.
A city such as Springville, for example, has invested a great deal of effort into seeing its downtown area preserved for future generations. Grants have funded two stages of a streetscape project on U.S. 11, that provided lights and sidewalks that lead to Big Springs Park. The city even managed to make a positive out of the collapsed Crown Binder buildings, by turning that space into an area for a farmer’s market.
In Pell City, various events such as the Downtown Block Party and Fourth Friday celebrations are part of an overall effort to drive more traffic to the downtown area. Ashville hosts similar events, like Christmas on the Square and Tunes Around Town, to bring people to the historic area there.
The city of Leeds is now undertaking a project of its own. Blessed with a historic downtown area, the city recently created a Redevelopment Authority, whose sole focus is to refurbish and revitalize the area between President Street along U.S. 78, to its intersection with Ala. 25. City leaders estimate 4-5 million people per year now visit the Outlet Shops of Grand River, and the city is seeking ways to steer some of that traffic to the downtown area.
Leeds’ sister city, Moody, has no historic downtown area, but is making a move toward creating a "center" for its city. The city last week entered into a purchase contract for the former Wayside Nursery property, with its eyes on creating a splash pad, civic center and library on the site. That will make the area we know as "Moody crossroads" the de facto center for the city, as the home to that property, the Moody park, City Hall and the city’s senior center.
It might be the interstates that brought the population to this area. Creating a downtown area that fosters a sense of community for citizens might just be what keeps it here for a long time.