At the council’s Oct. 26 meeting, Councilman Ben Little asked that plans be made to bid on the Downtowner Inn at its foreclosure sale on Nov. 10, but the council did not discuss any specific or immediate plans for the building other than tearing it down.
It will take up the subject again today at 3 p.m. at City Hall.
Councilman John Spain agreed with Little that the building’s site does have development potential for the future.
Mayor Gene Robinson is against the purchase.
The council has no specific plans for the property and just acquiring the building and demolishing it would probably cost well over $1 million, he said.
“We don’t have any wiggle room in the current budget for that kind of expenditure,” Robinson said. “It would have to come out of (reserve funds).”
The reserves have been saved from court fees to help fund a new judicial center. The City Council gave the Public Building Authority the OK to move ahead with that project, to be funded by bonds, and is currently advertising for architecture firms and developers interested in doing the project.
“We would be sitting on a vacant piece of property for years,” Robinson said. “If we had something to go in its place, some economic development that was going to come right there and mean a lot of jobs or mean a lot of tax revenue, that would be a horse of a different color.”
But, there haven’t been any developers inquiring about that piece of property, he said.
“At this time and in this economy, we should not do that,” Robinson said. “It does not make economic sense.”
It can be good to invest in property to use for economic development, said City Planner Toby Bennington.
“The value is in the property itself and where it is at and what its marketability is,” Bennington said. “Sometimes it’s good to have that inventory for when the economy and market is right to be able to have properties that are marketable.”
It’s key to have a fundamental plan to use the property and to make sure it fits into a comprehensive picture of the city’s future development.
The city has empty buildings, including the Anniston Land Company Building at 13th and Moore and the old Noble Street School at 22nd Street, that it has no plans to use immediately, as well as the recently cleaned Chalk Line and some property on McClellan Boulevard across from Lowe’s with which it has tried to tempt developers but so far has been unsuccessful.
Repeated phone calls to city offices this week to learn the exact number of vacant city-owned properties were fruitless.
It’s not atypical for cities to have properties it has slated for development.
Pelham, which is about the same size as Anniston with a population of 21,700, is considering making just such a move to create a future town center, said Tom Seale, city clerk and financial director.
“There’s some vacant properties throughout Pelham that might be purchased for a pretty good price now as opposed to three years from now, (when) they may not be available,” Seale said. “That’s definitely something the mayor’s been looking at.”
At this time though, Pelham doesn’t own any empty buildings, he said.
Other cities of similar size tell the same story.
Athens, population 24,194, owns 35 buildings — one is vacant, said City Clerk John Hamilton. The city bought an old Kroger grocery with the intention of putting a library in it, he said.
“Unless there’s something we’re going to need it for, we don’t buy buildings,” Hamilton said. “If we’ve got some possible use, maybe. It’s usually some future benefit to the city in our mind. I mean, it doesn’t always work out that way.”
Gadsden, population 36,700, owns 79 buildings and of those, five are vacant, said Jan Crim, director of risk management. The economy has taken its toll on the city and left it with three properties it had sold but then was forced to take back in foreclosure, Crim said.
Especially in this economy, the foreclosures are a risk a municipality takes when it starts buying property hoping to sell it for development. It also risks having the property sit empty as it looks for a developer to take over the property and receiving no return on its investment for years.
A change in leadership of a city can also leave it with changed priorities. For instance, Anniston originally bought the Anniston Land Company building to use as a City Hall. However, as the years have gone by and the leadership of the city has changed, so have the priorities of the council. A few months ago, the City Council discussed tearing the building down, but decided to give the Historic Preservation Commission time to explore a means to save the historic structure.
Little brought up buying the Downtowner Inn after an article appeared in The Star about plans to donate the building to a fledgling ministry. Chris Terrell, director of Renovation Ministries, approached Jim Coxwell, a local businessman who had purchased the mortgage on the inn after it went into foreclosure. Coxwell, owner of Longleaf Lodge, had intended to sell the inn at auction, but Terrell convinced him to donate it to the ministry.
At the City Council meeting, Little said he didn’t think the property was zoned properly for such a use.
“Not only that, Quintard is a main thoroughfare for Anniston,” Little said. “I would hope that the city, we would get into the process and bid for that particular property. We could do several things there.”
Bennington also believes the Downtowner Inn could be a valuable piece of property in the future.
“I think it could be very viable because of its location,” Bennington said.
Even after the opening of the Eastern Parkway, Quintard will continue to be a high traffic road and the Downtowner Inn is located on a highly visible portion of that road, he said.
Star staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545.