Today the Anniston City Council is set to debate whether the building, nearly a century and a quarter old, has become a danger. If they decide it has, it may be demolished.
After a portion of the building collapsed last week, a city building inspector evaluated the building and recommended demolition. That may lead to an undignified end for an optimistic leap made by developers hoping to entice investment in the city.
The building, erected in 1889, is the last intact structure in what was known as the “Gateway to Anniston.” The land company, the Anniston Inn and the railroad depot, all constructed around Zinn Park, were built to impress, to show the prosperity and progressiveness in Anniston, according to historical accounts. But in 1891, a recession hit and by 1905, the Anniston City Land Company had vacated the building.
A succession of businesses occupied the building after that. In 1960, the Molders and Foundry Union is listed as the owner in Calhoun County tax records.
In 1995, when the city of Anniston was looking at using the property as a new location for City Hall, Sloss Development Group, a company involved in many renovations of historic buildings in the Birmingham area, bought the property from the union. However, by 2000, the city had discarded the idea of using the building, and had instead expanded its current building on Gurnee Avenue. So the building sat empty.
In January 2000, a deal apparently brokered through Scott Barksdale, then director of Spirit of Anniston, the City Council of the time and developer Michael Hoffman, offered new life to the building.
Former Mayor Gene Stedham said the city had a Downtown Merchants Association, but no merchants downtown. So, it created Spirit of Anniston to recruit merchants, Stedham said.
The deal came on the heels of a successful venture brokered again by Hoffman and Barksdale for the redevelopment of Ezell Park into a commercial property, said Peggy Grubbs, a former finance director for the city who now is a member of Spirit’s board of directors.
Hoffman, using Spirit of Anniston to pass through money from the city, purchased the building intending to renovate it. Spirit was acting in much the same way as the city’s Public Building Authority, as a sort of holding agency for the city, Grubbs said.
Stedham agreed. The loan was a pass-through, an investment by the city in the redevelopment.
“It was supposed to be developed as not a city building, but as an individual (private) building,” Stedham said.
The City Council approved a resolution on Jan. 18, 2000, loaning the Spirit $180,000 to develop the building. Three days later on Jan. 21, Barksdale signed an agreement to pay the money back within 24 months. That same day, the building was purchased by the Anniston Land Building LLC, a company formed three days earlier, according to records at the Alabama Secretary of State’s office.
Hoffman started work on the building, including some work on the roof, he said when reached by telephone Monday in Gulf Shores, where he now works in real estate development. He also made at least one payment to the Spirit on the agreement which was given to the city, he said. Spirit of Anniston Director Betsy Bean couldn’t dig up the re-cords of the payment, but Danny McCullars, Anniston’s finance director, also said the Spirit did make at least one payment to the city on the agreement.
Then, in August 2000, there was a municipal election in Anniston. A new mayor and an entirely new slate of council members came on board. The new elected officials weren’t as interested in the land company renovations as their predecessors, Hoffman said. Their unwillingness to follow through on some agreements in the plan made the project undoable, he said.
So, Hoffman said, he signed the deed for the building back over to Spirit, leaving it with the building and the mort-gage.
The building and the mortgage should have come back to the city, Grubbs said. But since the loan was done through Spirit, it came back to Spirit, she said.
Bean said that when she came to Spirit in 2007, the building had deteriorated. Shortly after arriving in Anniston, Bean found out about a leak around a skylight and asked the City Council for money to fix the roof. Spirit is a non-profit that gets most of its funding through the city.
“We certainly made appeals to the city,” Bean said. “We couldn’t get any cooperation.”
The building, in poor condition and saddled with a $180,000 mortgage, was unmarketable, Bean said.
“We knew we couldn’t get $180,000,” Bean said. “So we were left just sort of hanging. How do we market this building? If we could have given it away we would.”
Now, a city inspector is recommending demolition. Another inspector, working for the contractors hired to build a new criminal justice center on that block, says it poses a danger of collapse.
Keith L. Owens, who examined the building in August 2011, said the mortar in the brick walls of the building is soft causing instability.
“It is our opinion that the structure will eventually collapse unless an exhaustive restoration is done, Owens wrote in an email to City Manager Don Hoyt after the collapse a week ago. “Also, the next portion of the structure to fail may not be adjacent to area where the new construction is taking place. The failure may occur on the portions of the building that border the sidewalks.”
At the same time, historic preservationists are asking for the building to be saved. David Schneider, senior director for preservation services for the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation, said he doesn’t believe the building is past saving. He notes the Noble Park houses which were renovated by Dr. Carla Thomas after they were threatened with demolition.
“As soon as they’ve reduced it to rubble, it’s too late,” Schneider said.
The building has never been on a level playing field as far as marketing the property, he said. The city could spend the amount it would require to tear the building down to stabilize it and it could withstand another 10 years, Schnei-der added. Then when the economy improves, the building might generate some interest, Schneider said.
But Hoffman is not so sure. The project was a tough one back in 2000; now, that difficulty has just been increased by deterioration, he said.
“The cautionary tale in that is that, if you get a chance to do something, sometimes it’s the only chance,” Hoffman said.
The Anniston City Council meeting at 4 p.m. at City Hall.
Contact staff writer Laura Camper at 256-235-3545.