The audience of close to 500 gathered at the Anniston City Meeting Center to hear 10 of the city’s mayoral hopefuls and two at-large Board of Education candidates speak. Many in the audience seemed excited at the prospect of new leadership for the city.
“We need some new blood in there with new ideas,” said Jimmy Busby, a resident of Ward 4.
Busby said he moved from White Plains to Anniston seven years ago and has been disappointed by the leadership of the city so far. The council meetings he has attended were chaotic, Busby said.
Most of the mayoral candidates seemed to agree.
There was one dissenter, current Mayor Gene Robinson, who said the council had changed in the last year.
“In my opinion we’ve had two different councils,” Robinson said. “We’ve had one that was confrontational and one that compromises.”
He said that in the last year, the council has made a lot of progress and there hasn’t been a lot of infighting.
The rest of the candidates didn’t seem to agree with Robinson’s assessment. One after another the group offered solutions to the dissension on the council and in the city.
“As far as the City Council, I’m hoping that there are some adults that are elected to this council and they all have respect for each other,” candidate Ann Welch said, summing up the sentiments of the majority of the group.
But while council strife has been something brought up at every one of the forums, the different approaches of the candidates was illustrated more in the other questions. Some of the most striking differences Tuesday were in the candidates’ approaches to economic development in Anniston.
Robinson said he has created relationships with the mayors of neighboring cities, the Chamber of Commerce and the Calhoun County Economic Development Council.
“I’m a big believer in working with our fellow cities, our fellow entities in the city and also being able to work regionally,” Robinson said. “It’s very important for us to continue on this line.”
The reason that the city hasn’t been able to bring in a lot of businesses, Robinson said, is “the Great Recession.”
Welch said there are tremendous opportunities for industrial development in the city, including McClellan.
“Not just industrial jobs, but research and other industrial,” Welch said.
Ralph Bradford said the city needed to focus on training the work force to entice business to the community.
“Bradford vision offers skills to build,” Bradford said. “Recruitment of new companies into the area depends on having a skilled labor force.”
Candidate Brant Locklier said Anniston needs to increase revenue to improve schools and public safety in the community before businesses will be willing to settle in the city.
He would create events in the city to create traffic and revenue for the city that can be invested in the school system, Locklier said.
“We can show these businesses that Anniston is a growing vibrant town,” Locklier said.
Candidate Vaughn Stewart said the city needs to deal with its problems before it will be successful in recruiting business.
“We’ve got to make Anniston more attractive,” Stewart said. “That goes back to my three focus areas: strong schools, safe streets and jobs. We’ve got to get our house in order before they will come look at us.”
Mike James, a member of the McClellan Development Authority’s board of directors and mayoral hopeful, said he would like to recruit retirement communities to McClellan. Basing his estimates on what the average retiree has in savings and income, James said the retirees would be a major boon to the local economy.
“If we put 1,000 retirement homes on McClellan it would dump between a quarter and a half a billion dollars into our local economy,” James said. “What a tax base.”
Mayoral candidate Curtis Ray said the city should focus on the downtown.
“I would like to see Anniston downtown go back to like it was when I was a kid,” Ray said. “That’s where I used to shop.”
John Norton, a former councilman and mayoral hopeful, said he would like to see Anniston focus on retail development.
“Frankly, we are two or three years away from industrial development,” Norton said. “First, deal with retail.”
Pollie Goodman, a newcomer to Anniston politics, said she would have to do research and reach out to other cities to see what they are doing.
George Salmon, who has worked on boards developing the former Fort McClellan, said he has learned that nothing happens in Alabama without the Alabama Development Office.
“What we’ve got to do is strengthen what I think is already a pretty good liaison,” Salmon said. “I think the (Economic Development Council) is on the right track.”
The at-large school board candidates also fielded questions at the forum. Current board member Arthur Cottingham, who was appointed to the seat after the death of board member Richard Hooks, is running against Mary Klinefelter, retired Anniston educator and wife of board member Jim Klinefelter, who is not seeking re-election.
Both wanted to focus on reading to bring up low test scores at the high school, but offered different ways.
Klinefelter presented a plan including involving parents, additional training for teachers and remedial programs for students who are behind.
“I’d like to see a lot more energy devoted to a remedial reading program,” Klinefelter said.
Cottingham wanted to focus on adding more reading teachers at the middle and high schools, which aren’t required to teach reading as a separate subject.
“We need reading courses at the middle school and high school,” Cottingham said. “We don’t have to wait on the state to tell us to teach reading when we have identified the need.”