In early December 2000, Ray Clark, then-principal deputy assistant to the assistant secretary of the Army, did not skimp on the soaring rhetoric, "What you see before you is not only a beautiful landscape, a sky that supports bald eagles, waters that support small snails and cunning catfish, and mountains that provide cover and ford to fox, mountain lion, and raccoon.”
Clark continued, "You also see before you an island of hope and conciliation; a place where we have a chance to get it right, to erase any dividing lines between black, white, rich, poor, city, county. You have an opportunity to help bring new opportunity to all."
Who would question it? The Army was leaving and so was a major portion of the economy propping up Anniston and surroundings. Yet, base-closing battles to save McClellan that had taken so much time and energy were behind the community. One chapter was concluding. Another one full of great potential was just beginning. There were lots of risks, but rewards, as well.
Looking back, the package labeled “McClellan” with a big red ribbon around it had a host of problems on the inside. The 9,453 acres handed over to the McClellan re-use board would require “TLC,” the same sort of description a homeowner would use to sell a house in need of a new roof, fresh coat of paint, repaired foundation or all of the above.
A little tender loving care and she’ll be good as new.
The biggest chore for the new owners of McClellan was cleaning up the mess made over eight decades by the U.S. Army. An effort to ensure the property is free of unexploded ordnance has been costly and time-consuming. According to the McClellan Development Authority, 3,146 acres are available for “sale or further development” while 4,419 acres remain in “some stage of cleanup.” Progress is continuing. The MDA projects an additional 1,914 acres will be ready to develop by the end of September. The maximum amount of acreage available as a single site is 300 acres, per Robin Scott, the MDA’s executive director.
A quick aside: Everyone I speak with who is familiar with McClellan cleanup efforts credits Chip Howell, Anniston’s mayor from 2000 to 2008, with helping secure $151 million to clean up the former fort.
Besides what may be in the ground, there’s what is on top of it – namely crumbling structures that are beyond rehabilitation. The MDA reports a total of 52 building have been destroyed at a cost of $500,000. One that remains is listed on the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama website as the “Starship complex.” The listing notes the campus has 772,194 square feet over 83 acres. The bad part is that the buildings have been unoccupied for more than a dozen years, meaning the South’s heat and humidity have done their worse on the interior. The list price of $19,828,280 seems, shall we say, a tad optimistic.
And, it seems, the Starships are a nifty illustration of the challenge before McClellan – a big building with lots of space and lots of potential, yet one that will demand a deep-pocketed developer with a big sense of imagination to put 770,000 square-feet to work.
Money is a persistent cause of concern for those with big dreams for McClellan. The MDA doesn’t have a regular source of income. To raise funds it must sell property. As a wise economic development expert from Georgia once told us: In order to keep the lights on, cut the grass and, most importantly, market itself, McClellan must sell the one asset – property – that needs money, time and patience to grow into something of great value.
It’s a different story in Devens, Mass. In the mid-1990s, the Army marched out of Fort Devens, taking with it 8,000 civilian and Army jobs along with 9,000 residents. In marched MassDevelopment, a quasi-public agency that acts as the state’s finance and development authority. The state committed to spending $200 million over 40 years to create something new out of an old fort. Thus far, $118 million has been spent on roads, telecommunications and other infrastructure.
Today, according to MassDevelopment, 4,400 acres of the former post is home to 2,750 residents and 75 businesses, including American Superconductor and Bristol-Myers Squibb.
What’s the payoff of MassDevelopment’s investment? According to an analysis by the University of Massachusetts’ Donahue Institute, it’s meant $1.4 billion to the local economy in the central part of the state.
Unless we can invent a time machine, there’s no point in wishing we could go back a dozen years and start afresh at McClellan. Given the time and money required to clean up the post, it might not have mattered anyway.
There’s nothing to say that Alabama can’t follow Massachusetts’ lead in lending a hand to a property with loads of potential. The MDA board, well-stocked with savvy business leaders, would be a willing partner. Board members we spoke with recently had big dreams. One can easily see the potential as a place to live, work and play. Many jobs, residences and recreational users are already there, but the opportunities will grow as more property is deemed ready to develop.
What’s missing is a champion in Montgomery. We need a state agency, politicians or ample portions of both to inject money and energy so that the world knows that McClellan is open for business.
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or bdavis@EditorBobDavis.