It is, and can remain, the Model City.
It can be Toxic Town USA.
It can be Ecotourism City.
It can be Substandard Public Education City.
It can be Bike City Alabama, the mayor’s choice, a fine choice.
It can be Little Retail Sister to Oxford City. Or Environmental Pollution Cleanup City. Or Tree City. Or the Northeast Alabama Medical Center City. Or the Political Dysfunction City.
The choices, optimistic and pessimistic, are endless.
The realistic opportunities aren’t.
Longtime Annistonians understand: The city named itself the Model City a century ago; despite age and inaccuracy, the name still gets bandied around. In 1978, the National Civic League designated Anniston an All-American City — a hard-to-win but well-earned award. In 2002, 60 Minutes named Anniston “America’s most toxic town,” which left deep scars. Today, cleanup of the city’s environmentally polluted areas has made a profoundly positive impact.
But the “Toxic Town” moniker remains. Google it. Reputations, fair or not, slowly dissolve.
All that brings us to this weekend, perhaps Anniston’s most important days of the year. Call it Calhoun County’s bicycle-themed Woodstock Festival: from Anniston to Piedmont to Mount Cheaha, there’s something for nearly everyone — the Noble Street Festival, the Cheaha Challenge, the Sunny King Criterium, the Foothills Classic Road Race. The YMCA even hosts a 5K road race. And the Model City, the county’s largest city, medical center and financial hub, is ground zero for the whole shebang.
It is a splendid time to be in Calhoun County.
Anniston (and the entire county, for that matter), needs to look good, act good and represent well. Visitors’ opinions matter.
Somewhere along the way, Anniston lost control of its narrative. Others took control. Haters took part. And Anniston continues to reclaim ownership — and authorship — of its story.
The discovery of decades of rampant environmental and industrial pollution allowed CBS to hang Anniston, gallows-like, by the facts. Crime rates and racial divisions allowed some to describe Anniston as a town beyond rehabilitation. The Army’s retreat from the former Fort McClellan handed naysayers — pardon the military pun — ammunition on a platter; in negative tones, Anniston would never be the same, they said. Empty storefronts, stagnant retail development and delays in construction of Veterans Memorial Parkway gave pessimists an opportunity to label Anniston as a town whose best days would never return.
Through it all, Anniston’s believers have been too few, too reluctant and too silent.
That’s changing, of course. It’s too Pollyanna to say a new day has arrived; it’s not that simple. New elected leadership and a recharged civic involvement have given Anniston a chance to do what is necessary — to set its own course. It’s hard work; as they always do, mistakes and roadblocks will hinder progress.
Yet, this is exactly the discussion Annistonians need to have. Welcome it. Embrace it. Take part in it.
What is Anniston? What should Anniston be? On what should this city and its people hang their collective hats?
Ecotourism is the popular theme, given the available options throughout this part of Alabama. It will be easy to gaze down Noble Street on Saturday and envision Mayor Vaughn Stewart’s idea of calling the town Bike City Alabama. It’d be nice to ask the horde of out-of-town professional riders coming in for this weekend’s races what they think: Is Anniston worthy?
There are other options, of course. Anniston doesn’t — shouldn’t, even — limit itself to branding itself for bicycle lanes and ecotourism.
What about education? If there’s a public need, that’s it. Why do we accept mediocrity? Why aren’t we demanding to be among the state’s best?
What about McClellan redevelopment? Anniston’s reputation can’t be anything but helped by seeing McClellan become the nationwide example of turning discarded military posts into economic engines.
What about progressive politics? The five men elected in 2008 nearly killed the town. People laughed at Anniston. There is a better way. Why can’t Anniston be the poster child for that?
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with branding Anniston as Bike City Alabama. (Though it’ll be an easier sell once the city joins with the Chief Ladiga Trail.) It sounds pleasant. It’s simple to market.
But stopping there would be a mistake. Aim high. Don’t settle. If today’s Anniston is Bike City Alabama, what is tomorrow’s Anniston?
Phillip Tutor — firstname.lastname@example.org — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.