A solitary gasoline station sits adjacent to a quiet, little-used downtown area — an oasis of business in a desert of closed shops.
A vacant bingo hall, once the community’s largest source of revenue and what many in the area hoped would become a source again, burned to the ground Jan. 26. Investigators are still attempting to determine the cause of the fire.
There are no plans to rebuild.
The destruction of the I-20 Bingo hall is the latest in a string of seemingly insurmountable problems for Hobson City.
The small town was not always so troubled.
Bernard Snow remembers his town’s better days quite well and, like others in the community, is doing whatever he can to return Alabama’s first incorporated black municipality to its vibrant, former self.
“It was a utopia when I was growing up,” Snow said. “I don’t see why it shouldn’t be that way now.”
Snow, who now lives in Atlanta and whose mother was once mayor of Hobson City, is vice president of the nonprofit Hobson City Community and Economic Development Corporation. The recent destruction of the bingo hall has not only failed to faze the organization, it was never on its members’ radar to begin with, Snow said.
“It never was a consideration,” he said. “The stuff we’re looking forward to is creating a foundation for people to build on.”
The development corporation took a step forward in building such a foundation three weeks ago when it received $15,000 from the Wachovia Wells Fargo Foundation. Added to $27,000 promised by the Calhoun County Commission, the corporation will use the funds to revitalize Hobson City’s neglected town park.
“We believe this park project will show citizens that if we plan, we commit and are accountable, other people in the community will support you,” said Eric Stringer, president of the Hobson City Community and Economic Development Corporation.
Stringer said the project would likely begin this summer and will include new playground equipment.
“For many years, people used to come down from all over and have picnics,” Stringer said. “We want to rejuvenate some community pride and bring the park back to life.”
Like Snow, Stringer said he was not concerned about the bingo hall as a way to bring the town out of its slump.
“I think paper bingo is dead,” Stringer said. “Unless electronic bingo is organized, we’re not going to have bingo.”
The development corporation decided soon after its founding not to search for more town revenue sources, which Hobson City officials say is needed.
“There is so much that needs to be done … we couldn’t accomplish anything … we couldn’t see the forest for the trees,” Stringer said.
Instead, the development corporation decided to focus on smaller projects that could, in time, lead to bigger change for Hobson City in the future.
“What we’re trying to do is change the mindset of the community by showing something positive,” Stringer said.
Hobson City Councilwoman Susie Jones said she would like to see the park brought back to life.
“I’d like to see something for our kids to do,” she said. “That’s who’s going to move our city forward in the future.”
In addition to the park project, the development corporation has established a youth volunteer program.
“We plan to take some of them on some college visits before the end of the year,” Stringer said. “They have to do some community service to earn spots on the bus.”
The development corporation also is working on a housing revitalization plan to keep residents from moving away.
“We want to get people to come back,” Stringer said. “Our smarter minds leave and don’t come back.”
Average residents are doing what they can to move Hobson City forward, but so too are town officials. Last year, the Hobson City Town Council approved its first annual budget in several years as a way to keep track of expenditures and keep costs down. The council balanced the budget with the help of an Anniston accounting firm.
And last month, the council voted to raise water and sewer rates as a way to get the town out of debt with its water supplier, the Anniston Water Works and Sewer Board. Hobson City accrued more than $100,000 in debt during the last few years, so much so that the town was forced to shut its water department and turn over its meter reading responsibilities to Anniston.
Mayor Alberta McCrory said she hopes to have the debt eliminated within the next two to three years.
“We need to get control of our water department back because those bills bring revenue for the city,” McCrory said. “And then we need some good management in place so this doesn’t happen again.”
McCrory said some elected officials had hoped the bingo hall would one day become a revenue generator for the town.
“I know that conversation has taken place … to have some form of bingo,” McCrory said. “But I think we have to keep looking forward. There is always some industry out there looking for a place to locate. (The bingo hall property) could be very well used for something else to generate some revenue for the city.”
A revenue hole
McCrory said currently, the town’s chief sources of revenue include occupational taxes, ad valorum taxes and business license fees. Last year, the town pulled in $290,466 in revenue. This year, the town projects receiving $362,016 in revenue, which includes possible grant money.
Jones said she and others have been working to clean up and restore the town’s historic cemetery, which holds several slave graves. She noted that last year, the cemetery was placed on Alabama’s Historic Registry.
The goal is not just to beautify the cemetery, but to one day turn the site into a type of historic tourist attraction.
“I’d love to see some tour buses in here,” Jones said. “Maybe that will bring some restaurants in here.”
As a way to bring more people into Hobson City and thereby possibly create more revenue, McCrory recently requested the town be placed on a state-planned bike trail around Coldwater Mountain. The project is estimated to draw thousands of eco-tourists each year.
McCrory said she does not want to exclude any other proposed trail access points, such as Anniston, but just wants Hobson City included as well.
“That would be something to bring in some revenue,” she said. “Bikers who ride the trail could come into the city.”
McCrory said the influx of bikers might encourage the opening of businesses to accommodate their needs.
“That sounds very promising,” she said.
Looking for models
To get a better idea on how to manage Hobson City’s future, two weeks ago McCrory visited the town of Eatonville, Fla., which is the first black town established in the country. Eatonville was founded in 1887 — two years before Hobson City.
“We were interested in learning some things about Eatonville and how it’s functioning,” McCrory said. “They have had their struggles, but they are more financially stable than Hobson City. Their downtown is very well-landscaped. That’s something we’d like to see in Hobson City.”
She said Eatonville has some advantages Hobson City doesn’t, like its close location to Orlando, which makes it an easily accessible tourist spot. However, Eatonville’s maintenance and celebration of its history are things Hobson City could do as well, McCrory said.
“They had museums and pictures … we have a lot of that, but we just have to pull them out from under the beds,” she said. “There’s not a lot of information out there about Hobson City. The main thing is researching and documenting history … telling our story because it’s not just our history, but American history.”
Contact Patrick McCreless at 256-235-3561.