Don't underestimate the effect of Fort McClellan's end. The profound consequences are still felt today.
Yet, statistics released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau show that Calhoun County, along with several other northeast Alabama counties, has weathered the loss of Fort McClellan and the lengthy Great Recession without a precipitous, unrecoverable drop in population.
Granted, Calhoun County's population ticked upward by only a slim margin — a 1.6 percent increase during the last decade. That's no major victory. Let's not foolishly compare that gain to those of Shelby (34.4 percent) or Baldwin (28.1 percent) counties, whose increases seem to have few limitations.
But considering the assorted local variables — several years of horrible economy, the first decade after McClellan's conclusion, a regrettable lack of long-term job growth — Calhoun County's miniscule increase shouldn't be summarily discounted. (Anniston's slow decline in population can't be ignored, either.)
This story's money shot, however, is framed within the bigger picture.
Across northeast Alabama, tiny seeds of optimism exist — and that doesn't count St. Clair County, whose 26.5 percent growth puts it in a league that other counties in this part of the state can't compete with.
Calhoun County is one of those nuggets still unearthed; as this page has long noted, the long-term potential is there. Cleburne County's population grew by 4.5 percent. Cherokee (1.9 percent increase) and Randolph (0.9 percent increase) counties weren't among the 34 Alabama counties to lose population between 2000 and 2009.
Only rural Clay County, in a particularly rural part of the state, was northeast Alabama's biggest population loser with a 4.3 percent loss.
For northeast Alabama, the message is two-fold: (a.) examine those similar counties that have made sizeable gains, and (b.) get our act together. When this lingering recession runs out of steam, counties with proactive plans and strong leadership will be ideally suited to emerge on the correct path.
Population growth is tied to many factors, from job creation to real-estate options to public schools to quality-of-life issues. There is no one magic cause for growth.
But stagnant communities that waste their chances to improve stand few chances.
To get there, it takes wise politicians who'll work hand-in-hand with local and state economic development offices to funnel opportunities in their direction.
It takes improved schools to entice professionals to move to this part of the state.
It takes a properly trained work force to prove to CEOs that northeast Alabama has the human capital companies require.
It takes constant vigilance on infrastructure (roads, bridges) and amenities (parks, arts, recreation) that make communities attractive and livable.
In other words, it takes planning, wisdom and leadership. And, as always, money.
It will be a great injustice if Calhoun County and several of its neighbors aren't among Alabama's notable population gainers 10 years from now.
Today, we're surviving. But we can do much, much better.