As a military post of long standing, the base was so important; it employed many workers, generating prolific local revenues. Public support for the base was high, with thousands of areas of land and the many activities producing a giant, valuable footprint.
Somewhat surprisingly, the political jurisdictions went to work in good faith. Eventually, they created an appointive body, the Joint Powers Authority, as the replacement for the first Reuse and Redevelopment Authority. I was one of the early appointees, serving as a representative for the mayors in Calhoun County.
The City of Anniston, the Calhoun County Commission and the governor's office were represented through appointment. We wanted to be team players in Jacksonville; we really had no fort property in the city. But it was not far away, and Fort McClellan seriously affected our residential and student populations and our merchants, and it provided many jobs that could be lost. I tried to represent our interests and see the big picture in my time as a member.
In my opinion, the others with whom I served tried to do the same. We received a great deal of assistance from the staff under the able direction of Executive Director Dan Cleckler, who brought financial and political experiences to the job.
Given the military uses of the land, it was impossible to tell what was contaminated. The Army promised funds for cleanup, releasing what seemed like astronomical amounts of money, but we soon learned this was to be a long, gigantically expensive task. At times, we wondered how the Army could gain anything by closing the fort, given cleanup costs and general environmental issues. We thought any legal weaknesses would be solved, promptly, without undermining JPA efforts. The cleanup process continues today, despite the cleaning that has taken place.
Nevertheless, many benefits have come to McClellan since the Army left, including resettlement of residential areas, such as famed Buckner Circle, expansion of the National Guard presence, sale of property for The Anniston Star complex, educational components from Jacksonville State, Auburn University and Gadsden State, accommodation for Sacred Heart Catholic School, quick acceptance of Homeland Security interests and creation of the McClellan Park Medical Mall.
While legal questions naturally arose, they were usually settled quickly. So it was a major surprise when the Calhoun County Circuit Court ruled in 2008 that the JPA had never owned the legal power to make its transactions proper. Judge Joel Laird dissolved the JPA and farmed control of McClellan property to the Calhoun County Commission, which was represented on the JPA but had not taken a strong leadership role.
From the outside, at least, it appeared the Court selected the county for two major reasons: (1) respect for County Administrator Ken Joiner, whose reputation was stellar, and (2) constant political division and dissent among Anniston city officials, the other most logical replacement if one was going to take the reins away from an appointed oversight authority.
I was wrong about the real test for the JPA. It came from the court. The court's finding came from a lawsuit, filed by two well-known local residents who tried to acquire McClellan property and ultimately questioned whether the JPA had appropriate power to act. Usually, in questionable instances, the lawsuits were settled through a properly mediated settlement. The dissolution order was a stunner. Many in the area questioned the decision, believing the judge overreached.
With the JPA disabled since 2008, McClellan had been generally in limbo, but the County Commission helped the matter by appointing a replacement entity, the McClellan Development Authority, consisting of area business leaders instead of elected officials. The MDA has been able to enter into discussions with potential suitors, and thus keep the process going, but in the extant legal climate, had been unable to take action until it is itself assigned proper legal authority. It is easy to see why so much frustration exists.
Although many are still perplexed by the famous 2008 ruling, the frustration could soon be over. The court rescinded its order recently, not long after the Alabama Supreme Court refused to rule on an appeal of the case and returned it to the Circuit Court. Laird was probably as surprised as area residents when the case was sent back.
At first, early questions about whether the court overreached were common. After the Supreme Court refused to intervene, it is fair to say that question returned in spades. But the Supreme Court inaction promoted quick local action; the 2008 order was withdrawn, just long enough for the JPA to be re-established, only to dissolve itself immediately.
The door was then opened for the MDA, which was to undergo a short period until appropriate legal authority was invested in it. The County Commission and the Anniston City Council had to agree to these steps, which they did, despite friction and a less-than-unanimous vote from the Anniston contingent. At least one Anniston council member has questioned the process cited above. Time will tell whether a regular legal challenge occurs, but at least action is occurring. We are on the move.
Perhaps the Supreme Court did the area a great favor after all. The MDA has been given at least some of the authority it needs to operate. Signs of economic recovery, real progress on the Eastern Parkway, and quick response by the MDA certainly create an arena much more conducive to the development of McClellan property. MDA Executive Director Robin Scott recently indicated that many good possibilities exist. And McClellan redevelopment, already an economic engine, may soon be on its way to new and greater heights.
Perhaps catch-up time will occur at a faster rate than anyone can imagine. Of course, we will never know the total impact of the 2008 decision that emasculated the JPA and thrust the forward momentum into a near dead stop.
Hopefully, when many of us are sitting under the stars at a summer concert of the Alabama Symphony at McClellan, we will be pleased with the new momentum, and the many possibilities for an ever-brighter future. The ghost of McClellan past deserves no less.
Jerry L. Smith is a former mayor of the city of Jacksonville.