The federal government is tallying the numbers for its 2010 Census, and while the final results will not be available until next year, there are many signs that Oxford could soon or maybe has already surpassed Anniston in size and power.
About 40 years ago, the federal government built Interstate 20 near the small town of Oxford and indirectly awoke a sleeping giant. Over the following decades, Oxford took advantage of the interstate’s potential to lure business and became a sprawling city filled with new subdivisions, jobs and residents.
Meanwhile, Anniston has remained a more compact, Victorian-era-style city that has lost business and residents due in part to the closing of Fort McClellan. While its struggles are keenly felt, the Model City is certainly not alone in them, according to one expert.
“It sounds like Anniston is more like a classic city that has lost a lot of residents to a more suburban-style area,” said William Frey, professor of sociology with the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan. “It is part of a trend away from a lot of older downtown areas to more spread-out areas.”
Indeed, Oxford has annexed thousands of acres of land since 1970 — most of it in Talladega County — and spread much of its retail development down I-20 in both directions. And with the newly acquired land have come new houses and subdivisions, which Frey said are both reasons for population shifts.
“If locals are moving, they are moving because of better housing,” he said.
Federal government statistics support the notion of a population shift between Anniston and Oxford.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Oxford had 14,592 people while Anniston had 24,246. Since then, the federal government has compiled annual estimates and each year has shown growth in Oxford and decline in Anniston.
In the 2009 estimate, Oxford had 20,825 people, a 43 percent increase in growth since 2000. Anniston, however, had an estimated 23,589 residents in 2009, a 3 percent decrease since the last census.
Frey noted that while the estimates are useful, they were no substitute for actual census data.
“They update the census with information from other sources like Social Security numbers, births and deaths,” he said. “But it is not a direct count of the people.”
Still, there are many other signals pointing to Oxford’s rise and Anniston’s decline.
Anniston’s school system numbers show there were 2,360 students enrolled during the last school year. In 2000, enrollment was at 3,432 and 10 years before that, the school system had 4,500 students.
“In the 1990s and early 2000s, we lost an average of 110 to 180 students a year,” said Anniston Superintendent Joan Frazier. “But at least that rate of decline seems to have slowed down … we lost only 70 students in 2008 and 54 last year.”
The Oxford school system, on the other hand, has experienced nothing but increases.
In 1988, there were 2,534 students enrolled in Oxford schools. In 2000, that amount had increased to 3,079 and by 2009, there were 4,065 students enrolled.
Frey said a school system can be a draw for residents to a city.
“A typical reason why people move to a city is because the schools are good,” he said. “You’ll be able to pick that up in the census because it will show the number of young people or couples in an area.”
Oxford’s school system has been flooded with cash in recent years from the city’s expanding tax base. The city is paying for the construction of a $19 million high school.
Oxford gains water customers
Comparing the number of customers signed on to eah city’s water deparatment is also instructive.
Oxford Water Works and Sewer Board statistics indicate Oxford has 9,675 water connections — an increase from 7,605 in 2000.
In contrast, the Anniston Water Works and Sewer Board had 10,335 metered connections in the city limits in 2000 and currently has 10,390 connections.
Anniston Water Works assistant general manager Rodney Owens said while that is an increase, the numbers are misleading. He said the increase has mainly been due to development at McClellan.
“If that had not occurred, our numbers would have dropped some … they’d probably be more in the 9,000s,” he said.
New residents are also drawn to cities by jobs, something Oxford has been gaining in the past decade.
Oxford’s finance department reports it recorded 2,311 business licenses in 2000. The city has 2,464 licenses to date and, if trends stay steady from 2009, it will have 250 more renewed licenses by the end of the year.
While Anniston’s finance department is still showing more total business licenses than Oxford, the number of licenses has decreased from 4,176 in 1999 to 4,102 in 2009.
To Oxford City Councilwoman June Land Reaves, the chance that the 2010 Census will show Oxford ahead of Anniston in population is certainly a possibility.
“It would be an achievement, but I don’t know how it would change how we are addressed or things like that,” she said.
Neither Reaves nor Oxford Councilman Phil Gardner thought, however, that if Oxford became the top city in the county, it should take control of the county seat. Anniston has been the seat since 1900 when, as a then-growing powerhouse, it took the designation from Jacksonville.
“I don’t think so,” Gardner said of the idea. “Anniston has been the county seat for a long time. I know times change and things change, but I think we’re doing all right in terms of the county seat.”
The way things stand now, with Regional Medical Center and the county seat firmly planted in Anniston, the city could one day shrink into a smaller city most people visit mainly for medical care, county business or for legal help from the army of attorneys who surround the Calhoun County Courthouse.
Anniston Mayor Gene Robinson sees a different future.
“My job is to re-grow the city and we are going to re-grow,” he said. “And the way I think we are going to do it is with bicycling, of all things.”
Robinson said his goal is to turn Anniston into a mecca of bicycling tourism. The area already hosts two major annual biking competitions: the Sunny King Criterium in Anniston, an Alabama Department of Tourism and Travel top-10 event for the state; and the Cheaha Century Challenge in Piedmont. Each event draws thousands of people every year.
Many miles of biking and hiking trails weave through the county, including the 33-mile Chief Ladiga Trail that stretches from the Alabama-Georgia line through Piedmont, Jacksonville and Weaver to Anniston, as well as the Pinhoti Trail in the Talladega National Forest.
In addition, the Anniston City Council has for years planned to construct a trail on 4,000 acres atop Coldwater Mountain.
Robinson said 10 or 20 years from now, Anniston could become a young city again because young people have the most interest in competitive and recreational bicycling.
“Oxford may have overtaken us the last 10 years, but they won’t take us in the next 10 years in the census,” he said.
Contact staff writer Patrick McCreless at 256-235-3561.