Not with a job-creating industrial site. Not with a new residential development. Not with anything substantive.
With a proposed convenience store.
Remember last month when the council agreed to put aside $500,000 to help with sewer-line costs for Village at the Springs, a proposed development of up to 130 new homes in Golden Springs south of Choccolocco Road?
This ain’t that.
Instead, it’s three unused lots on Leighton Avenue a few blocks south of the city’s medical center. The council’s vote this week authorizes City Manager Steven Folks to negotiate a price and do an environmental study on the lots. If the city buys the property, which I suspect it will if the land isn’t a polluted mess, economic developers would then need to find an entrepreneur interested in opening a south Anniston convenience store.
It’s small potatoes, right? Even if south Anniston residents need such a store — Councilman Ben Little is adamant they do, for what that’s worth — in the grand scheme it’s merely a current example of a basic axiom: that a legally operating business, whatever it is, is better than a vacant site.
But let’s be blunt.
New convenience stores aren’t going to invigorate Anniston.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about poverty, and for good reason. Anniston’s poverty rate is a ghastly 29.5 percent, and it affects everyone in this city, even the well-to-do. National statistics consistently show that crime rates follow poverty. Illegal drug use and sales follow poverty. Under-performing public schools follow poverty. A dearth of middle-class jobs follows poverty. Population declines follow poverty. Opportunity declines follow poverty.
Little and David Reddick, the council’s two minority members, constantly push an unproven belief that City Hall takes care of Wards 1 and 4 and, to steal Little’s phrasing, leaves nothing but “crumbs” for Wards 2 and 3 — a clear case of racially motivated governance, they say.
Don’t forget that this week’s vote on the Leighton Avenue project was unanimous.
Don’t forget that the council’s three white members — Mayor Jack Draper, Millie Harris and Jay Jenkins — repeatedly said they supported the project.
And don’t forget that it’s not the city’s fault that the developers behind the Village at the Springs project chose a Ward 4 site instead of one in west or south Anniston. (Or, for that matter, that Little himself chipped in $50,000 of his discretionary money to move the project along.) There are undeniable socioeconomic differences between the wards, and it’s foolish to insinuate that the economic chasm separating the city’s poor from its well-to-do isn’t immense, because it is.
What Little and Reddick want are similar projects in their wards — large investments, large footprints, big victories for an often tumultuous City Hall. That’s understandable. But they play ward politics as if it’s a game tracked by scorekeepers, with losers and winners among the four council members, and what they consistently miss is this undeniable truth: The four wards are connected, like siblings, and there is no zero-sum competition between them.
Poverty is fueling Anniston’s troubles — its crime rates, its homelessness, some residents’ lack of trust of City Hall, its lack of development and opportunities in its poorest neighborhoods, most of which Little and Reddick represent. And until Anniston makes a dent in that dilemma, new convenience stores will be nice headlines — “Council votes unanimously on south Anniston project!” — but hardly the game-changers those neighborhoods need.
Look, I like small potatoes; they’re tasty. But any revitalization effort for west and south Anniston must start with a city-supported, anti-poverty plan that improves residents’ lives and provides opportunities for reliable work and adequate housing and safe streets.
That political legacy is waiting for someone at City Hall to assume, a legacy guided by an understanding that all Annistonians win when its poorest neighborhoods are emboldened by legitimate and sincere hope.