GADSDEN — At one point, Kay Moore recalls, Gadsden’s downtown was in awful shape, an embarrassing shell of what it once was. She grew up in Gadsden. She worked 30 years downtown. And “I watched (it) almost disintegrate,” she said. “It was almost a ghost town.”
Then there’s Steve Means, who Gadsden voters elected seven times — Seven times! — as their mayor.
“Downtown was dirty, it had no life,” he said. “There was just no vision.”
It’s an east Alabama success story, a still-evolving tale of what can happen, not what’s impossible, in small cities with limited budgets and political hindrances. It’s a story that proves civic reclamation often starts small, like snowballs rolled down hills, one victory leading to the next, and then mushrooms into something grand.
This story should give Anniston hope.
But be careful with any Gadsden-Anniston comparison, says Moore, director of Downtown Gadsden, a nonprofit community partnership that aids in the development of that city’s core.
“Every city is different,” she said. “I think every city has its own strengths and weaknesses.”
But let’s also be honest. Gadsden has what Anniston deserves — a revitalized central business district that’s vibrant and attractive and free from the lingering negative perceptions some people still hold. And since we’re being honest, let’s admit this truth: There are undeniable success stories in downtown Anniston, with building owners and entrepreneurs committed to the city’s growth. Anniston just needs more of them.
In truth, the genesis of this Gadsden story differs little from Anniston’s. At one point, downtown Gadsden had no nearby peer; neither did Anniston. Suburbanization altered Gadsden’s retail market, as it did Anniston’s. Gadsden built an enclosed shopping mall; Anniston lost its Noble Street big boxes to Quintard Mall in Oxford. In time, Gadsden’s downtown fell into disrepair; Anniston’s became a collection of niche shops, restaurants and bars, vacant storefronts and a surfeit of office space.
The difference? Gadsden found a remedy.
Success wasn’t simple, though. Politics often intervened. Building owners had to be convinced to improve their properties. City Hall committed to tidying up the streets and alleys and created a Downtown Action Council, which Means still praises. A large-scale “streetscape” project dramatically altered downtown’s appearance.
Over time, successes happened — in planning, in retail development, in revitalization.
Today, downtown Gadsden is home to the Gadsden Museum of Art, the Mary G. Hardin Center for Cultural Arts, the University of Alabama Gadsden Center, an art gallery and an impressive collection of restaurants and shopping options. Ninety percent of Gadsden’s available downtown space is filled. Means, now in real estate in Gulf Shores, recalls city staff eventually noticing out-of-town license plates on Gadsden’s Broad Street, from places like Marshall County, Talladega County and, yes, Calhoun County.
And then, there’s First Friday.
Moore credits two things with downtown Gadsden’s resurgence: first, the merchants themselves; and two, the First Friday events that are huge Etowah County draws during warmer weather. “That brought a positive focus downtown,” she said, “and it reminded people we had a downtown.” And how’s this for a problem: Instead of having too many buildings to fill, Downtown Gadsden Inc. suffers from having too few suitable vacancies to meet the demand.
“I honestly believe in 2008-2009, all of a sudden we became a great place to want to open a business,” Moore said, “and I think that it’s just a lot of positive things that have happened.”
Truth is, Anniston’s downtown revitalization efforts collect critics because they’ve rarely caught fire. Turnover in downtown leadership organizations hasn’t helped. Neither has the city’s often-murky political vision for downtown. Is it Noble Street? Does it include Quintard Avenue? What about a dedicated entertainment district?
For the first time in forever, I’m eager to see what Anniston’s downtown keepers can pull off. Anniston’s downtown calendar is bringing people to Noble Street with regularity. Reilly Johnson has stabilized Main Street Anniston’s leadership. Toby Bennington, Anniston’s director of economic development and city planning, worked hand-in-hand with Means in Gadsden. Spirit of Anniston’s influence remains vital. And the coming of a regional federal courthouse — a $40 million investment in Anniston — can’t be overvalued.
If ever there was a time to be bullish on the city’s core, it’s now.
The lesson gleaned from Etowah County centers on commitment, on staying the course. Means tells the story of getting Gadsden’s divergent groups to support the rebuilding of that city’s downtown, which wasn’t cheap. “One thing we had all in common,” he said, “was our central city area. If it thrives, the city benefits. If not, then we just keep treading water and wonder when the (Goodyear) plant is going to close. They bought in. It wasn’t overnight, but they bought in.”
Anniston’s downtown has treaded water far too long. Commitment and thriving sound so much better.