An unofficial and highly subjective top-five list of development suggestions for the unsightly corner of 12th and Noble streets in Anniston:
1. A skateboard park.
2. A swimming pool.
3. A Buffalo Wild Wings.
4. An amphitheater, like the one in downtown Gadsden.
5. A fishing pond.
That last suggestion isn’t mine. (I prefer the amphitheater idea.) It’s John Fearon’s, a Jacksonville man who penned a letter to the editor a few weeks ago in The Star. “Push some dirt up for a retaining wall in the back and fill the excavated hole with water,” he wrote. “Many benefits would accrue. An eyesore would be concealed, Anniston gets a pond, and I could fish on my lunch hour.”
None of those suggestions, by the way, have a snowball’s chance, if that. City Hall and its economic developers still believe that site is tailor-made for a downtown hotel whose clientele will come in part from Anniston’s hospitals, the new federal courthouse, the Coldwater Mountain bike trails and the (still incomplete) Chief Ladiga Trail. The city, in fact, remains in discussions with Best Western International about that location. All that’s needed is a developer who, among other things, isn’t in jail.
“There is still a very viable interest in Best Western locating a franchise in that location,” Toby Bennington, the city’s planning and development services director, said Thursday morning. And if that doesn’t happen, Bennington said there are “other interested parties” who are interested in building at 12th and Noble.
As for the jail part, that’s not a joke. If you keep up with Anniston news, you know why.
John B. Arnold Jr., half of the J2 Investments development team working on Anniston’s Best Western deal, was arrested in February in Starkville, Miss., for (a.) trying repeatedly to pick up a child from daycare who wasn’t his; (b.) escaping by removing his ankle monitor; and (c.) trying to contact that child’s family. Arnold’s arrest brought Anniston’s downtown hotel deal to a halt. Not overnight, but close. And until the city’s legal department can take care of the existing contract with J2, the future of 12th and Noble is in limbo.
And Anniston is stuck with a prominent downtown block disfigured by the city’s site preparation for the hotel deal. It’s not the city’s fault. There’s simply nothing anyone can do about it. Who knew that one of the developers would get arrested for attempting kidnapping?
Before the arrest, Bennington says, “everything was swimming along in the same currents. The developers were moving along with their plans and preparing their applications and presentations for Best Western. We met with Best Western representatives. The confidence level was extremely high. That’s why the city, being proactive, went ahead with removing the (old) building and preparing the site for development.
“And then, wham!”
As crazy as all this is — and it is — downtown Anniston’s still trending in the right direction. Not at breakneck speed, mind you. The economic developer hired specifically for West Anniston hasn’t been in place long enough to make a difference. There’s still a glut of vacant office space, there’s still no substantial movement on replacing the derailed development project on Alabama Power’s Quintard Avenue property, and the Ladiga Trail remains a significant unfinished need.
The optimism comes from the General Services Administration’s selection last month of a location for the city’s new federal courthouse. That optimism is real and entirely justified. You may care little that the courthouse will take over the current City Hall site, but developers do, apparently. It’s a momentum thing, one success feeding off another, a domino effect involving millions of investment dollars that, for small cities like Anniston, are hard to secure.
“The key,” Bennington said, “was making that official announcement. Economic developers, they don’t want to hear about possibilities. They want to hear about official announcements and see schedules.”
Translation: Those developers read the news, which can be unkind. Cities plagued by development deals gone sour earn spotty reputations. Cities with a track record of development wins get noticed. And that’s where the GSA’s site selection announcement comes into play. It’s a monumental deal that may prove larger than anyone expects.
“It gives developers an idea that this is a proactive community. It piques their interest,” Bennington said. “They immediately start looking around the periphery for opportunities.”
Optimism, opportunities and interest.
But no amphitheater for downtown Anniston? A man can always dream.