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Phillip Tutor: 20 years of change in Calhoun County

Incinerator workers burn last of weapons

Lt. Col. Willie Flucker, former commander of Anniston Chemical Activity stands next to a bin of spent chemical rounds after the last batch was processed.

2020’s arrival also ushered in this argument: Never before has our slice of east Alabama experienced two decades as equally tumultuous and expansive as the last 20 years.

We’ve survived tornados and political embarrassments, a county seat’s population declines, the firing of a chemical-weapons incinerator, a landmark environmental pollution court case and the death of a transformative mayor. That’s the tumult.

We’ve also seen a city hike its population more than 50 percent, the opening of a long-needed parkway, a local school system become a national leader in classroom technology, and Calhoun County at large emerge as one of the South’s top mountain-bike destinations. That’s the expansion.

And yet, recall our conditions in January 2000. They weren’t altogether comforting.

Fort McClellan had closed a few months before.

Anniston had just posted its fourth straight decade of declining population.

That aging stockpile of Cold War-era weapons was still stored at Anniston Army Depot.

Oxford had become today’s Oxford — larger, richer, full of possibilities.

McClellan redevelopment and widespread cleanup of the unexploded ordnance the Army left behind hadn’t begun in earnest.

PCBs and lead pollution of many west Anniston properties hadn’t been remediated.

And what followed were 20 years that realigned the county’s municipal hierarchy — setting the stage for Oxford to become the county’s largest city and undeniable leader in retail — and continued Anniston’s elusive quest for traction in politics, business development and public education. 

The nadir of those 20 years centered on the Army — its McClellan decision, its munitions left buried in McClellan’s hills and its chemical weapons stored at the depot. It cries out for what ifs: What if the Army hadn’t closed Anniston’s military post? What if the Army had cleaned up the ordnance before leaving? What if it hadn’t kept Cold War-era weapons stored for so long at the depot?

So much of Calhoun County’s immediate future depended on rectifying those situations. The weapons stockpile, especially its leaking munitions, had to be destroyed. The left-behind ordnance had to be recovered before McClellan redevelopment could begin. And no date more exemplified the concern of those times than Saturday, Aug. 9, 2003, when the Army began burning the first munitions from the 2,254 tons of chemical weapons stored in Bynum’s depot igloos. 

After years of debate and protests and concerns about public safety and environmental impact, those first burns went off without a hitch. Both the stockpile and the incinerator are now gone, indelible parts of the county’s past.

In truth, the previous 20 years are told in three chapters: one, Anniston’s political difficulties; two, the Army’s effect on Calhoun County; and three, Oxford’s ascension. It’s that third chapter that may be these years’ most compelling story.

It’s indisputable that the city of longtime Mayor Leon Smith, who died in 2017, clearly won these decades. Since 2000 Oxford has built magnificent Choccolocco Park, a new City Hall, two shopping centers — Oxford Exchange and Oxford Commons — a new police station, a new public library and a new freshman academy while also turning its old City Hall into a splendid performing arts center. Sales-tax revenue and wise planning clearly make a difference.

All of this begs an unanswerable question: How will Calhoun County fare after the next 20 years?

The county’s future doesn’t hinge on Oxford’s further ascension or Jacksonville’s continued recovery from the 2018 tornado. It rests on Anniston’s ability to treat its own ailments and reclaim a share of the county’s momentum. It must help, not hinder.

There are those who harbor deep Anniston doubts. (Hint: The proposed deannexation of Ward 4, last fall’s startling headline.) But this year’s elections give Anniston an opportunity to install a reparative city council that doesn’t bog down in ward-line and race-baiting feuds, or to remain essentially status quo. The former is infinitely more desirable.

In 20 years, we’ll know if McClellan redevelopment has been a long-term success. We’ll know if Anniston tears itself apart from within or rights its ship. We’ll know if Oxford’s touch remains golden or if it’s possible to stretch a city too far and too wide. And we’ll know if Calhoun County takes advantage of its advantages — its beauty, its location, its history — or if it wastes them. 

Email: ptutor@annistonstar.com

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

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