At the Royal Oaks

Foster Kizer of Atmore with his dogs, Little Bit (in lap) and Daisy, on the steps of Kizer's Royal Oaks Bed & Breakfast.

ATMORE — If Foster Kizer isn’t Atmore’s First Citizen, he’s at least this place’s biggest cheerleader, honest critic and eternally hopeful civic romantic. He moves about his homestead with a graceful ease, slow and peaceful, his three dogs (and one cat) following him from room to room.

Outside, among trees and greenery, are the peacocks.

Twenty years ago, the white-haired Kizer retired from McDonnell Douglas in Southern California and returned here to land his family has owned for a century. That land is frontage property on Alabama 21, one of the longest state-owned roads in Alabama, just north of the Atmore city limit and a 3-iron away from the Wind Creek Casino and Hotel complex that has forever changed life in Escambia County.

It’s here on this land that Kizer operates the Royal Oaks Bed & Breakfast, which, if you’re not careful, you’ll miss as you zoom by. Its sign resembles Kizer himself: understated. It’s not quite The Victoria in Anniston, which even today sits atop a hill overlooking Alabama 21, or, as Annistonians call it, Quintard Avenue. But Royal Oaks is an outlier along a road that seems to be struggling with the transition from a rural highway into a major thoroughfare for business (agriculture) and pleasure (gambling).

Surprisingly, Royal Oaks is for sale.

“I’ll be 67 next month, and I need to slow down,” Kizer said Monday morning, motioning out the window at what looked like acres of summertime green. “That’s a lot of grass to mow.”

His plan is to move to downtown Atmore – into a two-story building with a storefront in which he could live and work. His bed and breakfast is on the market for $695,000. His eyes sparkle a little when he talks about its history, and the opportunity he seeks a few miles south.

“That is my dream,” he says.

Downtown on Alabama 21

In Oxford, Alabama 21 runs through a Malfunction Junction of sorts at the intersection with U.S. 78. It’s anything but quaint. In Anniston, Alabama 21 runs through the heart of town, but it’s not the city’s historical central business district; that’s Noble Street. In Jacksonville, Alabama 21 runs through the city’s square.

There is no square for Atmore’s Alabama 21, which locals call Main Street, and it’s so apropos. It’s a straight drag, from Florida on toward Monroeville, with a collection of churches, businesses, law offices, niche shops, an American Legion post and an uncounted number of shuttered businesses. A few gorgeous old, Southern homes reside just to the south.

A two- or three-block stretch of Main Street, however, is to die for. Modern-day Quintard Avenue, even with its glorious trees, wishes it had it so good. Several of the buildings — banks and law offices, mainly — are adorned with New Orleans-style metal balconies that harken back to the days of the Spaniards and the French in south Alabama. It shouldn’t surprise you that Kizer volunteers his time to repaint some of these decorative elements of Atmore’s downtown.

“If we want Atmore to survive, we have to make it look good,” he says, which, in all truthfulness, is the exact same thing Anniston’s leaders have mumbled about Noble Street for decades. “It’s free labor, but you’d be surprised how hard it is to get (the buildings’ owners) to come up with $40 for a gallon of paint.”

Alabama 21, from Florida to Piedmont, is pocked with historical sites — Native American history, military history, state history. Not all are happy tales. One unfortunate story is The Strand, a lovely Atmore theater that sits on Alabama 21’s west side in the middle of downtown.

Its second-story signage is bookended by sun-damaged vaudeville masks that peer down over Main Street. The marquee reads, “Closed.” Nine months ago, after 84 years in operation, The Strand closed. Its owners couldn’t compete with the entertainment bonanza going on at Wind Creek. Before it closed, The Strand was believed to be the oldest continually operating theater in Alabama.

Enter Kizer and several others, who he says are trying to find ways to “save The Strand.”

“Money,” he says, “is always the biggest issue.” 

End of a landmark?

Back at Royal Oaks, the roar of Alabama 21 is rarely, if ever, heard, particularly in the two guest apartments out back. Those apartments were originally pole barns Kizer turned into living quarters complete with satellite TV, a kitchen, a full bath, closets and a screened-in porch. To get from the apartments to the main house, you walk through a small, south Alabama garden. In the mornings, the peacocks scream — or meow, depending on your opinion —  through the apartment windows.

Royal Oaks has a few similar neighbors, but they’re outnumbered by gas stations, a not-yet-finished Taco Bell, acres of crops and the like, and the casino itself. The Alabama 21 of Royal Oaks is a multi-lane divided highway of high speed and tractor-trailers — not the bucolic country road you’d associate with such a place. Nevertheless, business is good; in a few days, every hotel in Atmore — including the Royal Oaks — is booked by fans flocking to the casino’s theater for a show. Long-term guests are now Kizer’s usual tenants.

Yet the real possibility exists that the Royal Oaks will be sold to a buyer who may decide to take the place in a different direction. The land has been in Kizer’s family forever, the current home is the third one to exist here, and the bed and breakfast has been open for 12 years. Any sentimentality is hidden by Kizer’s downtown dream. Kind of.

“It will probably bother me a little,” he says. ‘’But my roots ...”

His voice trails off.

His roots are in Atmore, right on Alabama 21.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.