At the close of the 20th century, Anniston was a booming town — literally.
At night, when all else was quiet, residents for miles around could hear artillery thudding in the distance. Flights of helicopters occasionally thundered overhead, like a scene from a Vietnam War movie. Convoys of Humvees and olive-green trucks rumbled regularly through Lenlock.
Much of that changed 20 years ago, with the closure of Fort McClellan, the Army training base that was Anniston’s economic lifeblood for decades. (The Army’s official closing ceremony was held May 20, 1999, 20 years ago Monday; the gates wouldn’t actually be closed until the end of that fiscal year in September.)
Much has changed since then. With 21,770 residents by the latest census estimate, the town has lost about 3,000 residents since the base’s 1999 closure. Much of base housing has been converted to civilian neighborhoods. Industrial tenants fill much of an industrial park on the post. Much of the fort remains wooded, and some of it is just now being converted to bike and horse trails.
“Twenty years ago, the community didn’t realize the enormity of the environmental conditions on the base,” said Chip Howell, who was mayor of the city in the early post-fort years. Howell said the presence of unexploded ordnance added more years to the cleanup — and to redevelopment efforts — than anyone would have imagined.
Here are a few facts to keep in mind as the 20-year mark approaches:
There’s still a Fort McClellan. There are still about 100 full-time employees at the Alabama National Guard’s base in Anniston, and yes, it’s called Fort McClellan.
The base, a training hub for Alabama’s guard, occupies a small corner of the former base on the north edge of Anniston, once home to training facilities for the Women’s Army Corps. Base officials have said there are hundreds of troops on the base at any given time, working through their yearly part-time commitment to the Guard. They’re the reason locals still sometimes see folks in uniform at the nearby Wal-Mart and other Lenlock shops. From time to time — as on Armed Forces Day this Saturday — locals can enter the base and get a glimpse of what McClellan once looked like.
There’s still chemical weapons training on the site. When it was open, Fort McClellan was the training site for the Army’s Chemical Corps, the branch tasked with defending against chemical attacks. Some of that mission still survives in the Center for Domestic Preparedness, a Homeland Security facility where civilian first responders train to respond to disasters. Part of that training includes a session in an airtight facility where trainees put on chemical gear and find and locate deadly poison. Training was halted briefly after asnafu in handling of the toxin ricin,but as of 2018, the center was again using real toxins to train.
An effort to find new uses for the base is still going on. The McClellan Development Authority, the civilian body tasked with finding new uses for the former fort,considered disbanding two years ago. By that point,they’d transferred 55 buildings worth about $10 million to other owners. But the board decided to stay in business largely because of its ongoing plan to convert some of the former base to bike trails. Since then, they’ve also begun a horse-trails project and have stocked Yahou Lake, a former recreational area for soldiers, in hopes of opening it to the fishing public.
They’re still cleaning up, too. Five years ago, the MDAheld a “big bang” event to celebrate the cleanup of the last major unexploded ordnance on the base. The Army’s environmental ghosts still haunt the cleanup effort in ways big and small. The Yahou Lake site remains on an Army list of potentially contaminated areas, because of training thatmay or may not have taken place at a fake village that once existed on the site.Builders of McClellan’s horse trails will have to work around an old firing range that’s being cleared of lead.Federal officials seem to be running out of money for cleanup of old artillery ranges in Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge, which was once part of the base.
The Army’s still among the county’s biggest employers. Even in its shrunken state, Anniston remains an Army town. Around 2,900 people work directly for the federal government at Anniston Army Depot, where the Army sends many of its tanks, armored personnel carriers and small arms for repair. Add in Army contractors, and about 3,600 people work at the depot, according to the latest official numbers, making the depot the county’s biggest workplace.
The depot got a shot in the arm last week when the Army decided Anniston would be the main repair site for the Armored Multipurpose Vehicle, a new generation of personnel carriers that’s just now going into production. Anniston will split some work on engines and other components with Red River Army Depot in Texas, but local officials say Anniston will be the only depot that overhauls entire, finished AMPVs.
“Anniston will get about 80 percent of the work,” said Nathan Hill, the military liaison for the Calhoun County Economic Development Council.
AMPVs aren’t expected to actually arrive in Anniston for refurbishment until the late 2020s, Hill said.