Anniston received $6.6 million in federal money Tuesday — about half of its total windfall from the American Rescue Act — and it’s likely that the Ladiga Trail will get the largest fraction of that money.
“This is one of those things that we’ve been dragging along for some time,” said City Manager Steven Folks.
In a work session with the Anniston City Council on Tuesday, Folks and city financial officer Julie Borrelli unveiled their initial plan for spending the $13 million the city expects to receive from the Rescue Act, the latest round of federal coronavirus aid for cities. The federal government is expected to dole out the money on a two-year schedule, and Borrelli said the first installment hit the city’s account Tuesday.
The council gets to decide how the money is spent, subject to federal rules, but council members began the debate Tuesday with an initial proposal laid out by city officials. Under that draft plan, the city would spend:
— Roughly $3 million on completion of the Ladiga Trail, the rails-to-trails bike path that leads from the Georgia line into Anniston – but not yet all the way downtown;
— $750,000 on a proposed medical institution named after David Satcher, the former Anniston resident who became U.S. surgeon general;
— $275,000 on the bike trails on Coldwater Mountain;
— $500,000 on downtown improvements, including landscaping and lighting;
— $500,000 on a small business development center to be set up downtown; and
— $174,000 on two tornado shelters, each of which could hold 95 people
Council members came into the meeting with their own wish lists, only to find that some of their plans couldn’t be paid for with Rescue Act money. Among other things, replacement of aging Quintard trees and paving of road aren’t on the list of approved expenditures.
Council members agreed that most of the projects were worthy, but they had plenty of suggested changes to the list. Councilwoman Ciara Smith proposed dedicating $1 million to fixing drainage problems, and another $500,000 to demolish long-abandoned buildings.
“We just have a lot of blighted properties,” Smith said.
Councilman D.D. Roberts said he understood the desire to “knock out” the long-awaited Ladiga project, though he expressed concern that the city would spend large sums this year and then potentially never get to other projects in the next round of funding.
“Next thing we know, we’re going to be chastised by people saying, you just spent $13 million,” he said.
Councilman Jay Jenkins said the city should be careful about its downtown spending, noting that the city has tried redesigns of Noble Street before.
“We should ask ourselves, are we really accomplishing something other than patting ourselves on the back for making downtown look pretty,” he said.
Mayor Jack Draper said improving facades of buildings could be helpful, now that the city is seeing interest from investors inspired by the Opportunity Zone program, which offers tax breaks for investors who spend on projects in high-poverty areas. Draper asked if any of the renovations could be done by the time of the Sunny King Criterium bike race in July. Folks said the city may be able to put up security cameras by then.
Outlining the proposed small business development center, Borelli noted that the city is 53 percent Black according to census figures, while only 24 percent of businesses in the town are owned by people of color. The proposed business center would be a place where new business owners could get training on how to create a business plan.
“What we want to do is help them create a business, a business that there’s a market demand for,” she said. Borrelli said the center could also offer rental assistance for new businesses, in the form of payments directly to landlords.
Jenkins was skeptical, saying the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce already offers courses for new business owners.
“We’re reinventing a wheel that’s already in place,” he said.
Council members held no vote on the spending plan, and agreed to discuss it again in a work session later this month.
Draper said he hopes to bring a final list up for a vote in a council meeting in July.