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Mayors focus on post-disaster bright side in ‘State of Cities’ event

State of Cities

Ohatchee Mayor Steve Baswell speaks during a meeting of the mayors of Calhoun County at the Oxford Civic Center to discuss the state of their cities. Photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star

Precision Materials, the building materials plant destroyed in the March 25 tornado, won’t be rebuilt, Ohatchee Mayor Steve Baswell said Thursday.

Still, Baswell is looking, half-humorously, on the bright side.

“The site’s a lot better now than it was before,” Baswell said. “When you had 40,000 square feet of empty building sitting out in a field, it was hard to push that. Now at least we have a 40,000-square foot concrete slab.”

Baswell joined Calhoun County’s five other mayors at the Oxford Civic Center for State of the Cities, the yearly update from local mayors, organized by the county Chamber of Commerce. Like Baswell, most had stories of post-disaster recovery, whether they were bouncing back from storms or from the pandemic.

Incorporated Ohatchee was largely missed by the tornado that tore across Calhoun County March 25, killing six people, most in houses with Ohatchee and Wellington addresses. No one was killed at Precision Materials, the plant in the city’s industrial park, but the damage was so severe, the forecasters used it as their proof that the tornado reached EF-3 strength. Twenty-eight people worked at the plant; owners had said earlier that they intended to raze the damaged building, and offered no timeline for rebuilding. Baswell on Thursday described those jobs as “lost” and said Precision would not return to the site. 

Ohatchee and other towns fared a little better in the year’s other disaster: Mayors in most cities said they saw sales tax revenue grow in 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Few had set-in-stone plans, so far, for the pandemic recovery money they expect to get through the American Rescue Plan Act.

Anniston, Oxford talk cooperation

“We’ve got to get City Hall back downtown,” said Anniston Mayor Jack Draper.

Anniston’s old City Hall on Gurnee Avenue was torn down to make room for the new federal courthouse now under construction, and city offices now operate out of leased space in the Anniston Star building. The City Council is now considering four potential sites for a new city hall, but Draper on Tuesday made clear which location he favors: the old federal courthouse on Noble Street, which the city acquired in a land swap that made the new courthouse possible.

“We need to create a government plaza, with City Hall and the new courthouse,” he said. 

Anniston is by far the biggest local recipient of Rescue Plan money, with more than $13 million in pandemic relief expected to arrive. City officials have discussed multiple options for the money, from completion of the Ladiga Trail to creation of a health clinic in Glen Addie. Draper said Thursday that he expects to hold public meetings on the Rescue Act plans before the city decides how to spend the money.

Draper led his remarks with talk of “regional partnerships” that he said are needed to help drive economic development forward. Alton Craft, mayor of neighboring Oxford, also spoke of partnerships — and hinted at some sort of significant development in the works.

“We’re going to turn the volume,” he said. “Probably around November, y'all are going to start seeing some things.”

In Anniston over recent months, council members have talked about recruiting other governments to work with them to manage Anniston’s airport, possibly by appointing a regional body to oversee the airfield. Asked if their “regional partnership” talk referred to an airport board, both Draper and Craft neither confirmed nor denied such a plan. 

Rivalry has historically been the default setting for the two cities, competing for the same new businesses. Oxford officials were present earlier this month for ribbon-cutting at Auto Custom Carpets, a company that closed its Anniston location in 2019 and moved south. Craft cited regional cooperation in that move, too.

“I don’t think people understand what all was going on with that,” Craft said. “Mayor Draper was involved in working with Auto Custom Carpets just to keep them in the state.”

Another city hall

Jacksonville Mayor Johnny Smith said his city, too, is considering a new City Hall, possibly funded with $1.5 million in Rescue Plan Act money. 

City offices operate out of a storefront-style building near the Public Square that Smith said was once a doctor’s office. The Jacksonville City Council now holds its meetings in the municipal courtroom in the city’s police station, a much newer building. 

Smith said there are real signs that the city has come back from the pandemic. City day camps that hosted 70 kids last year now host 130. The city pool had no customers in summer 2020, with about 150 visitors per day now. He said he’s hopeful for the coming Jacksonville State football season, typically a major source of visits to the city.

“People are ready to get out and do things,” Smith said. 

Smith noted that he’s “kind of nervous” about the situation with COVID-19. Data from the Alabama Department of Public Health shows a surge in new cases and hospitalizations this week, while Alabama’s vaccination rate remains low. 

Smith said city officials have considered offering a monetary incentive for city employees to get COVID-19 shots. He said he’s still unsure about the legality of offering prizes to non-employee residents of the city, something Gadsden has been offering, according to reports in various media. None of the other mayors at the event said they were considering a Gadsden-style approach to encouraging vaccinations. 

Smith said the city may soon have news on the former Food Outlet shopping center on Alabama 21, the empty collection of storefronts just south of Cook Out. Smith said the site had become a “big eyesore.”

“There is a plan to build something there,” he said. “I’m sworn to secrecy on that right now.”

Hobson City hacked

Hobson City Mayor Alberta McCrory said the city’s computers had been hacked in recent days, shutting down some city services. 

“They erased everything off our computer and told us, ‘The bottom line, ma’am is, we want money,’” McCrory said. “In my good little tone I told them that we will not give them any.”

McCrory said the town is working with state law enforcement’s digital forensics team to track down the hackers.

Hobson City is Calhoun County’s smallest town, founded in the 1890s as Alabama’s first Black-run town, and now home to around 700 people. McCrory was among a number of Black mayors who earlier this year took the lead in urging Black people to get vaccinated for COVID-19. McCrory on Thursday announced an upcoming health fair at which vaccines would again be offered. 

She said she doesn’t know how many Hobson City residents have been vaccinated, because past vaccination events have been open to anyone, no matter where they live. 

Nationwide, there’s a Black-white disparity in vaccination rates, but in Alabama there’s a single grim story. Numbers from the Alabama Department of Public Health show the vaccination rate among both Black and white Alabamians at the same low rate of 31 percent. 

McCrory said her city will likely use its Rescue Plan money to install security cameras that can identify license plates. The city closed its police department in 2006 and is patrolled by sheriff’s deputies. 

Tourism and trails

Piedmont Mayor Bill Baker said his city has seen economic development in the past year, with a new dollar store and a long-awaited Burger King now open. He said tourism remains a draw for the small northern Calhoun County town, with people arriving to use the Ladiga Trail, to kayak on Terrapin Creek or to use Indian Mountain ATV Park outside of town. 

Further down the Ladiga Trail, Weaver Mayor Wayne Willis said his town has been working to increase use of the hiking-and-biking trail. Among other things, he said, the city now has a bike parking location where local people can store their bikes near the trail, plus a public bicycle repair station where people can use an air pump and other tools. 

Willis said city revenues fared well during the pandemic, largely because the virus kept people closer to home. Residents, stuck at home and doing yard work, bought more water from the city. Sales at the local dollar store also rose. 

“People stopped going to Walmart and went to Dollar General,” he said. 

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.