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City leaders discuss prosperity in pandemic

Annual ‘State of the Cities’ meeting brings mayors together

Economic damage inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic is easy to spot as scores of Alabamians remain unemployed, but local municipalities have managed to survive — or even thrive — as the virus continues to spread. 

All seven Calhoun County mayors met Tuesday morning at the fourth annual State of the Cities event at the county Chamber of Commerce conference room in Anniston. The event typically provides a forum where mayors speak of issues facing their cities and announce plans and investments. Prior years have included an audience and have been held at larger venues; this year the event was broadcast live via Facebook. 

The coronavirus had touched each city’s operations in some way or another, but a few — three of the county’s smaller towns — noted that they had seen their sales tax revenues rise instead of fall. 

Ohatchee Mayor Steven Baswell said about 70 percent of his town’s budget comes from sales tax. When Gov. Kay Ivey and the state Department of Public Health imposed rules that closed down nonessential businesses in March, Baswell had expected the worst, he said, and city staff had begun looking for where to make budget cuts. 

“We were pleasantly surprised; of our businesses, only one beauty shop shut down because they were directed to by the governor,” Baswell said. “The rest of our businesses stayed open.” 

Those businesses saw their sales rise in spite of the restrictions. The local Jack’s closed down its lobby in accordance with the state order and operated with only its drive-thru. Despite the perceived setback, the restaurant had record sales in April and May, Baswell said. The local grocery store had weeks of sales records, too, he said. 

“Our sales tax for the month of May was a record for the town of Ohatchee. I was amazed at that,” Baswell said. 

Piedmont Mayor Bill Baker has seen a similar, unexpected rise in sales tax. During the first few months of the pandemic, the city laid off only a few part-time employees, he said, but they have since been rehired. Meanwhile, three businesses opened — a barbecue restaurant, a Dollar Tree and Sadler’s Feed, a livestock supply and variety store — with Burger King, Dollar General and Broadway Pizza in the works, Baker said. 

The city received a grant for $250,000 from the state’s Rebuild Alabama Act that it will pair with money from the gas tax and city savings to repave about $500,000 worth of city streets. The city had also been awarded another grant for $450,000 just before the pandemic began, which was used to update the city’s sewer system. 

“We’re very happy with where the city is going,” Baker said. 

Weaver Mayor Wayne Willis announced a slew of new projects when he spoke, including a deal for nearly 100 new homes to be built in the city, and that the city had recently acquired the lake in the Buckhorn community. 

Weaver had seen its revenue perk up as the pandemic began, as well, Willis explained. He attributed the extra money to higher rates of water use; the city supplies residents with water through its own utility service, and many more people had been home in the last few months, he said. People were washing their cars and driveways and planting gardens, Willis said, kicking up usage rates. 

“As we’re moving into planning the budget year, the city piggybacks on the previous year’s budget and uses those numbers going forward,” Willis said. “For 2020 we can’t use those numbers, because this has been a completely oddball year.” 

Hobson City Mayor Alberta McCrory didn’t speak directly about sales tax revenue, but noted that the city had celebrated the opening of a new convenience store, Aussie’s Quick Mart, just a day earlier. The city had one or two stores until the last few years, and the lack of business revenue can lead to stagnation, she explained. 

“If you know anything about city government … everybody needs revenue,” McCrory said. “You cannot operate without it.” 

Alton Craft, mayor of Oxford, discussed the City Council’s long-term goal of revitalizing the area surrounding exit 185 of Interstate 20, part of the city which had begun to falter. He noted the various projects already announced for the area — Big Time Entertainment, a massive activity center, a new RaceTrac gas station he said will be “mammoth” and updates to the mall from new owners Hull Property Group — and said that a Planet Fitness gym was planned for construction in the area, as well. 

The city hosted a job fair in early June at its Civic Center, an event that drew around 377 prospective employees, Craft estimated, with more than a dozen local industrial and manufacturing employers in attendance. 

“From my understanding, more than 100 of those people got jobs,” Craft said. 

Jacksonville Mayor Johnny Smith said the city had fared well through the pandemic; a few part-time employees of the city Parks and Recreation Department had been laid off, he said, while those facilities were closed. The city pool is now open, along with a summer camp, he said, and those employees have been brought back. The library remains closed to the public, offering books through curbside pickup. It should reopen once the city sources more plexiglass to install panels between visitors and employees. 

“We try to be cautious about that, and so far have done fairly well,” Smith said. “We haven’t had a city employee with COVID yet.” 

He said the city intends to repave Church Avenue from 11th Street NE to where it meets Alabama 21 at the south end of the city. The project will be paid for with money from the Calhoun Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, he said, an 80/20 match between the MPO and Jacksonville for about $2 million. 

“We’re really excited to have the funding to do that, starting maybe in September or October,” Smith said. 

Anniston Mayor Jack Draper reminded viewers of his city’s largest development: a regional courthouse under construction at the site of the former City Hall. The federal building is being built by the U.S. General Services Administration, and is expected to create hundreds of jobs and generate significant business for the city. 

He said the city had finished “transactional work” with the Anniston Water Works and Sewer Board for property owned by that organization, which will be used as a right-of-way on the Chief Ladiga Trail extension project. The project will add bike paths extending from the trail. Another negotiation for land with Norfolk Southern will hopefully wrap this summer, Draper said. 

“We hope to break ground early next year,” he said.