A city on the move
Ever-advancing toward a bright future
By THOMAS LARK
ANNISTON, ALA.––It’s at the end of the Appalachian Mountains and the beginning of a bright future.
It’s Anniston, Ala., and it’s a city on the move. We recently spoke with Mayor Jack Draper and city manager Steven Folks, and they told us what makes Anniston truly the apple of Alabama.
The county seat of Calhoun County, Anniston is nestled in the northeast corner of the Yellowhammer State. Situated at the slope of Blue Mountain, it’s often been called “the Model City,” for its exemplary planning and meticulously laid-out streets back in the late 19th century, according to The Spirit of Anniston. Chartered as a town in 1873, according to The Encyclopedia of Alabama, the city today has more than 21,000 residents and is comprised of nearly 46 square miles. Historically, it was known as a center for the manufacture of cast iron and clay pipe.
These days, as Folks explained, the City is benefitting from some $20 million––monies combined from a local bond and other financial sources––that is facilitating a series of capital improvement projects now under way. The money covers a variety of infrastructural improvements, including the expansion of the Chief Ladiga Trail.
That’s a rail trail that stretches for 33 miles, going from Anniston to the Alabama-Georgia state line. It is the State of Alabama’s first rail trail project.
A rail trail is a shared-use path on a railway right-of-way. They are usually constructed after a railway has been abandoned and the track taken up.
As for its namesake, Chief Ladiga was a Muscogee tribal leader who gave up his people’s ancestral lands when he signed the Treaty of Cusseta in 1832––part of a broader policy of Indian removal perpetrated against tribes in the South (especially the Cherokee) by the administration of Andrew Jackson. Ladiga sold half of his land (now modern-day Jacksonville, Ala.) to land speculators for a mere $2,000.
And Anniston’s new gift of money will also help make possible a new downtown farmers’ market and a new city hall in a new location (that of a former federal courthouse, located on Noble Street: the city’s main thoroughfare). These investments will lead to increased economic vitality and opportunity through several areas of improvements. Community development and educational and work force goals surrounding this plan are also included.
The money will also facilitate the construction of a new park downtown, as Folks continued. Plus, there will be a new clinic to benefit the uninsured. And helping tackle the problem of local homelessness is another of the laudable goals involved.
A city transformed
And as Draper informed, Anniston is home to many historical structures that have served to put it on the map.
“We’re really working on transforming our downtown in particular, and those funds have already been very useful for that,” Draper said. “The name of the game for us is getting more people into Anniston, and an improved downtown district is very much a part of that, for our own economic development and regionally as well. Anniston remains the regional hub for legal, financial, health care and other services for a five-county area––roughly 300,000 people. There’s a lot of much-needed work being done downtown, and we’re very proud of that.”
Folks said that Anniston is a very walkable city, and it’s nationally recognized as a bicycle-friendly community. Anniston is known for its walking, cycling and horse trails. Eco-tourism is a big piece of the City’s economic puzzle going forward.
“We have a great trail system here,” said Folks. “It’s one of those things that continues to grow.”
As an aside, Draper praised Folks for his efforts and expertise in recreational matters, explaining that the latter was formerly Anniston’s parks and recreation director before becoming city manager.
“We’re very fortunate to have his leadership,” Draper said, “particularly with regard to parks and rec.”
Folks extolled Anniston’s museums, which are so well known for their excellence that they’ve been recognized by the Smithsonian Institution.
“We have so much to offer here,” he said. “We have museums that are top-notch.”
The Anniston Museum of Natural History is located in Lagarde Park. It has on permanent exhibition more than 2,000 natural history items, such as minerals, fossils and rare animals in open dioramas, according to the Smithsonian Institution.
And the Berman Museum features many exhibits on world history, including paintings and sculptures. It also has many artifacts from the ancient past, as Draper noted.
“It’s a museum of rural history and artifacts you can’t find anywhere else,” he pointed out, “so Anniston is very blessed culturally. Anniston really has a rich cultural history, and we’re working to expand on that.”
Speaking speculatively, Draper said he’d love to see live-music venues created in downtown Anniston. For example, he added, there is an historic amphitheatre on the campus of the former Fort McClellan, originally Camp McClellan, a decommissioned United States Army post located adjacent to Anniston. During World War II, it was one of the largest U.S. Army installations, training an estimated 500,000 soldiers for combat in the European and Pacific theatres.
Economic development and healing past wounds
Draper said the City’s efforts these days are much focused on economic development and the quality of life of its citizens. With the new fiscal year just begun, he noted the City has a $42 million annual budget.
Anniston was the original home of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. It’s now in Montgomery.
Folks said Anniston compares very favorably with other Alabama cities, such as Huntsville and Birmingham. Anniston’s future, he said, is a bright one.
“I think the sky’s the limit,” said Folks, adding that he not only looks at Anniston as a municipality alone but also at the entire region of northeastern Alabama as a whole.
Atlanta is only 91 miles and as many minutes away. Anniston’s proximity to one of the South’s biggest cities has a beneficial economic spillover effect.
Folks cited Anniston’s history. It played a key role in the efforts of the famous Freedom Riders and other civil-rights leaders who crusaded against the violent and evil Ku Klux Klan in the old Jim Crow days of the then-segregated South, some 60 years ago.
The efforts of these courageous men and women to end American apartheid are memorialized on the site of the tragic 1961 bus-burning and the former Greyhound station in downtown Anniston. Now part of the National Park Service and opened by President Barack Obama some seven years ago, the memorial––located on Gurnee Avenue in downtown Anniston––is dedicated to the Freedom Riders’ achievements in the fight for civil rights. The bus station, along with the Trailways station, is also part of the Anniston Civil Rights and Heritage Trail. The Trailways station marks the location where a second group of Freedom Riders stopped during their journey to Birmingham. Though this bus was not attacked in the same manner as the first (a KKK mob), a group of white men did board the second bus and harass the Freedom Riders on their two-hour journey to Birmingham. Today, visitors may see these sites to honor the Freedom Riders’ influence on the American Civil Rights Movement, as Draper pointed out.
“We’re proud to be able to honor the Freedom Riders in this way,” he said. “This is actually the only national monument in the country dedicated solely to the Freedom Riders.”
And this September will mark the 60th anniversary of the integration of Anniston’s formerly whites-only library. On Sept. 15, 1963, two black pastors, revs. William B. McClain and Nimrod Q. Reynolds, were attacked by a white mob when they attempted to enter the Anniston City Library. These and other such events, many of them sit-ins and similar protests, helped challenge and change the segregation of public libraries, according to the City of Anniston.
Nowadays, of course, the city has long since moved on, learning from and healing over its mistakes from an increasingly distant past. Today, said Draper, Anniston is known for the resiliency of its citizens.
“To me,” he said, “it’s all about our people here. Anniston has a great history and continues to be one of the most philanthropic cities in Alabama. We’re a city that cares, and we’re also a city that is welcoming to others. We want you to see how great Anniston is!”
He spoke of beautiful avenues, lined by shading trees, and a proud and happy people, excited about their future.
Folks shared Draper’s assessment and optimism.
“There’s just so much to offer here,” he observed. “I think our future here, in the next five to 10 years, is just really off the charts.”
AT A GLANCE
What: Charming southern town with growth on the radar
Where: the northeast of the Yellowhammer State, 90 miles from Atlanta
Anniston City Schools – www.annistonschools.com
Why Choose Anniston City Schools?
Choose Anniston City Schools because Bulldogs Lead the Way! Students at Anniston City are expected to “Lead the Way” in the areas of academics, athletics, career training, and college preparedness. With numerous dual enrollment opportunities, championship athletic programs, and a diversified career tech program, Anniston City Schools strives to be a premier educational system.
Founded in 1909, Anniston City Schools is home to three elementary schools, one solely dedicated to Pre-K and Kindergarten and two first through fifth grades; one middle school; and one high school. We serve approximately 1900 students and host approximately 280 certified and support staff members. The district’s student body is 84% black/african-american, 7% white, 9% two or more races, and 5% Hispanic/Latino population, with 49% female and 51% male population. Anniston City is a district-wide Title I with 100% free/reduced lunch. With these resources, we were able to provide our students with great educational opportunities. Positive things ARE happening in Anniston City Schools! #DAWGSON3