Anniston, 2015. The State of the City.

Even more progress expected in the new year

By Mayor Vaughn Stewart
The Anniston Star
Published Sunday, Jan. 4, 2015


Two years ago, Annistonians delivered a resounding message at voting booths across the city and ushered in a new era of city government. That message was as simple as it was urgent: Enough.

Our city was still reeling from a series of 1990s misfortunes when the recession hit.  Unfortunately, our leaders too often chose insults over solutions. By 2012, Anniston, a proud city with a growing list of challenges, had declined further. 

Over the last two years, Anniston’s journey has been characterized by the phrase, “One City, One Vision.”  That principle encapsulated our biggest challenge: After years — even decades — of divisions and infighting, our first mission was to unite the city around a common vision for the future. The City Council toured the city to listen to residents’ hopes, complaints, and ideas. We held workshops, where hundreds helped craft the city’s strategic plan.

 
"Our vision for Anniston rejects both starry-eyed optimists who claim the status quo is sufficient as well as the naysayers who contend that improvement is a fool’s errand."

In 2014, we put the plan into action. I’m pleased to report that 2015 will see even more progress.

During the planning process, Annistonians repeatedly called for stronger schools. We understand that education is essential to breaking the cycle of poverty.  That’s why the council invested more than
$500,000 on preschool programs over the past two years and is a shining star in the region’s pre-K network. Studies have shown that preschool programs can generate as much as $13 for every $1 invested.

In 2015, we will launch a year-round out-of-school program. Going forward, we must continue to search for data-driven strategies to lower dropout rates and improve test scores in Anniston.

Our vision for Anniston rejects both starry-eyed optimists who claim the status quo is sufficient as well as the naysayers who contend that improvement is a fool’s errand. Our vision for Anniston includes a prioritization of economic development. It is no secret that Alabama generally, and the Anniston-Oxford metro in particular, has struggled to recover jobs lost during the recession. But we’re finally making strides. Our unemployment rate declined dramatically from an unacceptable 8.5 percent in July to 6.0 percent in November.  In 2014, the city hired its first economic developer, who now works full-time to recruit both retail stores and industrial firms to Anniston; he has been in talks with companies that haven’t looked at the city of Anniston since I had a full head of hair. We also invested several million dollars in transportation improvements at McClellan. International Automotive Components recently announced that it will hire 350 new workers as part of a $22 million McClellan expansion. Veterans Memorial Parkway will be completed in 2015, and the city will start an effort to recruit retailers to both of its ends.

Increasingly, businesses demand more than tax incentives and adequate infrastructure when they assess a potential landing spot. They only want to relocate or expand to cities that have a rich quality of life. That’s why we’re determined to become Alabama’s livability mecca. In 2014, we broke ground on a wellness park in West Anniston that will eventually be the centerpiece of a 7.2-mile Chief Ladiga Trail extension, which is proceeding ahead of schedule. We also helped expand the Coldwater Mountain bike complex to reach the short-term goal of 45 miles of trails and the long-term goal of creating the premiere mountain-bike destination
in the Southeast.

"For the first time in a long time, and in no small part due to the efforts of thousands of Annistonians, we’re finally moving forward. Onward."

In 2015, look for movie nights in the park, a farmer’s market expansion, bike lanes and an updated streetscape downtown. In the near future, we hope to follow Opelika’s lead in bringing a fiber-optic network to Anniston. We want downtown to once again be the focus of activity, including an arts center, a smattering of new independent businesses, a mixed-use development around the Amtrak station, and more housing opportunities.

Our ultimate goal is to make the Model City a destination for tourists, business, retirees and young professionals. 

If Anniston’s crime rate remains high, it will prove difficult to recruit businesses, new residents and tourists. I commend the hard work, dedication and bravery shown daily by the Anniston Police Department.  Since 2013, APD has joined forces with federal agencies, the district attorney’s office and area law enforcement agencies to tackle crime vigorously and effectively. In 2013, the crime rate fell 16.5 percent. In the years ahead, we will continue to explore innovative crime-fighting strategies that have proven successful in other cities. We are determined to take back every unsafe street and are committed to working with neighborhoods to achieve that goal.

Of course, Anniston’s transformation would already be complete if we had an infinite funding stream. We don’t. We scratch and claw for every dollar in grant money so we can make smart investments for our future.

In short, the state of the city is in motion. For the first time in a long time, and in no small part due to the efforts of thousands of Annistonians, we’re finally moving forward. Onward.