But in a thematic sense, it’s safe to point at Alabama’s largest city and the center of its banking and medical communities and ask, in all seriousness: If there, why not here?
Case in point is Birmingham’s downtown, which this week has received Grade-A publicity from a feature story in The New York Times. It is as if it were written by the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, the story is bountiful in platitudes and congratulatory examples. The downtowns of Calhoun County’s largest cities, Anniston and Oxford, wish they could earn that sort of national praise.
In the Magic City, the Times writes, the transformation has been overwhelming in the area around Railroad Park, a 19-acre lot that features an amphitheater, green space and lakes. The city’s new baseball stadium is nearby. On nearby blocks, long-shuttered buildings that once were department stores and office spaces are now restaurants and loft apartments. A bill Alabama legislators passed earlier this year that offers developers up to $5 million in state historical tax credits has kick-started many of the projects.
Buildings that other cities tear down — in Anniston, for instance — are being rehabilitated by investors who see opportunity, not blight, among weathered bricks and faded paint.
“The momentum downtown is palpable,” Derek R. Waltchack, a principal of Shannon Waltchack, a Birmingham-based property brokerage and investment firm, told the Times. “You have all the pieces in place for it to be really hot for the next 10 years.”
We need no reminder that we’re dealing with apples and oranges here. Don’t consider this a screed that dares to assume what happens in the big city can, and should, automatically happen here.
Nevertheless, there are points to be made.
Money is the key; without it, redevelopment projects are empty gas tanks, going nowhere. The perfect illustration is the Watermark Tower in Anniston, whose rebuilding stalled for years as planners waited out the worst part of the Great Recession. But look at it now — a multi-story reminder of how a vibrant downtown can be the best advertisement a city can offer.
Anniston’s downtown was going nowhere as long as the Watermark sat empty and scarred from fire. Now, with willing investors and an improved economy, at least it has a fighting chance with a new justice center, a new Department of Human Resources office and a new brewpub built in a vacant train station. Oxford’s downtown is overshadowed by the retail growth at Oxford Exchange, but the city’s new performing arts center (built on the site of the old city hall) has given its historic center a bit more panache.
We understand the give-and-take that exists between developers, politicians and preservationists. It’s a tough relationship. What’s needed here are those with vision and the fiscal means to turn dreams into downtown realities.