Is there another nonprofit in the city, if not all of Calhoun County, that’s had a rockier few years? If so, what is it?
On paper, Spirit of Anniston is charged with assisting redevelopment in the city’s core business district and preservation of that area’s historic buildings. It’s a noble cause, easy to support.
But those duties are at the heart of a street-level perception — positive and negative — about Spirit and its role. Anniston needs an overwhelming amount of retail and commercial redevelopment; think South Quintard, Lenlock, West Anniston, even spots over the mountain in Golden Springs. That’s a key reason why some doubt the smartness of helping fund a nonprofit dedicated to only a small tract of the city. Like it or not, it is a worthwhile question.
Today, though, that’s not the pressing issue. Instead, it’s the hiring of Spirit’s third director since the fall of 2012.
Dianna Michaels, the former television anchor and reporter hired in April to replace fired former director Betsy Bean, was “separated” from Spirit on Monday. “She is no longer our executive director,” Spirit board member Gayle Macolly told The Star. “We have agreed to separate right now.”
Right now? Let the speculation begin.
Spirit may resemble an embattled entity, but on its board are well-meaning souls who love the city and want it to not only persevere, but blossom. It is wholly unfair to label those under the Spirit banner as examples of Anniston’s often-dysfunctional climate of politics.
In some ways, this current edition of Spirit bears scars from the now-departed City Hall born in the 2008 election. Former Mayor Gene Robinson, a longtime Noble Street business owner, reveled in his distaste for Spirit, Bean and his predecessor, former Mayor Chip Howell. Robinson’s tirades against Spirit were comical and personal, not political, particularly whenever he ranted against the Howell-era decision to install parallel parking on Noble Street.
Put bluntly, Robinson and select members of the City Council poisoned the water for Spirit and squandered few opportunities to publicly renounce the nonprofit’s performance, if not its role.
In 2009, Robinson, upset over Bean’s firing of a Spirit employee and Spirit’s redevelopment efforts, wanted to reduce the city’s funding of the nonprofit. He also wanted to fold it into a larger redevelopment organization. Former Councilmen John Spain and Ben Little backed some of Robinson’s criticisms.
Nonetheless, Robinson’s hyperbole was laughable. “For the money we’ve put into it, what have we really gotten out of the Spirit?” he said at the time. “I can’t see anything we’ve really gotten as far as development goes.”
In 2010, the council cut Spirit’s funding in half, from $190,000 to $95,000.
In 2012, the council reduced Spirit’s funding to $70,000. Robinson, trounced in the August elections and out of office in November, wanted the city to cut all funding to Spirit.
Bean, meanwhile, lost her job just before incoming Mayor Vaughn Stewart and the new council members were sworn in. “My board chair came to me last night and said that essentially the incoming council would not support the Spirit of Anniston with me at the helm,” Bean told The Star last October. “This is a brutal field to be in; it’s so political. In a racially divided town, it’s doubly hard.”
From here, Bean seemed a polarizing figure. Her efforts to market Anniston as part of Alabama’s Civil Rights Trail were laudable; her legacy is displayed in the Freedom Riders murals on Noble and Gurnee streets. She had different ideas that went beyond filling vacant downtown storefronts with new businesses.
She also lost her job.
“They said I should have filled all those empty buildings (downtown),” Bean said after her firing. “We could have filled those buildings if the city had done its part. They never did.”
That’s a lot of finger-pointing, hurt feelings and political score-settling. It’s time for Anniston, and Spirit, to move forward. But to where?
A new city manager is in place. The city is looking to hire an economic-development consultant — who, it would seem, could help fill Noble Street’s empty buildings as much as a Spirit director. Now is the perfect time for the Spirit board and City Hall to reach a broader, if not more concrete, consensus on the nonprofit’s future and the city’s fiscal role with it.
What we can agree on is that downtown Anniston needs help, still. Stability is the key; turmoil is cancerous. If Spirit is to be a vital player in Anniston’s future, calm and consistency are needed inside its Noble Street office.
Phillip Tutor — email@example.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.