3 years ago

How Opelika became Alabama’s gold standard for small-town downtown revitalization

You know the place – a dominant courthouse, a few oak trees, a park and a few businesses with storefronts along a sidewalk that is sheltered by awnings. Perhaps there is a post office, two or three churches, a museum or a library. Throw in a handful of offices, a diner or a coffee shop, and you have a small town downtown district.

They are scattered all throughout Alabama and serve as the primary junction in places like Eufaula, Ozark, Demopolis, Winfield, and Cullman. Some are weathering hard times as commerce has shifted beyond downtown to lower cost outposts along the highways—like the Walmart Supercenter or malls with Applebee’s and Buffalo Wild Wings.

Welcome to Opelika

In East Central Alabama’s Lee County, the city of Opelika is reversing that trend and making downtown the place to be. Opelika, a city with a population pushing 30,000, has a traditional, small-town Alabama downtown, but with a railroad corridor and two adjacent avenues at its northern boundary.

Opelika is often overshadowed by its sister city Auburn to the west with its well-known university and status as a destination during college football season. But with an economy that has benefitted from the presence of nearby Auburn University, Opelika has started a different trend and is growing from within by revitalizing its downtown.

(Image: First Baptist Church in Opelika, Ala. — Jeff Poor / Yellowhammer News)

Long-time Opelika resident Glenn Buxton, a 50-year veteran of the radio business who now serves as the director of the local museum, explains how Opelika resurgence has become noticeable in just the last several years.

“Even as late as 2010, there was nothing going on downtown until they started revitalizing the downtown restaurants,” he said in an interview with Yellowhammer News. “Now, there are people living downtown. You got all the restaurants. The parking lots are filled all the way up to where we are even at night. You have a lot of activities going on.”

“From 2009 back, you could take a rock and throw it down that street and not hit anybody,” Buxton added. “And of course, a lot of the stores were in bad shape.”

After 5 p.m. on weekdays and the entire weekend, activity ceases in many a downtown. After working hours, people migrate out to their homes on the edge of town, out in the country and away from the blocks surrounding the courthouse square.

That trend had reversed for Opelika. While many of its establishments close shop after business hours, there are also businesses that start the day around the same time. Restaurants, bars, a brewery and now a distillery maintain the downtown’s pulse late into the night hours.

(Image: 1929 Western Railway of Alabama, Opelika Map — University of Alabama map archives)

A decades-long process

Getting to this point was a gradual process that goes back decades. Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller estimates the first steps took place under his predecessor former Mayor Bobby Freeman in the mid-1990s. Freeman’s successor Mayor Barbara Patton continued the effort, and the transformation is still taking place today.

“Toward the end of [Freeman’s] term, we started our first streetscape project,” Fuller explained to Yellowhammer News. “It was Courthouse Square, where the fountain is. Then we did some other streetscape downtown. We did a couple of blocks – underground utilities, landscape, new sidewalks. And then when I got here in 2004, we did several more streetscapes projects.”

(Image: Courthouse Square in Opelika, Ala. — Jeff Poor / Yellowhammer News)

What happened next Fuller suggests was something of an attitude adjustment by the downtown business owners. Initially, he explained the attitude seemed to be the businesses were downtown were something of a hobby for their owners. However, once they realized these businesses could be profitable, things started to change.

“We had some entrepreneurs come in,” he said. “They wanted to make some money. They were motivated by profit. They had a mortgage. They had a car payment. They had children in college. They wanted to make some money, so that changed that business atmosphere. So then, we got these great restaurants.”

The Marsh Collective

Fuller says the Irish Bred Pub, an establishment on the edge of the downtown district by the railroad, sparked his downtown’s resurgence.

The Irish Bred Pub (not to be confused with its franchise in Montgomery on Dexter Avenue that started that downtown’s revitalization) replaced an old drug store. The two-story gastropub has a balcony that wraps around a street corner and has an interior that is outfitted with mahogany to give a classic look.

(Image: Irish Bred Pub in Opelika, Ala. — Jeff Poor / Yellowhammer News)

Fuller credits local developer John Marsh the Irish Bred Pub’s interior and many of the other revitalized elements in Opelika.

Marsh, who Fuller describes as a “young entrepreneur,” is the owner of J Marsh Enterprises, Inc., a company that is in the business of—as Marsh would say—redemptifying historic spaces.

“We’ve done 185-plus houses and buildings and ten blocks, so we’ve dedicated a good portion of the last 20 years to redeeming this small patch of ground,” Marsh said. “I grew up in Opelika. It’s been my home for about 30 years, and we believe there is something powerful about redeeming cities. So we’ve renovated all these downtown buildings and residential houses in an effort to make a difference.

“We believe that when you save historic structures, it makes a generational difference,” he added. “We know that Opelika’s blessed with some great historic structures. In fact, it’s our Mount Rushmore in so many ways. It’s something unique for us to have the type of historic downtown we have with historic districts that are in such beautiful condition.”

Marsh said his 50-year vision for Opelika has opened up other opportunities for his business, which include Stanford, Ky., Winter Haven, Fla., Bloomfield, Ky. and Albany, Ga.

(Image: Ave A at 8th Street in Opelika, Ala. — Jeff Poor / Yellowhammer News)

“We believe it is such a huge part of our opportunity to have Opelika flourish for the next 50 years,” he added. “That’s our dream. How do we help our city flourish for the next 50 years? We learned that by slowly doing the work, and we stored a huge vision we have for our downtown and for this area. Then secondly, it opened up the door for us to help cities all around America. We have seven cities that have different patrons with portfolios of up to $100 million that we helped through our consulting company that we helped steward whole towns.”

Critics of downtown revitalization projects cry gentrification, wherein the city improvements attract more affluent patrons and residents, with the effect of displacing lower-income people. Marsh says that is a faulty label for his efforts.

“People say, ‘Well, is this gentrification?’” he said. “We kind of coined our own word. We say, ‘No, we do redemptification.’ And that’s the creative work of redeeming a place to its intending beauty or glory. We have a different mindset about this type of work, and we paid the price over 25 years to learn with our own money.”

(Image: Avenue A at 8th Street in Opelika, Ala., — Jeff Poor / Yellowhammer News)

Marsh seeks to break the cycle of cookie-cutter development, which has plagued a lot of places in Alabama – strip malls with chain restaurants that offer a near-identical experience, be it in Tulsa, Okla. or Lakeland, Fla.

“Opelika has got a bright future – smart folks trying to do good work in the world and uniqueness,” he said. “Nobody ever goes to a city and says, ‘I had the most amazing dinner. I went to this town.’ ‘How was it?’ ‘Well, it was Ruby Tuesday’s.’ Nobody says that. We only celebrate uniqueness and to be honest with you, that’s one of the benefits of downtown Opelika. It’s not loaded with a bunch of chains that have the same experience as anywhere else in America.”

The formula

As Fuller had said, the business owners’ attitudes have a lot to do with the character of the downtown. Marsh says the first ingredient to set that tone is the culinary offerings.

“That’s in the hearts of the people that are running the businesses,” he said. “Businesses – you reproduce who you are, not what you want. Those are the operators who are creating. We realize food is powerful. Most town revitalization, we always start with food.”

(Image: 8th Street near Zazu in Opelika, Ala., — Jeff Poor / Yellowhammer News)

“We know we can get people to drive through the worst part of town for good barbecue,” he added.  “Food moves people. We use food as the primary starting point for building communities.”

The other elements beyond food he says are the overnight stay options, the specialty shops and retail and the residential component.

“We think we can bring people in from one gas tank away,” Marsh explained.

Beverage attractions

Two of downtown Opelika’s “unique” offerings, the John Emerald Distilling Company and the Red Clay Brewing Company, are side by side on the north edge of the city’s downtown.

The John Emerald Distilling Company is a father-son team that released its first whiskey in 2015. That was a historic occasion given Alabama’s embrace of prohibition long before the rest of the country.

(Image: John Emerald Distillery in Opelika, Ala., — Jeff Poor / Yellowhammer News)

“They distilled the first legal whiskey made in Alabama since before prohibition,” Mayor Fuller explained. “Alabama, and we’re the only state capable of this, we declared prohibition five years before the federal [government] did. I’m sure the bootleggers helped promote that, them and the preachers – but they make whiskey.”

Fuller also touted Red Clay Brewing, which he praised as one of Opelika’s big draws.

“Next door to that is Red Clay Brewing,” he continued. “Both of those are attractions. Folks come in and want to go to the tasting room, and it just draws people downtown.”

(Image: Red Clay Brewing in Opelika, Ala., — Jeff Poor / Yellowhammer News)

More development to come

Fuller anticipates the city will continue its role in downtown revitalization, just as it had when it started decades earlier.

“We’d like to extend our streetscapes – take it a few more blocks in town to go to the underground wiring, redo the sidewalks, landscape, and so I suspect we’ll be doing some more of that.”

Currently, Fuller says there are a handful of downtown loft apartments that he highly recommends as nice and convenient.

“I want to tell you – I’ve been in a couple of those lofts. My wife and I could live there just like that,” he said.

(Image: Downtown Opelika, Ala., — Jeff Poor / Yellowhammer News)

Fuller, a four-term mayor, said he would like to see more residential offerings, perhaps in the form of a condo development.

“I can see in the coming years we’re going to see more and more of it,” Fuller said. “I’d love to see somebody find a nice piece of property downtown and put some kind of nice condo development, maybe with some underground parking and maybe with some retail on the ground floor.”

(Image: 8th Street near Zazu in Opelika, Ala., — Jeff Poor / Yellowhammer News)

Lacking in Opelika’s downtown portfolio are hotel options. Aside from the Golden Cherry Motel, made famous by the 1979 Academy Award-nominated film “Norma Rae” and has seen better days, and the Heritage House Bed & Breakfast, most of Opelika’s lodging accommodations are away from downtown. They are around exits off of nearby I-85, or north of town near the city’s much-celebrated Grand National golf courses, part of Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones golf trail.

Marsh told Yellowhammer there is a plan in place to change that.

“We’re in the process of putting together an 88-room boutique hotel,” he said.

Marsh explained the entire effort had been a learning process through trial and error, which he indicated has made his business better positioned for the future.

“We have our heart and life invested in 10 blocks,” he explained. “We believe that we’re stewards of that place and we have to do a good job and make a difference for the people that live there. We want everyone in Opelika to flourish. That’s a pretty big order.”

Marsh predicted there would be “a lot more” over the next two years.

(Image: Lee County Courthouse in Opelika, Ala., — Jeff Poor / Yellowhammer News)

“People don’t want to drive as much,” he said. “They want to have fast Internet, good shipping and walkable to all the things they need, and a good quality of life. If we can provide that, I think Opelika has a unique – probably the most unique downtown, properly located to the I-85 corridor between Atlanta and Montgomery. I don’t think there’s any downtown that is better located with distance to the Interstate and inventory of historic buildings. Hopefully soon, with offerings – we have more restaurants and hospitality concepts and all of that coming. You’re going to see a lot more within the next 24 months.”

Jeff Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and works as the editor of Breitbart TV. Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeff_poor.

(Top image: View of Downtown Opelika, Ala. from Railroad Ave. facing south — Jeff Poor / Yellowhammer News)

1 min ago

VIDEO: Gov. Ivey extends mask mandate, lottery could be an option as gambling bill languishes, Merrill backs off ‘no excuse’ absentee balloting and more on Alabama Politics This Week …

Radio talk show host Dale Jackson and political consultant Mecca Musick take you through Alabama’s biggest political stories, including:

— Did Governor Kay Ivey make the right decision when she extended the mask mandate?

— Is the Alabama Legislature going to look to move forward with the lottery if they can’t get a more comprehensive gambling bill?

— Why did Secretary of State John Merrill support and then retract his support for “no excuse” absentee voting?

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Jackson and Musick are joined by Matt Murphy of Talk 99.5 in Birmingham to discuss the issues facing the state of Alabama this week.

Jackson closes the show with a “Parting Shot” at Alabama Democratic Party Chairman and State Representative Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa) for not following through on his plan to make the party more relevant in Alabama.

Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 AM weekdays on WVNN and on Talk 99.5 from 10AM to noon.

3 hours ago

Mo Brooks: Stopping H.R. 1, amnesty keys to winning in 2022 midterms — ‘Then we will be able to neuter Joe Biden’

FLORENCE — With the third month of the 117th Congress now underway, House Democrats have pushed forward in their efforts to pass H.R. 1, which would impose so-called reforms to the country’s voting system.

Also among the priorities for Democrats, who control the White House, House and Senate, are immigration measures that could include amnesty for illegal aliens.

During an appearance at the Shoals Republican Club on Saturday, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Huntsville) panned those efforts and said he hoped to stymie the progress of House Democrats on those two fronts.

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Brooks told those in attendance that if Republicans could prove successful in those efforts, it would set the GOP up for wins in the 2022 midterm elections and hamstring President Joe Biden’s push to promote a left-of-center agenda.

“We’ve got to stop H.R. 1, and we’ve got to stop the amnesty and citizenship that Joe Biden has promised,” he said. “If we do those two things, then we’re going to take back the House in 2022. I hope we will take back the Senate in 2022. And then we will be able to neuter Joe Biden over the next two years if we control the House and Senate and set the stage as well for us taking back the White House in 2024 with whoever our nominee may be.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

5 hours ago

2021 Birmingham Heart Walk goes virtual

COVID-19 has forced many nonprofits to shift gears in their fundraising efforts and the American Heart Association (AHA) is no exception. The AHA’s 2021 Birmingham Heart Walk has been reimagined as a digital experience this year to maintain necessary safety protocols due to the ongoing pandemic.

Through the event design, AHA is striving to get more people moving in Birmingham while continuing to raise life-saving funds and keep participants safe in the process. The Birmingham Heart Walk is Saturday, June 12, from 9-11 a.m. and participants can walk from anywhere.

Leading up to the event, participants are encouraged to track their activity through the “Move More Challenge” using the free Heart Walk activity tracker app that can be downloaded from Apple or Google Play. Once registered, users have 30 days to log minutes, and any activity counts. Top movers and fundraisers will be recognized on Heart Walk day.

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“The American Heart Association holds a special place in my heart,” said Southern Company Vice President of Technology David Coxwho will chair the walk for the second time. “They have done so much for my family and for my daughter, Emily, who was born with multiple congenital heart defects. I’m pleased to partner with this outstanding organization in their efforts help our community connect and stay active as we adapt to this virtual world.”

More than 600,000 Americans die each year from heart disease, and the risks have only been compacted by the pandemic. Among COVID-19 hospitalizations, 40% are heart or stroke patients, so this year, donations from the Heart Walk will help fast-track COVID-19 research and train front-line workers in addition to the many other research projects and resources funded by the AHA.

Fundraising and activities for the Heart Walk are beginning to ramp up as the warmer months approach.

“Now is the time to sign up, lace up and start fundraising for the 2021 Birmingham Heart Walk,” said Hannah Carroll, Heart Challenge director of the Birmingham AHA. “Signing up now ensures you won’t miss any of the fun this year, like Rally Days and our new activity tracker.”

On Feb. 18, Cox hosted a virtual kickoff for business leaders in the Birmingham area who will be fielding teams at this year’s Heart Walk. He encouraged counterparts to begin their fundraising efforts by saying, “We’re here for a reason – to fight for a world of longer, healthier lives.”

To view Emily’s story, click here. To learn more about the 2021 Birmingham Heart Walk or to create a team, click here.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

8 hours ago

Schoolyard Roots growing stronger, smarter kids in Alabama

When kids participate in the life of a garden, they see the complete cycle of growing food, cooking and preparing it to eat. School gardens are exciting places for kids to learn basic academic subjects, too.

The Tuscaloosa community came together more than 10 years ago to develop a garden-based learning program called the Druid City Garden project, now called Schoolyard Roots.

Schoolyard Roots employs a full-time teaching staff that provides garden lessons for students, as well as professional development training for teachers. The school gardens provide an outdoor experience rare to many students. They are more likely to make healthy choices and try new foods. Students gain a sense of responsibility, to collaborate and work together as a team.

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“When we see a child’s health and education improve, we know that we’re not only investing in that child’s life today – we’re helping them build a better future,” said Nicole Gelb Dugat, interim executive director. “Schoolyard Roots builds community through food. By increasing access to fresh, locally grown produce, we empower our community to make healthy and sustainable food choices.”

In March 2020, the impact of COVID-19 significantly affected the teaching community. Almost immediately, the Schoolyard Roots team began distributing produce from its gardens directly to local families. By the end of last year, the program had distributed more than 750 pounds of fresh garden vegetables to the community.

“We stewarded our gardens as fresh-air sanctuaries, where children and adults could relax, refocus and reconnect,” said Dugat. “Through it all, we shared vegetables and flowers. We cultivated moments of peace and learned together. We could not have done any of it without our incredible community of supporters.”

They found hope and inspiration in the small miracle of seeds planted by the students. Gardens bring joy, peace and courage in times of struggle. And gardens remind us to have hope for new growth and what is to come.

Schoolyard Roots partners with Tuscaloosa-area elementary schools to bring learning to life through teaching gardens. The nonprofit works in 11 elementary schools across Tuscaloosa County.

Its mission is to build healthy communities through food with the Gardens 2 Schools program.

Gardens support and encourage healthful eating as a key component of children’s physical wellbeing, which can aid their academic and social success, too. The garden is woven through many aspects of a school’s curriculum and adapted for different grade levels.

“The Gardens 2 Schools program cultivates curiosity,” Dugat said. “The program teaches the students how to work together (and) learn self-reliability and compassion.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

8 hours ago

Has Washington’s stimulus measures saved our economy?

Congress is expected to soon pass President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package, the fourth major response to the pandemic. Did these measures save our economy from a protracted recession?

Our initial response might be yes because of last spring’s economic free-fall. The stock market declined 20%. Unemployment jumped from 3.5% in February to 14.8% in April, the highest level since the Great Depression. GDP fell 10% in the second quarter.

The economy stopped collapsing and began regaining ground. The stock market hit new record highs. Unemployment fell to 6.3% in January and inflation-adjusted GDP in the fourth quarter of 2020 was within 2% of the 2019 level. Post hoc ergo prompter hoc, however, is a logical fallacy.

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Macroeconomists disagree over whether government spending can lift an economy out of recession. Keynesians, following John Maynard Keynes’ analysis of the Great Depression, see a role for government stabilization. Austrians in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek argue that government often causes recessions. New classical analysis has blown many holes in Keynesian theories.

Regardless of the efficacy of a fiscal stimulus, our economy may not have faced a recession in 2020. The COVID-19 slump arguably resembled an off-season shutdown in a resort community more than a recession. Except that the pandemic shutdown was unexpected while seasonal closures are planned.

The economy could have been expected to bounce back on its own if the business closure and stay-at-home orders did not last too long. And this seemingly happened during the summer and fall.

How can we assess the stimulus spending? The Payroll Protection Plan and augmented unemployment likely kept some persons employed and softened the financial blow for idled workers. These programs could also be viewed as compensation owed by the government for business closure orders, not a stimulus. Personal saving has risen sharply, so many households’ stimulus checks produced little spending.

Unemployment programs have been beset by fraud. The Foundation for Government Accountability estimates that fraudulent schemes siphoned off $36 billion, more than the $26 billion in unemployment compensation paid out in all of 2019. Do Keynesians think fraud is a fiscal stimulus?

One trillion stimulus dollars were unspent as of January 2021. While some Republicans argued that we should spend this money before approving President Biden’s proposal, the unspent money was in the process of being spent. Still, money not yet spent did not stimulate the economy in 2020.

Proponents of fiscal stimulus warned that the economy would sputter without a fall stimulus. One forecast warned of a five percentage point increase in unemployment and 5% decline in GDP. The House and Senate did not agree on an encore to the CARES Act until December. And yet unemployment fell and GDP grew in the fourth quarter.

Even if some spending helped in 2020, the current stimulus package is almost certainly unnecessary. The Congressional Budget Office was already expecting growth to recover “rapidly,” with GDP surpassing the pre-pandemic level by mid-year and unemployment returning to its prior level by early 2022. For comparison, after the Great Recession unemployment did not reach its 2007 level until 2016.

President Biden’s package includes $500 billion to stabilize state budgets. States operate under balanced budget rules, so revenue declines due to the pandemic would trigger spending cuts potentially slowing the recovery. The $500 billion was based on an 8% decline in state revenues; the Wall Street Journal reports that revenues will be down only 1.6%.

Whatever the verdict on the stimulus spending, it worsened the national debt by about $3 trillion. The long-term debt impact may easily offset any short-term boost to the recovery.

The economic case that government spending can prevent or end a recession is weak. Fortunately, the COVID-19 shutdowns did not trigger a prolonged recession. While we might say, “Better safe than sorry,” the cost of the stimulus will be with us for years to come.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.