1 year 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)

9 hours ago

University of North Alabama adopting new tuition plan

The University of North Alabama is switching to a tuition plan that officials say will result in increased costs for some students but not others.

Officials at the school in Florence say they are reducing the total number of student fees from seven to one, and fees will be included in the overall tuition cost.

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A statement says students taking 15 hours will see a maximum increase in expenses of 4.1%.

But some could pay less, and costs will not change for others.

School officials say a lag in state funding is a continuing problem.

North Alabama’s vice president for business, Evan Thornton, says the school has deferred maintenance and capital needs totaling more than $160 million.

The school has an undergraduate enrollment of about 6,200 students.
(Associated Press, copyright 2018)

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10 hours ago

Nathan Lindsay joining governor’s office from BCA

Another high profile staffer from the Business Council of Alabama (BCA) is joining Governor Kay Ivey’s senior level team.

The governor on Monday announced that Nathan Lindsay will join her office as director of appointments effective July 1.

This position is charged with spearheading the meticulous work that goes into Ivey meeting her duty to appoint qualified, representative and appropriate people to positions on the state’s various boards and commissions.

A press release from the governor’s office outlined that Lindsay assumes the role with an extensive background in state government and the private sector, which uniquely qualifies him to advise the governor in this capacity.

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Most recently, through his work in political and governmental affairs at the BCA, Lindsay interacted with members of the business community throughout the Yellowhammer State, which significantly adds to his ability to identify and select candidates for various appointed posts.

Additionally, Lindsay’s early career included time in then-Governor Bob Riley’s office where he served as aide to the governor from 2006 to 2011. Lindsay also worked in the governor’s communications office as deputy press secretary and advised Riley on education policy.

“Nathan brings to our team a wealth of knowledge that I know will serve the state well,” Ivey said in a statement. “In addition to his expertise and insight, Nathan is a man of character. The men and women of my staff must have a strong work ethic, a depth of knowledge and a heart for public service. Nathan certainly embodies all of these characteristics.”

Lindsay earned his bachelor’s degree from Faulkner University. During his time at Faulkner, he served as SGA president and later, in 2018, he was awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award for the College of Arts and Sciences.

“As governor, I have the important responsibility of appointing qualified individuals to serve on the more than 450 boards and commissions in our state. These men and women must not only be highly-qualified, but they should also be a true reflection of our great state,” Ivey added. “I am confident we will continue to find the best people to serve our state, just as I am certain Nathan will serve my Administration exceptionally well in this position. His experience speaks for itself, and he shares my goal of moving Alabama into a better future.”

This comes weeks after Leah Garner departed BCA to become Ivey’s communications director.

Mark Colson also left BCA to become head of the Alabama Trucking Association recently.

Update 5:55 p.m.:

BCA President and CEO Katie Boyd Britt released a statement commending Ivey on the hire of Lindsay.

“Nathan’s background and expertise in political affairs combined with his political acumen uniquely qualify him to serve the governor and the state in this capacity,” Britt said. “I have no doubt Nathan will do an outstanding job, and I commend Governor Kay Ivey on this excellent addition to her staff.”

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

10 hours ago

Alabama listed as one of the top 20 most patriotic states in America

A WalletHub report released Monday revealed Alabama to be on of the top 20 most patriotic states in America.

Ranked 19 overall on the list, with a score of 47.43, Alabama ranked first for the “Civics Education Requirement.”

The report “compared the 50 states across 13 key indicators of patriotism” and “ranges from share of enlisted military population to share of adults who voted in the 2016 presidential election to AmeriCorps volunteers per capita.”

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With one as “Most Patriotic” and 25 as “Average,” Alabama received the following rankings:

  • 5th – Average Number of Military Enlistees per 1,000 Civilian Adults
  • 30th – Active-Duty Military Personnel per 100,000 Civilian Adults
  • 17th – Veterans per 1,000 Civilian Adults
  • 1st – Civics Education Requirement
  • 12th – Share of Civilian Adult Population in Military Reserves
  • 10th – Share of Adults Who Voted in 2016 Primary Elections

Alabama also ranked eight overall for ‘Military Engagement.’

The report, which compared red states to blue states in terms of patriotism, found that red states were more patriotic. Red states received an average rank of 23.67, while blue states received an average rank of 28.25.

Kyle Morris also contributes daily to Breitbart News. You can follow him on Twitter @RealKyleMorris.

11 hours ago

Brooks: ‘Really dumb’ for Democrats to elect candidates mainly on ‘skin pigmentation or their chromosomes’

In an interview on WVNN’s “The Dale Jackson Show”on Friday, Congressman Mo Brooks (AL-05) lamented that many Democrats have become more interested in racial and gender identity politics than the welfare of America.

Coming off of her much maligned comments comparing American immigration facilities to “concentration camps,” host Dale Jackson asked the north Alabama congressman if he believes that Democrats in Congress will allow Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) to continue to serve as their “de facto face and leader.”

“Yes,” Brooks answered succinctly, promoting a follow-up request for his reasoning.

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“Well, she is where she is,” Brooks explained. “She’s got a lot of political power. She’s got a lot of support — surprisingly.”

“There are large, large numbers of American citizens who have bit off on this socialist stuff, who have bit off on this victimization stuff, who have bit off on thinking that the most important criteria in determining whether to elect someone is their skin pigmentation or their chromosomes — which is really dumb, OK,” he continued. “We oughta be electing people based on their character and based on their public policy positions.”

“But, notwithstanding that, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become the face of the Democratic Party in many different respects, and she does have great influence as evidenced by the presidential candidates on the socialist Democrats’ side who are trying to cultivate her support,” Brooks added. “They want her endorsement.”

Listen, starting at the 8:25 mark:

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

12 hours ago

Democrats hope it’s 2017 all over again, Republicans just want the nightmare to end

In 2017, Roy Moore won a Republican primary run-off against an extremely flawed Luther Strange. Strange wasn’t just a regular candidate — he had the cloud of his appointment, and he was dogged by former Gov. Robert Bentley’s investigation, impeachment and resignation.

Alabama Republicans, outside of U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), were reluctant to criticize Roy Moore because they knew doing so would hand the Senate seat to now-Senator Doug Jones (D-AL).

But this is different.

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State Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) told the Montgomery Advertiser that he blamed the GOP establishment in 2017, but still thinks Moore can’t win in 2020.

He stated, “I do not believe, with the numbers I look at, that Roy Moore at the end of the day can get the nomination.”

State Senator Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) dismissed Moore when asked about the candidates, saying, “If you look at the candidates, you got Roy Moore. I don’t think we need to say more there.”

Later, he all but endorsed U.S. Representative Bradley Byrne (R-Fairhope) by saying Byrne “would do the best job.”

Secretary of State John Merrill, a potential future Moore opponent, believes Moore has an uphill battle against Jones.

“I think it would be extraordinarily difficult for Judge Moore to be successful in a general election campaign against Senator Jones,” Merrill outlined.

He added, “I also think it would be difficult for Judge Moore to secure the Republican nomination.”

Congressman Mo Brooks (R-Huntsville), who endorsed Moore in 2017, has already endorsed State Rep. Arnold Mooney (R-Indian Springs) and is on record saying former U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions would be a favorite.

“I do believe that Jeff Sessions would clearly be number one in the poll rankings, based on his having been such a great senator on three principle issues: free enterprise versus socialism; deficit and debt; and border security,” he explained.

Say what you will, but you do not usually see these kinds of pronouncements from Republicans in the middle of a primary.

Democrats hope 2017 is going to be repeated in 2020, but there are many different factors that will matter.

Roy Moore is already fatally flawed as 300,000+ Republicans voters abandoned him in 2017 and stayed home. Many of those voters will vote in the primary in 2020, but will not vote for him.

U.S. Representative Mike Rogers (R-Saks) expressed a similar sentiment on CSPAN last week.

“I personally don’t think Roy Moore is going to be our nominee, but whoever our nominee is will prevail in November because you’ll have the full complement of Republican voters turning out turning out to vote,” he said.

This is not 2017.

Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 am weekdays on WVNN.