2 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)

5 hours ago

Alabama softball preseason No. 1 in USA Softball Top 25, ranked No. 2 on NFCA and Softball America lists; Auburn rated No. 23 by NFCA, Softball America

As the 2020 season approaches, Alabama softball was highlighted in three separate preseason ranking polls as either number one or number two on the lists, while Auburn also made its way in the top 25 on two of the lists.

Alabama softball is the preseason No. 1 in USA Softball’s rankings and No. 2 in the NFCA and Softball America top 25 lists.

A press release from the Alabama Athletics Communications noted:

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The Crimson Tide earned 12 first-place votes in the USA Softball poll and 11 in the NFCA poll, the most of any team. The preseason rankings are Alabama’s highest in those two polls since the 2013 season. The Tide finished last year ranked No. 4 in all three rankings. Last week, the Tide claimed the top spot in D1Softball’s preseason poll, the inaugural set of rankings for the site.

Defending SEC champion Alabama will receive a total of 13 players from last year’s team that won 60 games, claimed the program’s fifth SEC regular-season title and advanced to the final day of bracket play at the 2019 Women’s College World Series.

The Crimson Tide softball team will open its 2020 season, head coach Patrick Murphy’s 22nd season at the school, at the Joanne Graf Classic in Tallahassee, Florida, on February 7 and 8. They are slated to play two games each against North Carolina and host Florida State.

Auburn’s softball team was rated No. 23 by both NFCA and Softball America, but was left out of USA Softball’s top 25 list.

The Tigers open the season with Baylor in Clearwater, Florida, in the NFCA Leadoff Classic on February 7.

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

7 hours ago

‘Scary’: Jeff Sessions fears Trump in danger of physical harm from Deep State

In a radio interview on Tuesday, former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions expressed his worry for President Donald J. Trump’s physical safety.

Featuring on “Alabama’s Morning News with JT” on 105.5 WERC, Sessions with just over two minutes left in the interview was prompted to talk about the subject after the host said he hoped that members of Trump’s Secret Service detail were not a part of the “Deep State” and “The Swamp.”

“[I]f he wins this election again, there’s no telling what people will do to get him out of that office. And I’m talking about physical harm,” Birmingham radio host JT Nysewander said to Sessions. “Do you fear that?”

“Absolutely, it’s a scary thing,” Sessions responded. “There’s so much hostility out there. It is scary, number one.”

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He then referred to his ongoing Republican bid to return to the U.S. Senate in 2020.

“And number two, this is what I believe right now, one reason I feel like that I can contribute in this race if I’m elected to the Senate,” Sessions continued. “They fear Donald Trump. The Republicans, not just what he says and does in the short run, but he has brought together a coalition of over 50% of the American population that if he can solidify that — and the Republicans will get on board, which they haven’t sufficiently, in my opinion, enthusiastically understood the historic importance of the Trump coalition  — that should be the ‘Republican Workers Party.’ People who go to work every day. They need to be brought into this party. … and move this country against the ‘Socialist Left’ that’s radical, that’s for open borders, for [more] government, taxes, regulations of all kinds and try to run the whole world with military power and trade that doesn’t protect our interests. So those things, I think, the American people are behind [Trump]. The president historically is leading it. And I want to push the Republicans to get on board more enthusiastically with it.”

“I was there first, and I’m still there,” Sessions concluded.

Sessions’ campaign on Monday released internal polling showing him with a sizable lead in Alabama’s March 3 GOP Senate primary. The ultimate Republican nominee will face Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) in November.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

7 hours ago

Poll: Doug Jones reelection chances take hit if he votes to remove Trump

According to polling data provided to Yellowhammer News, Sen. Doug Jones (D-Mountain Brook) could be in a weaker position for reelection should he vote to convict and remove President Donald Trump in the U.S. Senate’s impeachment trial currently underway.

The survey, conducted by WPA Intelligence on behalf of Club for Growth PAC of 500 likely voters, found that nearly two-in-five Alabama voters say they would be less likely to reelect Doug Jones if he votes to remove President Trump.

That is compared to just 14% who say they would be more likely to reelect Jones if he votes to remove.

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(WPAi/Club for Growth PAC)

Overall, the survey showed a lack of support for impeachment among Alabama voters. One-third of Alabama voters support the Senate removing President Trump from office compared to an overwhelming two-thirds who say they oppose his removal.

(WPAi/Club for Growth PAC)

The poll also found an overwhelming number of Alabama voters approve of the job Trump is doing as president, by a margin of 61% to 37%, approve versus disapprove.

(WPAi/Club for Growth PAC)

As one might expect, in hypothetical general election match-ups against two of the Democratic presidential front-runners, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Trump dominates by a 20-point-plus margin.

(WPAi/Club for Growth PAC)

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University, the editor of Breitbart TV and host of “The Jeff Poor Show” from 2-5 p.m. on WVNN in Huntsville.

8 hours ago

Alexander Shunnarah wins national Golden Gavel Award

Birmingham-based Alexander Shunnarah Personal Injury Attorneys, P.C. in recent days won a coveted Golden Gavel Award at the 2020 National Trial Lawyers Summit.

The summit was held last week in Miami, FL.

Alexander Shunnarah was the only law firm from Alabama selected in any of the Golden Gavel Awards categories and represented the state at the prestigious national ceremony. The awards celebrate the top legal advertisements of the year and Alexander Shunnarah, arguably the most recognized personal injury law firm in the state, competed in categories covering both traditional and digital media.

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The firm came away as the winner of the best public relations campaign Golden Gavel Award. Alexander Shunnarah was also a finalist in five of the other 11 award categories.

In a recent statement celebrating being named a finalist in the six total categories, Shunnarah himself said, “I am extremely proud to be recognized as a finalist in half of the categories for the National Trial Lawyers’ Golden Gavel awards.”

“This honor is a testament to our diverse and creative portfolio of marketing, advertising and public relations efforts. We work diligently every day on our brand and this national recognition further solidifies our place as a legal marketing force,” he concluded.

The National Trial Lawyers is headquartered in Dothan.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

8 hours ago

Doug Jones: Abuse of power ‘should be’ impeachable

In his latest thoughts about President Donald Trump’s Senate impeachment trial, Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) spoke about arguments made by Trump legal team members.

Appearing in a video released Tuesday afternoon that lasted just over six minutes, Jones spoke about some of the core points made by Alan Dershowitz and Pam Bondi Monday afternoon and evening.

One of the most striking remarks in the video came towards the end, when Jones declared, “I am not persuaded at all that the abuse of power is an unimpeachable offense. I think it can be, I think it should be [impeachable].”

Trump is charged by the U.S. House of Representatives with abuse of power on the first impeachment article against him, as well as a second charge of obstruction of justice.

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Jones started off the latest video by criticizing Ken Starr, who is best known as the independent counsel that investigated then-President Bill Clinton. Starr spoke out in the Senate against impeaching Trump on Monday.

Alabama’s junior senator subsequently chastised Trump’s legal team for accusing House impeachment managers of utilizing “distractions.”

“[Trump’s legal team] continue to push distractions,” Jones asserted.

“[T]hey talk about, of course, Hunter Biden — the biggest distraction of all,” he added.

The senator, who has endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign, lamented that Republicans did not start scrutinizing Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings until his father’s current campaign kicked off.

“We spent most of yesterday talking about distractions,” Jones further said.

He also reiterated that he has “some concerns” about the obstruction of justice impeachment charge against the president.

“I do think that there were serious issues raised yesterday that we’re trying to work through,” Jones advised. “I’m anxious to hear how House managers are going to respond to some of the issues that were raised by the president’s lawyers when it comes to article two, obstruction of justice.”

Watch: 

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn