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Unified Visions: Celebrating Community and Progress at the 2024 State of the Cities in Oxford

State of the Cities

Oxford, AL – Last Friday, community members gathered on the second floor of the Oxford Civic Center for the annual State of the Cities event. Attendees had the opportunity to hear important updates from each of our Mayors about economic development, community and city projects, recent successes and challenges, and their plans for the future.

Terry Smiley, Vice President of the DC Division at Alabama Power and Chair of the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center, greeted attendees with a warm welcome at the 2024 State of the Cities program. In his opening remarks, he thanked Mayor Craft and the city of Oxford for hosting the event at the Oxford Civic Center. Smiley expressed appreciation to all the mayors for their dedicated service to the community and emphasized the importance of hearing about the county’s progress and initiatives. He then introduced Senator Keith Kelley as the event’s moderator, highlighting Kelley’s role in originating the idea of bringing together local mayors to share updates on county-wide developments.

Red Bird Camp

Senator Keith Kelly expressed enthusiasm for the continuation of the tradition of the State of the Cities program, emphasizing its role in keeping everyone informed and focused on local community developments. He thanked the event sponsors, including Anniston Waterworks and Sewer Board, Auto Custom Carpets, Bill Whitaker Architects, BR Williams Trucking, Coca Cola Bottling Company, Eastman Farmers and Merchants Bank, Veron Valley Steel, Sparklight, and Jacksonville State University, highlighting the strong community support for the Chamber. Kelly acknowledged the presence of all the mayors except for the Mayor of Hobson City, who was unable to attend due to travel commitments, and conveyed her regards to the gathering.

State of the Cities

OHATCHEE –  Mayor Steven Baswell of Ohatchee expressed his gratitude for the opportunity to speak at the event, noting the logistical challenges of being the first to speak and navigating the ceremony. He emphasized his pleasure in representing Ohatchee, its city council, and its residents. Mayor Baswell highlighted recent developments in Ohatchee, including the successful establishment of a transloading facility by Rail Services that is now operational, creating jobs and processing materials. He mentioned upcoming contracts expected to further enhance operations at the facility.

Regarding infrastructure improvements, Mayor Baswell discussed plans for emergency generators at pump stations to ensure reliable water access, especially for residents on the mountain side. Additionally, the town plans to replace aging water lines from the late 50s and early 60s to improve overall water system reliability and reduce leaks.

Looking ahead, Mayor Baswell mentioned exploring the feasibility of expanding the wastewater treatment system towards the old downtown area to accommodate residential needs. He also touched on revitalization efforts in the Old Town Square, highlighting the restoration of the former town hall into its original train depot configuration as a catalyst for further improvements and community engagement.

WEAVER – Mayor Jeff Clendenning of Weaver began by expressing gratitude for the event and humorously referencing his nervousness about public speaking. He emphasized his dedication to serving as mayor and highlighted several key initiatives and achievements in Weaver.

Firstly, Mayor Clendenning discussed ongoing efforts to improve the city’s infrastructure, including securing a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) to demolish old buildings and enhance the city’s aesthetic appeal. He acknowledged the support of East Alabama in these endeavors.

Infrastructure improvements extended to road paving, with nearly 25% of Weaver’s roads slated for repaving, funded in part by a county commission partnership and a significant grant.

Mayor Clendenning praised a collaboration with Alabama Power to convert street lights to LED, enhancing brightness while reducing energy costs. He noted the financial support from Alabama Power in this initiative, allowing the city to save on its monthly utility bills.

In terms of municipal vehicles, the city replaced three aging vehicles, a substantial upgrade for a small community like Weaver.

Mayor Clendenning also highlighted a community-driven initiative: the establishment of a lending library at the local community center, thanks to a donation from a business in Anniston. This library aims to foster literacy and community engagement.

Further updates included a project to update all street, stop, and speed limit signs to meet current standards, enhancing safety and visual appeal across Weaver.

The mayor proudly announced that Weaver’s fire department maintained its ISO rating of five, with the potential to improve to an ISO four, which could lower insurance rates for residents.

Looking ahead, Mayor Clendenning anticipated significant residential growth in the Buckhorn subdivision, which will provide housing for Jacksonville State University students and generate revenue for the city.

Lastly, he hinted at a forthcoming business opening in Weaver and discussed plans for a new water tower and improvements to well sites, totaling a $1.6 million project.

Mayor Clendenning conveyed optimism about Weaver’s progress despite typical challenges faced by municipalities, reaffirming his commitment to enhancing the quality of life for residents.

PIEDMONT – Mayor Bill Baker of Piedmont began his address by thanking the organizers and attendees of the event hosted by the City of Oxford. He expressed his pleasure in shedding light on the positive developments in Piedmont and started with a significant infrastructure project: the paving of Chief Ladiga Trail. This project spans 13.2 miles from Jacksonville to Cleburne County, funded partly by a $350,000 grant specifically allocated for trails, supplemented by additional funds to ensure completion.

Following the trail project, Mayor Baker announced plans to pave seven streets across Piedmont, selected based on need within each council district. He acknowledged the financial challenge of infrastructure projects but expressed gratitude for support from gas tax revenues and county commissioners.

Switching to recreational improvements, Mayor Baker discussed the impending acquisition of Fagan’s Park, located near the Civic Center, from Charlie Fagan. This initiative aims to enhance the park with pickleball courts, refurbishments for basketball goals, tree removal, and overall beautification.

In utility upgrades, Piedmont secured grants totaling $850,000 for wastewater sewer improvements, $540,000 for water system upgrades, and an additional $67,000 for gas infrastructure enhancements. Moreover, all electrical meters are being replaced for automated meter reading, facilitated through the Alabama Municipal Electric Authority (AMEA), which also supported the installation of a solar panel canopy and electric vehicle chargers.

Turning to public safety, Mayor Baker highlighted improvements in the police and fire departments, including upgraded radio systems, new vehicles, weapons, and safety equipment funded through various grants. He mentioned the success of the bicycle patrol on Chief Ladiga Trail, enhancing community policing efforts.

Education-wise, Mayor Baker proudly noted Piedmont City School District’s ranking as fifth out of 139 districts in Alabama, with the highest score in Calhoun County. He lauded the school’s athletic achievements, particularly the football team’s five-time 3A state championships and successes in other sports and fine arts.

Economically, Piedmont welcomed 11 new businesses in the past year, a significant achievement for the small town. Mayor Baker attributed this growth to the town’s welcoming environment and community support.

In closing, Mayor Baker expressed his deep pride in serving Piedmont for nearly 35 years, emphasizing its strong community spirit and supportive atmosphere. He invited visitors to experience Piedmont’s attractions, from its scenic creek and Aquatic Center to its annual Polar Pledge charity event.

Overall, Mayor Baker’s address highlighted Piedmont’s ongoing progress across infrastructure, recreation, utilities, public safety, education, and economic development, painting a picture of a thriving community with a bright future ahead.

JACKSONVILLE – Mayor Johnny Smith of Jacksonville began his address by expressing gratitude to the organizers and attendees of the event hosted by the City of Oxford. He introduced the recent developments in Jacksonville, starting with the relocation to the new city hall in March, replacing an outdated city building. This move aimed to improve operational efficiency and enhance the city’s service delivery to its residents.

In addition to the new city hall, Jacksonville also inaugurated a new utility building three weeks ago, marking another significant upgrade in the city’s infrastructure. Mayor Smith highlighted these improvements as vital steps towards modernizing city facilities and improving public services.

Moving on to recreational enhancements, Jacksonville recently completed an 18-hole disc golf course at Eastwood Park, which had previously featured a nine-hole course. This expansion aimed to cater to the growing popularity of disc golf in the community. Alongside the new golf course, the city installed new playground equipment at Eastwood Park, enhancing its appeal as a family-friendly recreational area.

Infrastructure improvements were also a focal point of Mayor Smith’s address. He discussed the completion of the Henry Road project, a $1.3 million initiative aimed at improving access to key locations such as the hospital, schools, and assisted living facilities. Furthermore, Jacksonville is set to commence work on the George Douthit Drive servicing project, a $1.5 million endeavor that will improve connectivity to Walmart and local educational institutions.

Highlighting efforts in community safety and connectivity, Mayor Smith announced a $1 million CAP grant for a new trail project starting at Second Avenue and George Douthit Street. This trail will enhance pedestrian safety for students traveling to and from schools and assisted living facilities, while also providing convenient access to Chief Ladiga Trail and Walmart.

On the educational front, Jacksonville is negotiating with Jacksonville State University (JSU) to lease property for a new fire station, aimed at improving emergency response times for both the campus and the surrounding community. This initiative underscores the city’s commitment to public safety and collaboration with local institutions.

In response to recent natural disasters, Jacksonville secured a FEMA grant to build a new safe room at Eastwood, providing essential storm protection for residents. Additionally, efforts are underway to restore the historic Eastwood School building, potentially transforming it into a community center to serve the east side of town.

Economically, Jacksonville has seen significant business growth, including the opening of Northeast Orthopedics, Fast Pace Medical, Dunkin’ Donuts, Licking Good Donuts, and Pet Sense. These establishments reflect the city’s expanding healthcare and retail sectors, catering to the needs of both residents and visitors.

Looking forward, Mayor Smith announced plans for a new Fairfield Inn by Marriott, addressing the demand for additional accommodations due to events at Jacksonville State University and other local activities. This development is expected to break ground by August or September, further boosting the city’s hospitality sector.

Mayor Smith concluded his address by highlighting Jacksonville’s community events, such as the Cheaha Challenge bike race, which attracts participants from across the United States and abroad. He also invited attendees to upcoming events like JaxFest, the city’s Fourth of July celebration, featuring live music, games, food trucks, and fireworks.

In summary, Mayor Johnny Smith’s address underscored Jacksonville’s ongoing progress in infrastructure, recreation, public safety, education, economic development, and community engagement, positioning the city for continued growth and prosperity.

ANNISTON – Mayor Jack Draper of Anniston delivered an enthusiastic address highlighting significant developments and achievements in the city over the past 18 months. He began by expressing gratitude to the event sponsors and the Chamber for hosting, emphasizing the importance of the venue and hospitality in Anniston.

Mayor Draper provided a comprehensive overview of capital projects and initiatives that have positively impacted Anniston. He started with the completion of City Market on 11th Street, a vibrant farmers market that has become a popular community hub. He praised the success and attendance of this market, indicating its integral role in local commerce and community engagement.

Regarding infrastructure, Mayor Draper highlighted the Layton Avenue paving project, enhancing connectivity within Anniston’s healthcare corridor. He also mentioned the Satcher Clinic, a collaborative effort involving RMC, Satcher Clinic, Atlanta HUD, and St. Michael’s Clinic, aimed at serving underserved community members while benefiting RMC financially.

The mayor underscored partnerships with the housing authority for the Barbara Street Apartments, a project contributing to community development south of Greenbrier. He also mentioned the new Noble Street Park at 11th, part of Anniston’s comprehensive plan to revitalize downtown. Mayor Draper noted the transformative changes in downtown Anniston, including the conversion of the former City Hall into the new regional Federal Courthouse and the success of the City Market.

In terms of public safety and training, Anniston expanded its Regional Fire Training Facility, attracting participants from across the state and Southeast for fire code enforcement and planning events. Fire Station Number three on McClellan Boulevard was highlighted for its role in enhancing emergency response capabilities, contributing to Anniston’s ISO rating of two, placing it in the top 1% of fire departments nationwide.

Cultural and educational initiatives were also key topics. Mayor Draper praised the Forest Factory at the Museum of Natural History as a significant educational resource, comparable to Birmingham’s McWane Center, offering interactive learning experiences focused on ecology and the environment. He emphasized the need for increased promotion of Anniston’s Smithsonian-affiliated museums to attract visitors regionally and nationally.

Anniston’s parks and recreational areas received attention for their improvements, benefiting from drainage projects and new facilities. Mayor Draper mentioned paving projects on 14th and 15th Streets, with ongoing plans for further downtown revitalization. He highlighted the city’s commitment to the Dagger Trail project, investing over $7 million to create a multi-use trail that will promote economic growth and enhance the community’s quality of life.

Economic development was a standout achievement, with Anniston experiencing a significant increase in new business licenses issued. Mayor Draper reported an 100% increase in business licenses in 2022-2023 compared to previous years, indicating a robust business environment. Downtown Anniston alone saw the opening of eight new businesses, creating 45 jobs and generating substantial private and public investments.

The mayor acknowledged accolades received by Anniston, including awards from the Alabama Chapter of the American Planning Association for media coverage and distinguished leadership. He credited the city staff and community partners for their contributions to these successes.

Looking ahead, Mayor Draper outlined future projects such as the completion of the Dagger Trail and the construction of a new City Hall downtown, expected to further boost downtown foot traffic and economic development. He expressed optimism about regional cooperation and emphasized the potential of collaborative efforts among public officials, business leaders, nonprofits, and the faith-based community to promote Anniston and the surrounding region.

In conclusion, Mayor Jack Draper’s address highlighted Anniston’s progress across various sectors, showcasing the city’s commitment to infrastructure, economic vitality, cultural enrichment, and community collaboration, positioning Anniston as a dynamic and forward-thinking community.

OXFORD – Mayor Alton Craft of Oxford delivered a passionate and wide-ranging address, beginning with praise for local mayors and their dedication to their respective cities. He emphasized the importance of regional collaboration and expressed concern over the influence of larger cities and groups within the state legislature, particularly highlighting his frustration with the League of Municipalities and its alignment with larger municipalities.

Mayor Craft celebrated recent economic successes in Oxford, including the expansion of several industries that will bring over 900 new jobs to the area. He noted the opening of 25 new businesses in Oxford since January and highlighted developments such as the TownePlace Suites and Candle Suites. Downtown revitalization efforts were also lauded, with the number of businesses increasing significantly over recent years.

Cultural achievements in Oxford were underscored by the Oxford Performing Arts Center, recognized as the busiest stage in Alabama, hosting numerous events and supported by generous community donations. The mayor also discussed the International Rubato Festival, a unique cultural event that showcases Oxford’s involvement with robotics and music, including plans to broadcast the festival on Alabama Public Television with student involvement.

Environmental initiatives were a focus, with Mayor Craft highlighting Oxford’s addition to the Appalachian Highlands Alabama Birding Trail, promoting local birdwatching as a significant revenue generator. He discussed partnerships with organizations like Blue Cross and the Kiwanis Club for community parks and events, emphasizing Oxford’s commitment to outdoor recreation and community health.

Mayor Craft touched on Oxford’s involvement with the National Professional Fishing League and efforts to promote local tourism, acknowledging the challenges of competing with larger cities but emphasizing the unique attractions Oxford offers.

Infrastructure and development projects were also addressed, including road improvements and partnerships with educational institutions for workforce development. The mayor expressed pride in Oxford’s police and fire departments, noting community engagement initiatives and the need for continued support amid nationwide challenges in recruiting and retaining first responders.

Mayor Craft issued a call for regional unity and collaboration among municipalities, stressing the importance of preparedness and training for emergency situations. He highlighted the critical role of first responders and urged support for initiatives to address workforce shortages in emergency services, advocating for a portion of potential lottery revenue to be allocated to first responders.

Overall, Mayor Alton Craft’s address highlighted Oxford’s progress and challenges, showcasing his commitment to community development, economic growth, cultural enrichment, and public safety. His speech underscored the importance of collaboration and proactive measures to address future challenges facing Oxford and the wider region.

Senator Keith Kelley closed the event as he expressed gratitude towards the mayors for their exemplary collaboration and commitment to regional unity, which he believes strengthens the entire community. He highlighted their collective approach to overcoming challenges and supporting each other, emphasizing that their dedication transcends territorial boundaries for the greater good. Senator Kelley extended appreciation to the event sponsors and attendees, underscoring their vital role in fostering community engagement and progress. He closed by wishing everyone a blessed day and thanking them for their participation in the Chamber of Commerce event.

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