The Transformative Power Of Optimism In Two Walker County Cities.
Positive change can come to a community from the most unexpected people. For the city of Cordova, still reeling from the devastation wrought by the tornadoes of April 27, 2011, that person was local boy Drew Gilbert—whom the town elected Mayor in 2012 at the age of 25. In Jasper, two the downtown district’s revitalization leading activists today are Tana Collins (a Walker County expat who returned home after a decade in Jacksonville, Florida) and Mike Puttman (a 51-year-old retired Theatre teacher who spent 26 years in the Jefferson County School System).
While the two cities faced vastly different challenges, the three individuals all shared one quality in common, says Linda Lewis, President of the Chamber of Commerce of Walker County. “Mike, Drew and Tana are people of vision. They see the possibility in things that other people don’t see. They bring people together, and they surround themselves with positive people. And when you surround yourself with positive people, you’re going to get positive results.”
The Boy Who Could Fly
Drew Gilbert is the living embodiment of a lyric by songwriter Guy Clark: “He did not know he could not fly. And so he did.” His entry in Cordova’s 2013 Mayoral race was initially met with widespread skepticism; a reaction he overcame with a relentlessly upbeat message and undeniable confidence.
“I knew what Cordova could be,” says Drew, “because I had always heard, growing up, what it had been. And I knew we could do that again. Thirty to forty years ago, every business in downtown Cordova was thriving. When I was elected, Cordova was dying. We had to inject new life into the area, and voters saw that. And although I was only 25 years old, voters figured we had to take a chance.”
Off And Running
In an online profile published December 2013 by the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, Drew remembers, “I was blessed when I first came into office. For about the first 8 or 9 months of my term it was nothing but progress.”
Those first few months were focused primarily on clearing-away downtown Cordova’s uninhabitable buildings—while developing a working plan for making use of the space. Drew gives much of the credit for that plan to others: “We’ve received very good city planning advice from architect Everett Hatcher and Kelly Landscape and Design.
While the demolition was in the planning stages, plans for a new & improved Cordova were being drawn-up with the assistance of Auburn University’s Center for Urban Studies and more than 300 citizens from Cordova. More input came from the University of Alabama’s Interior Design department, to capture the footprints of the soon-to-be demolished buildings. This new plan, which incorporates elements of historic Cordova, is helping guide redevelopment efforts. In particular, it’s provided aesthetic guidelines for the new structures built since Main Street was cleared.
Continued Outside Support
“We are still working with the Greater Birmingham Regional Planning Commission,” Drew continues. In fact, one of their former executives, Steve Ostaseski, now helps us, for all practical purposes, on a volunteer basis. “When I first met him, he was at the end of his career, and we offered to match his salary for the time he planned to continue working—if he would dedicate his efforts to Cordova. So we matched that salary for 18 months. During that time, he came to love our town himself, and that’s why he now offers us his services as a volunteer.”
Given Cordova’s population of just over 2,000, and its taxable retail-income base in 2013 (which Drew puts “in the 2 to 3 million dollar range”), the results he’s achieved have been nothing short of extraordinary. FEMA approved a budget of $980,000 for the downtown demolition project—which Gilbert and his team completed for $294,000.
In December 2014, the city celebrated the opening of its now-thriving downtown Piggly Wiggly. In June, 2015, Cordova’s municipal employees moved into its newly-completed $3.7 million City Hall and Police Station. And in April, 2016, the DTS and Faye and Lewis Manderson Funds of the Walker Area Community Foundation awarded Cordova a grant to help complete the construction of a new fire station — just as they had done for City Hall and Piggly Wiggly.
Looking Ahead. Always Looking Ahead.
Gilbert envisions a future for Cordova even brighter than its past heyday. “Small towns are becoming cool again, and there’s no reason that Cordova couldn’t be one of those towns. Imagine how much more attractive we’d be to people of my generation if we had a coffee shop and a brewpub.
“The city now owns 70% of all downtown space, and we’ll give it to the right people for free. If they will develop it.” And while the town already has two restaurants, “We believe we can support an additional restaurant. Either a meat and three or a pizza / sandwich shop.”
How can Gilbert be so confident in his vision for Cordova’s future? Simple. “Three years ago, I believed we could build a new municipal building, attract a new grocery store, and reduce local crime to a fraction of what it was. And we did it all, despite the fact that practically nobody believed we could.” Who says you can’t fly?
In September of 2015, Jasper was selected as one of six cities to participate in the Alabama Communities of Excellence (ACE) Program; a program which Tana Collins now serves as Public Information Officer and Local ACE Coordinator. It’s certainly not what she expected to be doing today, she confesses, when she first returned home from Jacksonville in 2014. “Honestly, I didn’t think I’d stay long. But I saw the progress and the change that had come to Jasper. There was a new synergy between business and government. And there was more to do, from a cultural standpoint.”
With her event planning skills, Tana was hired, on a contract basis, to manage the Foothills Festival — which had been brought back to Jasper in 2013 as a free event. Since its first year, “The Festival has hosted headliners including Sister Hazel and Jason Isbell. Attendance in 2015 alone was estimated at 15,000.”
The festival’s success was a catalyst for more events — and Tana’s contract position became full-time. “Last year, we became the second city in the country to host the Downtown Throwdown, an urban disc golf tournament. And just this past March, we hosted the first-ever urban electric car race, The Downtown Jasper Electrathon Grand Prix.”
An ACE In The Hole
In her role as Jasper’s Public Information Director, Tana led Jasper’s successful campaign to participate in the ACE Program — which uses a comprehensive, three-phase approach to assist participating communities in planning and preparing for a more vibrant future. “Throughout each of these phases, ACE works with partners from the private sector, government agencies and universities within each community to successfully achieve its goals. So many components play a part in the growth Jasper is experiencing,” Collins continues. “We’re fortunate to have mindful elected officials focused on the future of our city.”
Tana’s not the only recent “convert” making a difference in Jasper.
The Stage Is Set
Birmingham native Mike Putman always planned on retiring early to begin a second career. He’d always assumed that his second career would be in Birmingham, working with his many theatre connections. Much to his surprise, in 2014 he began working in his wife’s hometown instead.
A Reluctant Recruit
It all started with an invitation he was initially reluctant to accept. “Debbie Young, who’s President of Jasper’s Downtown Business Association, knew I’d been successful building the Corner Theater Academy, and asked me if I’d be willing to promote new events in downtown Jasper. Honestly,” says Mike, “I didn’t want to do it. But when I learned that Jasper was serious about pursuing Main Street status, I got behind it.”
An Unconditional Success
Offhand, Putman doesn’t even recall what event he first produced and promoted. But Jasper certainly remembers his most successful one to date: A three day June, 2015 event celebrating Tallulah Bankhead and her contribution to film and theatre — highlighted by the world premiere of the play Putman commissioned and produced: “Mr. Will & Dutch: Alabama’s Legendary Bankheads,” directed by Equity Actor Dr. Alan Litsey and written by Equity Actress Jeanmarie Collins (who spent the month of September, 2014 living in Mike and Pat’s guesthouse and researching the Bankhead family legacy)—with music by Kenny Munshaw of Savannah, GA.
Shortly thereafter, Putman accepted his position with the Downtown Business Association — then threw himself into the team effort that ultimately won Jasper Main Street status. Says Walker Area Community Foundation President Paul Kennedy, “After Mike made himself an invaluable connection to others there, the people in the Business Association rallied around him for the Main Street cause.” Mike’s role in that campaign led to his appointment as the city’s Executive Director of Jasper Main Street.
So Exactly What Is Main Street?
It’s a four-point business plan to bring revitalization to downtown areas. The four points include Design, Organization, Promotion and Economic Vitality. “The program is about people in a city defining who they are, by revitalizing the downtown area and filling empty storefronts with businesses that are a good fit for the community,” says Mike.
Jasper is now one of just 16 cities in Alabama that are a part of the Main Street Program; and, says Mary Helmer, President/State Coordinator of Main Street Alabama, one of the program’s genuine successes. “We only bring-on three cities a year, and the process for being accepted is very competitive.
A Proud Community
“The thing about Jasper,” Mary continues, “is there’s a real love of community there. People believe they can be the best possible city in any category. And they’re fun to work with. Main Street,” Mary says, “is about how downtown areas should hearken back to what made them special in the first place.”
At the same time, says Mike, “It’s more than a return to Jasper’s past. It’s an opportunity to create a new vision of what Jasper can be: A place with all the charm of a small town and a truly great and thriving downtown district.”
The Key To Success
The Main Street program succeeds consistently, Mike believes, “because all four points are equally emphasized, and you have to promote all four points equally to make it work” — from attracting new business & strengthening existing businesses (Economic Vitality) to maintaining standards for downtown facades and business signs (Design).
The program’s impact has been fast and far-reaching. “Since we were designated a Main Street town (June 1, 2015), one million dollars in downtown property has been bought. That’s six buildings sold, some of which were on the market for years. And five new businesses have opened downtown.”
Credit Where Credit’s Due
And while he certainly deserves his share of credit for downtown Jasper’s growth and progress since his first event, Mike is quick to deflect praise. “This is all I do, full-time. But I couldn’t do it without my 15-member board — all of whom are managing their own businesses, in addition to supporting my efforts. I’m just their advocate, and I rely on them for their influence, their contributions and their attention. For me, it really was a matter of Right Place, Right Time. Jasper was hungry for something just like this.”
Mike envisions Main Street’s impact going far beyond revitalization. “What we’re doing isn’t about restoring downtown Jasper’s old glory. It’s about taking advantage of the opportunity we’ve been given to create an entirely new vision for what a downtown area can be. And to me, that’s really exciting.”
Photos (center and bottom) by Blakeney Cox.