Ohatchee looks to annex strip south to county line

Rachael Scarborough King
Star Staff Writer
Published: July 28, 2006

The Ohatchee City Council is moving forward with plans to annex a strip of land bordering both sides of Alabama 77 to the Talladega County line, 5 1/2 miles away.

Council members agreed at a recent meeting that annexing the strip would be a strategic move, designed to protect the town’s interests.

Ohatchee, which covers about 16 square miles, has grown by annexation several times in the last decade. Mayor Joseph Roberson said the town should annex the new strip of land to prevent encroachment from Lincoln in Talladega County to the south.

“I think we should (annex the land) because Southside did it to us, they came all the way to the county line, to our city limits, and I expect Lincoln one day is going to do the same thing,” Roberson said.

The land in question begins just below Ohatchee’s town hall, at the intersection of Alabama 77 and Alabama 144. The proposed annexation would take in 300 feet on either side of Alabama 77 for 5 1/2 miles, to the border with Talladega County.

As Ohatchee looks to continue its commercial and industrial growth, the council wants to secure the highway corridor that connects to I-20.

“It’s protecting our interest (and) growth potential in years to come and making it easier to facilitate growth with companies,” Roberson said.

While the council unanimously agreed to move ahead with annexation plans, some residents said it would be complicated and costly.

“Lincoln’s not going to try to move into Calhoun County, they won’t even answer their own fire calls a mile from the county line – they have us do it,” said John Cohn, a firefighter with the Mount Olive Volunteer Fire Department who attended the council meeting. “It’s a nice idea, but you might want to take it a section at a time or something, as opposed to biting off a whole 5 ½-mile chunk.”

Roberson said that is one of several options being explored. The next step in the process, he said, is to consult with the state legislators who represent Ohatchee, hold a public hearing for the affected residents, and then decide whether to hold a referendum and whether to annex the land all at once or in sections. Roberson estimated between 80 and 100 homeowners would be affected.

The mayor said there are many benefits to being inside the city limits, such as nearby police protection and assistance with utilities if a business wants to buy someone’s land. Property taxes of annexed residents would increase slightly, he said.

“There’s always resistance to change … I’ve heard a few people say, not a lot, you know we don’t want to be burdened by more laws or regulations or restrictions (but) really we don’t bring that many more to them,” Roberson said. “I don’t really see a downside to it.”

Danny Poss owns the Ohatchee General Store on Alabama 77, a business that lies within the proposed annexation area. He said that if his taxes did not go up significantly, he would consider it a benefit to have more police patrols in the neighborhood.

“I’d like to see the town grow and I guess that’s the only way it’s going to do it,” Poss said.

But he said he thinks most of the people living there would rather not be in the city limits.

“I guess they just feel like being in the city limits wouldn’t offer them any more benefits,” he said.

Cohn said he thinks the annexation might take fire-tax money from the Mount Olive Fire Department.

“I suspect it would affect our revenues,” he said. “That’s a lot of ground to cover. I understand it’s not going to happen tomorrow, but that’s still biting off a big chunk of headaches and paperwork, because a lot of people live down that road.”

Cohn himself lives in the jurisdictional no-man’s-land between the Lincoln and Ohatchee town lines. His postal address is in Lincoln, but his children attended Ohatchee schools, he said.

Roberson said he doesn’t think annexing the land would affect the fire districts, which are set by the Forest Service, and that tax revenues collected by the city go back into the volunteer fire departments.

“We’re not really talking about a lot of area,” he said. “Hopefully people will be in favor of it and see what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to do a positive thing, not a negative thing, and hopefully they will want to work with us.”

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Church about $800,000 in debt after project

Rachael Scarborough King
Star Staff Writer
Published: July 24, 2006

Parker Memorial Baptist Church finished a two-year, $4.2 million renovation of its sanctuary with a dedication ceremony at its Sunday morning services.

The project, which originally was intended to bring the sanctuary up to fire code, has been in the works for seven years, said Valera Johnson, chairwoman of the renovation committee.

“I just think the beauty of it (is the best part),” Johnson said. “One of the things that the architects wanted to do is make it more conducive to worship, and I think they accomplished that.”

The renovation of the 119-year-old building was done by CTSM, an architecture firm based in Birmingham. The project included new wiring, cleaning and releading the original stained-glass windows, new staircases to the balcony, a reconfigured stage area, digital projection screens, removing carpet and refinishing the hardwood floors, painting, a new baptistry and new heating and cooling. The church also installed a state-of-the-art, $500,000 communications studio.

When plans for the renovation started several years ago, they only included repairing the organ and repainting and carpeting the sanctuary, said Mitch Hurt, chairman of the Celebration Committee.

“We determined there was much more needed in order to keep the sanctuary so that we could use it for many years to come … and at the same time protect the integrity of our building that has stood as a landmark here in Calhoun County,” Hurt said.

Johnson stressed that the changes had protected the Victorian building.

“This is a lot of change for those people (who have been in the congregation all their lives), but we did maintain the integrity of the original structure,” she said.

Charles Martin, pastor emeritus of Parker Memorial, said the changes were necessary.

“It was in bad shape, it was in awful shape, nothing had been done to it in 30 years,” Martin said.

In his sermon, former pastor Billy Harris said the new sanctuary should serve as a reminder to the congregation to continue their service to the church.

“It doesn’t matter how beautifully appointed a worship place is, what really matters is the beauty of the people,” Harris said. “That’s what makes the difference, the building is going to be tremendous but what really matters is the people.”

Harris said that Parker Memorial is about $800,000 in debt as a result the renovation. The rest of the cost was paid for by fundraisers and contributions from church members.

Mary Barnes, a member of the congregation, said she thought the renovated sanctuary would help the church draw new members.

“It updated the church, for one thing, and I think it will be a signal to the community that we are here to serve and bring them into the house and the love of God,” she said.

Amphibians, reptiles get day in the spotlight

Rachael Scarborough King
Star Staff Writer
Published: July 23, 2006

Movie-goers around the country may be eagerly awaiting the release of “Snakes on a Plane,” but the Anniston Museum of Natural History had real snakes for visitors to touch and hold as part of its “Skins, Scales and Scholars” program Saturday.

The event, which also featured live lizards, turtles, alligators and frogs was part of the Fresh Air Family, a state-wide program that encourages outdoor activity.

“So many kids are tied up with all kinds of activities but they’re not doing some things that kids need to do,” Fresh Air Family’s Founder Verna Gates said. “We just really want to try to combat that to give kids and families the chance to go out and do things.”

Saturday’s program featured a talk by Dr. George Cline, a.k.a. Dr. Frog, the resident herpetologist at Jacksonville State University. Cline’s talk on frogs drew “oohs,” “ahs” and shouts of “cool!” from the younger members in the audience.

Cline said that Alabama has between 140 and 150 species of reptile and amphibians, putting it in the top five states in the United States.

“What a great place to live, to grow up in Alabama and have the diversity of species that we have,” Cline said.

Cline entertained the crowd by reproducing the sounds of different frog species; one “sounds like somebody’s plucking the strings on a banjo,” another “like running a finger over a comb,” he said. He translated the calls that male frogs make to attract females as, “Come on over to my pad, baby.”

He added that declining numbers of frogs the world over have scientists worried about the effects of climate change on reptile and amphibian populations. But he added that there is still time to repair the situation.

“I think there’s a lot of stuff we still can do, I think the reason we do projects like this is … we can get people active,” he said.

Gina Morey, programs manager for the museum, agreed that it is important to get children interested in the natural world.

“This is … to try to encourage kids to get out from in front of the TV and the Xbox and learn something about their world because it’s important for their future,” Morey said. “It’s for the next generation because they’re really losing that connection.”

Many members of that younger generation were in attendance on Saturday. Maiya Webster and Raven Whitfield, both 9, are members of Fresh Air Family’s Youth Board.

“I like all the varieties that they have, all the plants that you can look at – it’s just the variety and the colors,” said Webster, who is from Birmingham.

She added that she wants the program to help people “respect nature and to just appreciate it and to appreciate the world that God made to enjoy.”

Whitfield, from Leeds, agreed, saying she wants to help her classmates learn about the outdoors when she returns to school in the fall.

“I just want a lot of them to know the beauty of nature because a lot of them don’t go outside, they just stay inside and (play) video games all day,” she said.

Hannah Trull, 9, from Jacksonville, who was visiting the museum with her mother, brother and cousins, said she liked being able to touch some of the animals.

“I like the orange snake over there, the one that feels slimy,” she said. “I’ve seen a snake in my backyard once, I don’t know what kind it was.”

Trull said it was fun to learn more about the different kinds of reptiles and amphibians. Her mother, Renee, said she appreciated the opportunity to spend time with the whole family.

“We love it, something like comes around and it’s kind of nice to break up the day,” she said. “It’s not like they see reptiles every day.”

Ecotourism could benefit area

Rachael Scarborough King
Star Staff Writer
Published: July 23, 2006

MOUNT CHEAHA – At their campsite in Cheaha State Park last week, Carl and Lorene Ponder created a classic camping scene: a tent tucked away in a grove of trees and a food-laden picnic table covered in a red checkered tablecloth.

Carl Ponder, a pastor from Newnan, Ga., was leading a camping trip for members of his church. In the past, Ponder was a frequent visitor to the park as the head of a Boy Scout troop.

“We just fell in love with Mount Cheaha,” he said. “It’s a huge natural wilderness … about as good as you can find in Alabama.”

He said his trip, and other camping excursions to Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia, fit under the definition of a popular economic buzzword: ecotourism, “where people come out to experience the great outdoors.”

“That’s why we’re here,” he said. “I think this is one of the finest activities that people can be involved in.”

So-called “ecotourists” often have a glamorous image, associated with foreign countries as Costa Rica and continents such as Australia.

But with natural attractions including Cheaha State Park, the Talladega National Forest and the Chief Ladiga Trail, Northeast Alabama is hoping to claim a place as one of the country’s great ecotourism destinations.

“We go from the state’s highest mountain to its deepest canyon,” Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce President Sherri Sumners said, praising the region’s “diversity of natural resources.”

Anniston Mayor Chip Howell agreed, saying he believes the city and surrounding area can lure these types of tourists.

“It’s one big ecotourism playground,” he said.

Getting away from it all

Local officials, environmentalists and business owners say Calhoun and Cleburne counties have natural attractions to draw from all over the country people whose idea of the perfect vacation is hiking or mountain biking, followed by a campfire dinner and a night in a sleeping bag.

Pete Conroy, director of the Environmental Policy Information Center at Jacksonville State University, said Calhoun County has the highest concentration of nationally protected natural areas anywhere in the country.

“They obviously make fantastic places as destination attractions for people who care about the outdoors, and the number of people who care about the outdoors is growing every single day,” Conroy said. “The numbers associated with ecotourism are astounding.”

A study several years ago showed ecotourism contributed $75 billion a year to the national economy, Conroy said.

“Those numbers are so spectacular that governors’ offices and senate offices have begun to take ecotourism very, very seriously,” he said.

What’s missing, according to Conroy, is the infrastructure that could support large numbers of tourists.

Patrick Wigley, owner of bicycle shop Wig’s Wheels in downtown Anniston, said bicycle magazines call the Southeast one of the best-kept secrets in biking.

“There’s always something to do outside around here, you don’t have to feel like you’re penned up, and that’s not just cycling,” Wigley said. “Anything you want to do in the outdoors, Calhoun County can provide it for you, and I think we could really capitalize on that.”

Wigley became familiar with the area while stationed at Fort McClellan.

“I got my orders to come to Alabama, and I … (thought) that it was flat and there’d be nothing to do to interest me,” he said. “I just fell in love with the area immediately.”

Three major ecotourism projects are in the works in Anniston. Howell said the city is negotiating the rights to the rail line that would extend the Chief Ladiga Trail and complete the rails-to-trails project to Atlanta.

Anniston officials are scouting a location for an access road and parking lot on Coldwater Mountain and completing the Bains Gap road in McClellan, which would open much of the Mountain Longleaf Wildlife Refuge to the public. That project should be completed by the fall, Wigley said..

“We rode those roads (at McClellan) when we were stationed there, and it is so beautiful,” Wigley said. “They’re making the improvements they need to make it completely safe, but I’m kind of like a kid waiting on Christmas for that place to open.”

Tom Nelson, a veterinarian at Quintard Veterinary Hospital, agreed Anniston is an ideal spot for outdoor activity. He and his family have gone on ecotourism vacations in Wyoming and Hawaii and are planning a trip to New Zealand, but they settled in Anniston in part because of its natural resources.

Nelson’s wife, Brooke, is from the area, and they have three sons, aged 20, 17 and 11. Nelson said they are a “very outdoors-oriented family.”

“If you start looking at it from a economic-development aspect, yeah, you could make things a little more accessible,” Nelson said. “But then, on the other hand, I don’t want to go over in that stuff; I like it remote and harder for people to get to.”

Nelson added that he doesn’t like the word “ecotourist,” because it implies traveling with a tourist group.

“(We do this for) just the beauty of enjoying God’s creations up close and personal and then to be able to get away from the everyday hubbub of life,” he said. “You know – the cell phones and the beepers and the e-mails. Just to get away.”

‘Toxic Town, U.S.A.’

Attempts to lure tourists to an area are all about one thing: money. Ecotourists tend to be from higher-income groups and spend money on expensive pieces of equipment, like tents, kayaks and mountain bikes.

In sheer numbers, most tourists to the area attend the NASCAR races at Talladega Superspeedway, Sumners said. She added that business travelers are the “bread and butter” for the hotels off of Interstate 20.

As Anniston tries to attract the dollars that come with ecotourism, it contends with an image that is the opposite of eco-friendly.

“We are an oxymoron in the ecotourism (industry) in that we’ve been monikered as ‘Toxic Town, U.S.A.’ … and have some of the largest protected (natural) areas contiguous with Anniston and Calhoun County as any part of the county,” Howell said.

The PCBs contamination in West Anniston received national media in recent years. And at McClellan, only 3,000 acres of the 9,000-acre Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge are open, due to the ongoing cleanup of military hazards.

Howell said the best way to contend with the image that ecotourism in Anniston could be dangerous is to publicly continue with decontamination efforts.

“We need to finish the cleanup that is well under way and don’t need to do anything to stop or prohibit that,” he said.

Wigley, the bike shop owner, said he thought marketing the area as an ecotourism spot could help its image and stimulate the economy.

“That could really, really change the face of Anniston, in my opinion,” Wigley said. “It could really stimulate some economic growth.

“If a little more effort would be put into a few projects, it could positively impact the reputation that Anniston’s gotten with regards to contamination.

“It would be a positive thing to everybody.”

Wigley said he hoped the city could recover from its negative image.

“There’s too much here to offer to not try to exploit it and get some positive economic repercussions from it,” he said.

Howell said the development of ecotourism sites is a priority but merely is one of many issues facing the city.

“We have a lot of plates to spin, and those are some of them,” Howell said. “I know that they’ll be addressed and discussed in the budget process coming up in the next 30 to 45 days and hopefully funded as best we can.”

He added that the Coldwater Mountain project could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars but that the city hopes state grants will fund the Chief Ladiga Trail.

Nelson, the veterinarian, said he was surprised places like Cheaha State Park are not more popular with Anniston residents.

“It’s interesting the people you come across that live in this area that don’t take advantage of the things they have to offer,” he said. “When it’s in your own back yard, sometimes you don’t realize what you have available.”

Ponder, the camper at Cheaha last week, agreed many people aren’t aware of the ecotourism possibilities in Northeast Alabama. He said a friend of his in nearby Georgia, an avid hiker, never had heard of Mount Cheaha.

“I don’t think it’s as well known as it could be,” Ponder said. “Of course, it’s got some negatives.

“The big drawback is the Alabama summer, and it gets to be debilitatingly hot in the afternoons.”

But he said the top of the mountain, at 2,407 feet, offers relief from the insects and humidity. The park also allows hikers and campers the chance to connect with nature.

“I came up in January and hiked out on the trail down into the wilderness area for five hours,” Ponder said, “and during that whole time my friend and I never saw another human being.

“When we stood on the edge of the vista, you could hardly see a sign of human development. … It was like you were taken back 300 years.”

Motorcyclist breaks leg in accident

Rachael Scarborough King
Published: July 22, 2006

Anniston police report that a motorcyclist ran a red light and collided with a Jeep Cherokee in the intersection of Quintard Avenue and 22nd Street Friday afternoon, sustaining a broken leg but no life-threatening injuries.

Around 2:15 p.m. Friday Laquita Mack, 19, of Anniston, was turning left onto 22nd Street from the northbound lane of Quintard when Jared Warren, 35, of Anniston, apparently ran the light while traveling south on Quintard and struck Mack’s car, according to police reports. Mack did not sustain any injuries and Warren was transported to Regional Medical Center with what looked like a broken tibia, police said.

Police said the accident did not cause a major traffic jam on Quintard, because the officers were able to clear the intersection fairly quickly.

Man dead of gunshot wound

Rachael Scarborough King
Star Staff Writer
Published: July 21, 2006

A 77-year-old man walked up to the front door of the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office around 7:45 Thursday morning and fatally shot himself.

The incident occurred shortly before the office’s opening time of 8 a.m., according to Sheriff Larry Amerson. Amerson said there were about 10 people in the parking lot waiting for the doors to open at the time of the incident.

The sheriff’s office has reviewed its records, and the man is not a suspect in any case. Amerson said it appears he did not have a criminal history.

“From what little I know at this point, he was a good man,” Amerson said.

Police continue investigation of Ohatchee murder, robbery

Rachael Scarborough King
Star Staff Writer
Published: July 21, 2006

OHATCHEE – Police say they have no new information in the shooting death of Thomas E. Dewey Bowen, 62, in an alleged robbery at the Sav-More Convenience store in Ohatchee Wednesday night.

Two men robbed the store of money and drove off in a small vehicle on Alabama 144 in the direction of Alexandria, according to Ohatchee Police Chief Wayne Chandler. He said he had no information about what direction the men went in after that.

“We are in the process of checking out some leads and doing some investigatory things and hopefully (we will be able) to pinpoint who these individuals are,” Chandler said.

Police do not have the names of the suspects, Chandler said. He described the men as being in their 20s, one of them tall, but would not give further details.

Bowen, who had gone to the former Texaco station to pick up a donation of bottled water for his grandson’s baseball team, was shot once in the left side of his chest while sitting in a chair. The store’s owner, Jim Cosper, was grazed on the arm by a bullet.

Ohatchee Mayor Joseph Roberson said Bowen was well known in the community. Roberson said that Bowen’s wife had already passed on and that he leaves behind two children and several grandchildren.

“Naturally in a small town most everybody knows everybody else,” Roberson said. “He’d been out here his whole life, everybody was shocked, hurt (and) sad for his family. It’s horrible.”

Roberson said he was acquainted with Bowen.

“He was just a decent, hardworking, honest fellow (who) didn’t bother anybody,” he said. “What people who knew him well tell me is he was just the type of guy that would go out of his way to help you.”

Cathy Bundrum, whose son plays on the same baseball team as Bowen’s grandson, said he was very involved with the team, attending many of the games. She said Bowen went to Sav-More to pick up water for the team’s trip to the state championships next week.

“I just knew him from coming to the games, (he was) a very pleasant man,” Bundrum said. “As I understand it he was planning on going with us and staying down there in Montgomery and watching the boys play.”

Bundrum said that Bowen’s son, Clay Bowen, is the coach of the Alexandria Majors All-Stars team. She added that fundraising games for the team this weekend will be cancelled so that the players can attend Bowen’s funeral. A firm date has not been set for the funeral since Bowen’s body is still at a forensics lab in Huntsville.

Roberson said he didn’t think the incident will make people in Ohatchee feel less safe.

“This is a random thing that could have happened anywhere, this could have been two people from another area just passing through here looking for a target,” he said. “Hopefully it’s not local people … but I sure hope whoever did it gets caught and gets severely punished.”