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Selling Anniston
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90.3 WBHM | Anniston -- On a chilly winter day, Anniston is the picture of small-town life. Sleepy houses are tucked between neat lawns. The downtown has the quiet hum of a weekday morning, and on the main roads, traffic is brisk.

sleepy houses

"These buildings are all vacant over to the right. They're looking at various things, including the possibility of a hotel-convention facility. And of course, this is Buckner Circle. There's the pavilion?"

Sherri Sumners is the President of the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce. It's her job to sell Anniston to the rest of the country. And the rest of the country isn't making it easy.

"I had a group of Wall Street analysts in just a couple of weeks ago and they said they expected to come a place with a bunch of boarded-up store fronts and tumbleweeds rolling down the street and they had no idea it would be this vibrant, or as they said 'this affluent' which I thought was very interesting."

rundown part of town

Bad publicity affects communities much as natural disasters do by fixing a few vivid images in the public's mind. The New York Times described the people of West Anniston eating PCB-tainted dirt and profiled a man in Oxford worrying about all the cracks in his house a chemical weapons spill could leak through. Sumners and the Chamber of Commerce are trying to replace those impressions with more attractive ones, using marketing campaigns to combat their media image.

"Media has totally misrepresented the kind of community we have. Just about any industrialized city in the US has these problems. We don't know why we've been singled out to get so much publicity for ours, but we're addressing them. Industries are a lot more savvy about these issues because they've dealt with them."

This is exactly the message one expects from the Chamber of Commerce. But the truth is, Anniston is not Love Canal. The actual extent of the area's pollution problems is, not surprisingly, hotly disputed. Also disputed is the potential danger posed by the chemical weapons incinerator when it starts up. What Anniston does have are the right ingredients for a good news story: corporate pollution, an embattled population, a divided local government. Passionate arguments on all sides. That's a lot of baggage for a company looking for a new location.

Hunjan International factory

Hunjan International, Inc., a Canadian auto parts manufacturer, opened a plant in Anniston last September. At full capacity, the facility should employ up to 200 workers. Hunjan is just the kind of company Anniston is banking on for future growth in the area. But the firm went through its site selection before the latest round of publicity. Company president, Baljit Sierra.

"Supposing we were going to look at opening up a facility right now, keeping in mind all the press the town has gotten now, definitely would be a factor we would weigh, among other factors. We wouldn't look at it in a vacuum."

That kind of hesitation is dangerous in the highly competitive game of industrial recruitment, where companies start with a list of acceptable locations, and then work to find reasons to cross all but one of them off that list. However, Robert Leak Senior, of the site consulting company, Leak Goforth LCC, says companies generally take a longer view than the headlines of the day.

"If there is enough of a clamor about an environmental issue in a community that could be enough to eliminate a community from further consideration. But other things are going to weigh pretty heavily. If that is a more profitable location than others under consideration, they would probably not be too concerned about environmental issue."

Where is Anniston?The engine driving much of Anniston?s current growth is the new Honda plant down the road in Lincoln. For the auto-parts suppliers coming into the county, proximity to this plant is a positive that in the end outweighs other considerations. Indeed, the hard-won Honda plant has helped the county through what would otherwise be very dark times. Calhoun County lost thousands of jobs when Fort McClellan closed four years ago, but today its unemployment rate is actually slightly below the national average. And Anniston realtor Annie Brunson says when the Chemical Weapons Incinerator was announced, she anticipated people would flock away from the area.

"But that has not happened. There may be a few families that have chosen not to move here? I've probably had maybe two relocation couples chose not to move here. If they had a choice. But most people do not have a choice."

What they do have are expectations fueled by the media, Brunson says. The managers arriving in Anniston for the new factory and the incinerator jobs make ridiculously low offers on houses, expecting to find owners desperate to sell. But buyers are often disappointed. Anniston has a healthy real estate market. The median home price increased by roughly 4-thousand dollars last year, and the time houses spend on the market is getting shorter as well.

"There's so much people don't see when they watch these programs. We've got this great quality of life. And cost of living is incredibly low. Weigh all those things up, put them on the positive side, a lot of people feel they can live with the incinerator and the PCBs b/c it's not as immediate as some of the other benefits you?re getting living here."

Brunson says those two features -- high quality of life and low cost of living -- may be the best weapons the people marketing Anniston have against its media image. They're banking on prospective businesses and residents seeing the quiet town in the Appalachian foothills, and not the headlines of industrial pollution and military wrangling. Their hope? That the poison pen is only a temporary illness.

~Megan Williams, January 13, 2003