EconSouth (First Quarter 2004)
A Company Town
In 1872 Anniston was born an ironmaking company town and, in many ways, remains a company town today.
Much, however, has changed in the ensuing 132 years. The Alabama city of about 23,000 today relies more on the U.S. military’s big iron than on its own manufacturing. Leaders of the city and surrounding Calhoun County hope it stays that way: The area’s biggest employer, the sprawling Anniston Army Depot, directly employs more than 5,000 people and generates a total annual economic impact of $1.1 billion, 11 percent of all economic activity in the county, according to the Jacksonville State University Center for Economic Development and College of Commerce and Business Administration.
To appreciate how critical the depot is to the local economy, consider that Calhoun County’s total retail sales in 2002 came to $975 million. Locals like Don Hopper, executive director of the Calhoun County Economic Development Council, are crossing their fingers that the depot is not shuttered in the next round of base closings the Pentagon is contemplating.
“It’s a tremendous economic engine out there,” Hopper said of the depot, which refits tanks and armored personnel carriers. “We definitely want to do everything we can to ensure its stability and growth.”
A bad rep
As Hopper points out, Anniston and Calhoun County have taken their lumps already. Another local military installation, Fort McClellan, closed in 1999. At its peak, McClellan employed 10,000 people. If that base closing weren’t enough, Anniston has seen its image tarred by national media coverage of two complicated episodes. First, massive PCB contamination of local soil resulted in Monsanto Corp. subsidiary Solutia and others agreeing to a $700 million settlement with Anniston citizens. Second, in August 2003 the U.S. Army began burning chemical weapons at the depot.
“Some of the press has been terrible—very distressing,” says W. Mark Hearn, associate professor of management at Jacksonville State, which is in Calhoun County. “And for people who try to sell the county, it’s made it very difficult.”
He adds that the reality doesn’t quite match that bleak perception. Hopper, one of those who sell the county, acknowledges having to sometimes reassure skeptical industrial prospects. But he says now that the incinerator has operated safely for several months, and with the Solutia PCB cleanup under way, those problems are receding in the minds of executives considering locating operations in Calhoun County.
Selling the strong points
“We look at it as there are a lot of industrial communities, and Anniston is a longtime industrial city,” Hopper says. “We know our problems. We know where they are, and they’re being addressed. That has resonated, I think, with our prospects and the companies that have located here.”
To be sure, Anniston and Calhoun County have felt the sting. Population, workforce and retail sales have shrunk slightly since the late 1990s. But the county’s unemployment rate in December 2003 was under the national and Alabama figures.
And there’s reason for hope. A Honda auto assembly plant in nearby Lincoln, just across the border in Talladega County, is set to add an assembly line this year that will double the plant’s employment to 4,300. The three-year-old plant has also brought several suppliers to Calhoun County, including Hunjan International, Atlantic Tool and Die and Bridgewater Interiors.
The old Fort McClellan has even become a source of optimism for the local area. The 46,000-acre base is being redeveloped as a mixed-use residential and commercial complex, a 9,000-acre wildlife preserve, and homeland security and National Guard installations.
“We have had challenges,” Hopper says, “but we have tremendous assets, and I think that’s what keeps us moving forward.”