A Group Effort
Story by Paul South
Photos by Susan Wall
When it began three years ago, Heart of Pell City’s mission was to bolster and grow downtown businesses.
In its short history, the nonprofit organization has grown into much, much more. Heart of Pell City wants to put the town on the map as a destination location for visitors from Birmingham and beyond and not just as a lake town or a spot near the Talladega Superspeedway just down Interstate 20.
One of the key initiatives for the organization is to bring together similar local organizations and governmental leaders – like the Heart of Pell City, the Chamber of Commerce, Pell City’s Gateway Community Garden, Council of the Arts Inc. (Artscapes Gallery), CEPA (The Center for Education and Performing Arts), St. Clair County Economic Development Council and others — to move the city forward.
“We all need to be meeting and working together to build this downtown,” said Renee Lilly, one of Heart of Pell City’s founding members. “We’re going to bring these organizations together and start meeting and brainstorming to see what we need to do to put this town on the map to make it a destination location for Birmingham residents and others from outside communities as far as a 100-mile radius who want to come enjoy a small-town fun experience.”
The Heart of Pell City wants to showcase the historic downtown, said Urainah Glidewell, the organization’s acting president.
“If we can highlight those areas as far as tourism is concerned, that would be of benefit to the entire city. Yes, we are a lake town. But people like to do other things besides that,” Glidewell said.
One of the organization’s key goals is to be designated as a Main Street Alabama community. Main Street Alabama’s focus is on “bringing jobs, dollars and people back to Alabama’s historic communities,” and to revitalize city centers and neighborhoods, according to the Main Street Alabama website.
In that light, the organization also wants to explore more effective zoning and long-range strategic planning with positive input from all corners.
“Involvement is key. If we can bring different groups of people together and show that this is important for the city to help bring more commerce and tourism in to help revitalize and restore our historical district for the future generations of children growing up in this town, the benefits will be far-reaching,” Glidewell said. “It’s just a matter of getting it in front of them and showing them it is a really good investment in the town.”
Frank Lee, Heart of Pell City treasurer and director of multimedia, sees the potential of an entertainment and an historic district.
Creation of an entertainment district would help fuel growth, Lee said.
“In all the cities I’ve traveled, I’ve seen firsthand the benefits of historic preservation. Historic preservation is one of the key elements of sustained growth in a city,” he said. “When you have an historic downtown, that draws people in, it becomes your prime real estate in a lot of cases, especially when it’s fixed up and revitalized.”
He added, “What we’re trying to do is restore our past, revitalize it and show people the example of how other cities have used (preservation) as their springboard to economic prosperity and sustained growth.”
But along with showcasing history, the organization has helped spruce up downtown with small touches, like hanging baskets to adorn the historic areas.
In April, The Heart of Pell City, along with the Alabama Department of Tourism, sponsored walking tours of downtown. People flocked to the downtown area on Saturday mornings in April to learn more about its history, and it was a significant step in sparking interest into the city’s historic past.
Along that same line, the Heart of Pell City also celebrated the city’s historic ties to the textile industry with Avondale Mills Day. The city actually grew up around the mill beginning at the turn of the 20th century, with generations of Pell City residents working at the factory.
“It was an effort to tie the city with its past,” said A.J. Wright, the organization’s secretary. “This city was built around Avondale Mills,” she said.
The festivities centered on downtown with a puppy parade, doughnut-eating contest, even a Moon-Pie-eating contest and other entertainment. It culminated just a few blocks away at CEPA with the presentation of Our Town, a locally written play based on the city’s history and performed by the high school’s Drama Department.
Heart of Pell City has ventured into the political arena as a non-partisan civic venture. Partnering with the Pell City Rotary Club, the organization sponsored a candidates’ forum in advance of municipal elections at the Center for Education and Performing Arts.
But its main emphasis remains returning downtown to what its name implies – the heart of Pell City. “We have to preserve it and save it,” Lee said. “By investing in our history, it’s also an economic investment. We have a very rich history, and it needs to be promoted.”
Pell City already has certain areas designated for their historical significance, like the Mill Village. Downtown is in a nationally-designated historic district, as is the residential area behind the St. Clair County Courthouse and Cogswell Avenue. Historical markers aimed at drawing people from nearby Interstate 20 to the downtown area would help boost those districts.
“This is a great historic area, and we need to get a historical marker on the interstate to help bring people downtown,” Lilly said.
Glidewell agreed. “We are in beautiful buildings that have so much character,” she said. “Any new business that comes in brings more life to it. Being able to celebrate that and pass it on and share that with everyone is just a wonderful thing.”
Lilly, who has watched the organization grow from its earliest days, believes the Heart of Pell City has made progress in its short history. She also gives Glidewell high marks for her hard work and leadership as the interim president. The committee overall is working very hard. Lilly has been involved in a number of local organizations and currently serves as vice president of Gateway Community Garden, which will brings people together to grow gardens and reap their benefits.
“I think that it is on track and we’re growing momentum every day,” Lilly said. “There’s always going to be change, but it seems like we’re moving forward, and it’s exciting. I feel like we are moving in the right direction.”
It’s all about community. A newly created set of chalkboards on Cogswell Avenue between Gilreath Printing and Lilly’s shop, Lilly Designs, A Design Resource, is yet another example of that. In the days leading to Thanksgiving, the boards offered an opportunity for passersby to express what they were thankful for and share it with others in the community. l
Editor’s Note: The Heart of Pell City meets at 8:30 a.m., on the first Wednesday of every month at Toast Sandwich Eatery in the Old Gray Barn at 1910 Cogswell Avenue. For more information on The Heart of Pell City, call 205-533-5594. You can also learn more from its Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and Instagram accounts, where it promotes downtown businesses and community events.