A drive down Wilson Avenue through Prichard’s downtown area illustrates the ongoing struggle the city faces and magnifies its uncertain financial future.
Once vibrant storefronts stand closed, while vehicles rumble over makeshift pavement and potholes to get to the I-165 onramp. Passing through, it’s hard to believe the city, during its heyday, had a population of nearly 50,000.
Mayor Troy Ephriam hopes that recent economic development success and federal grants can help the city that has been shell shocked by job loss, white flight and decades of poverty.
“My platform and my vision was set for the city when we were running and I’ve been pleased that we’re staying focused on that,” Ephriam said. “Yes, we’ve had internal and external challenges, but we said we were going to establish creditability, accountability and a working vision for the City of Prichard.”
That vision includes a five-year comprehensive plan, which began while Ephriam was still a member of the Prichard City Council. It was a plan from 2006 that Ephriam and staff found in boxes, then dusted off and began working with.
Ephriam said the 2006 comprehensive plan had the support of a committee behind it, but was dropped in 2008 before it could be implemented. He said a “willingness to stick to this great plan was forsaken.”
Ephriam said he and staff immediately set to put the committee back together and get started again.
“We put out an all points bulletin for committee members we could find from the previous plan, so we could get their experience and their knowledge,” he said. “We wanted them to tell us how they got to this point and what was the basis for formulating these ideas and thoughts.”
The Prichard Comprehensive Plan Committee, which is made up of 15 to 20 business owners, residents, church and community group leaders, meet in a conference room where the plans are affixed to the walls, as a constant reminder of the goal.
“Each meeting focuses on one aspect of the development plan,” Ephriam said.
One initial step in the comprehensive plan involves the use of about $5 million in Alabama Transportation Improvement Program (ATRIP) funds for a rehabilitation program along Wilson Avenue. The money would allow the city to begin a resurfacing project in the area, as well as landscaping and other work, Ephriam said. Those projects would include the addition of trees, planter gardens, light poles, trash receptacles and bike racks.
The ATRIP funds are needed to complete the initial project because, as Ephriam pointed out, the grants equal half of Prichard’s $10.6 million annual operating budget.
“Let’s think about that for a minute,” he said. “If I’ve got that kind of capital, that’s half of my operating budget and what I’m operating on and using to provide salaries for employees and services to citizens, it only makes sense you let this be the focal point. This is our catapult. This is our jump start.”
Ephriam’s effort to revitalize downtown is getting support from A.J. Cooper, Prichard’s first black mayor.
“The mayor’s effort is to be congratulated and supported,” Cooper said.
Like many other American cities in the late 20th century, Prichard suffered from a movement of a portion of its residents from the downtown area to suburbs, which had an adverse effect on the tax base. Cooper said the city’s economic woes began when Mobile annexed the Scott Paper Company mill and the International Paper Mill away from Prichard. The economic woes continued, as more and more whites moved to the suburbs, he said.
Cooper also said a revitalization project might help bring some of that revenue back.
“When I got elected (in 1972) the city had no budget,” Cooper said. “In a matter of two years we turned it around with a bond issue and federal grants.”
Cooper said during that time the city was able to install a modern communications system, cover drainage ditches and pave roads.
Another aspect of the revitalization plan involves the city demolishing abandoned homes in Alabama Village, as well as other communities. Taking care of blighted property in the former U.S. Army barracks turned housing community is a priority for Ephriam.
According to documents provided by the mayor, Alabama Village takes up 75 to 80 percent of the city’s public safety resources, even though housing amounts to less than 5 percent of the population. In addition, the community is visible to more than 24,000 vehicles a day, from the vantage point on I-165.
Ephriam said Alabama Village was a “top-notch” housing development, but when white flight happened and jobs left, “poverty sort of crept in,” he said.
“It began the stages of decline in Prichard,” he said. “It was one of our hallmark communities. It was one of our keynote communities and we lost it.”
Severia Campbell Morris, president of the United Concern Citizens of Prichard and a candidate for the upcoming District 2 City Council race, compared the community to a third-world country.
“Something has to be done,” Morris said. “You can’t even see through the tall grass in some areas and when it rains, it literally floods.”
Morris said residents there have told her that snakes can sometimes be seen floating down the streets. She said she’s in favor of doing something to help clean up the community.
“We’ve got to get a redevelopment authority in place to help us figure out how to take advantage of the open spaces, how to make good on the social epidemic that’s in that area that is basically spurred on by poverty,” Ephriam said.
Although Ephriam admitted the city “can’t just jump into Alabama Village” because they don’t own all of the property, the removal of blighted properties has already been scheduled throughout the city, at a clip of about seven structures every 30 to 45 days.
“We’re basically going to take care of small spots throughout our community,” Ephriam said. “We’re going to make those properties available for resale to a developer.”
The city has been courting two different developers, Ephriam said. One developer wants to bring in a strip mall. He said the city was “close” to making a deal with a developer and could “be naming someone fairly soon.”
“We’re just taking baby steps,” Ephriam said.
The city’s revenue has increased 3 percent since Prichard asked the state to help collect sales taxes from local businesses. Expenses are also down 2 percent.
“When we’re talking about millions of dollars that’s pretty significant,” he said.
In addition, a bankruptcy court judge is set to approve Prichard’s plan to get out of bankruptcy and it seems all of its obligations will be met, Ephriam said.
“I think we received rave reviews on the job we were able to do in putting a financial plan together that would meet all our obligations to all of our pre-petition creditors and post-petition creditors,” he said. “We proved we could meet our obligation to our current employees, who are vested and who, as a result of the plan, will be retiring soon, pending the judge’s final approval of the plan.”
After about nine months on the job, Prichard Police Chief Jerry Speziale left to take a job in his hometown in New Jersey. At the time, he hadn’t notified Ephriam, who said he was surprised to learn through media reports that Speziale had left.
Speziale, who has a 12-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son, cited his wife’s death as one of the reasons for his departure, in a resignation letter he later sent to Ephriam.
“It was unforeseen that he would be here for the brevity of time he was here,” Ephriam said. “This was a long-term commitment on his part and we accepted that as such. We knew it would be a tough transition for him after the passing of his wife, but we expected him to work through it and we were going to help him work through it.”
Cooper, who was the chairman of a committee that helped Ephriam search for a new police chief, said Speziale did a fantastic job while he was there.
“He turned around our department,” Cooper said. “He had a significant impact on reducing crime and he boosted the morale of the department and the citizens.”
To say that city officials were pleased with the reduction in crime during Speziale’s tenure would be a “tremendous understatement,” Cooper said.
The city has yet to release crime statistics from this year for comparison. Spokeswoman Melanie Baldwin said numbers requested by Lagniappe are still being audited.
Cooper said the city knew at the time he was selected that Speziale’s wife was suffering from breast cancer and they had made arrangements for her treatment at Mitchell Cancer Institute. The city had every expectation that she would come down to be with him.
“The chief thought he could soldier through, but that wasn’t to be,” Cooper said. “His first responsibility was with his family. We have nothing but sympathy and empathy for what happened.”
Morris said Speziale leaving without first notifying the mayor of his intentions to resign was “disrespectful.”
“He should’ve notified him,” Morris said.
As far as a reduction in crime, Morris said it’s hard to see it at the street level. She said, though, she would have to see some statistics to be sure.
“We haven’t noticed a decrease,” she said. “Hotspots are still hotspots and you can literally see drug deals taking place.”
Recently, Ephriam named Prichard native Mike Rowland interim police chief. Rowland was Ephriam’s first choice for the position until Speziale interviewed and the mayor doesn’t expect much to change during the transition.
“It’s a fortunate blessing that Chief Rowland was still available to us because he had a number of opportunities, but none of those opportunities were attractive to him and he basically was there,’ Ephriam said. “We’re probably going to get more top administrative leadership for the police department though Chief Rowland.”
Love’s coming to town
Prichard has had some positive movement on the economic development front with the announcement that a Love’s Country Store and Truck Stop will be bringing up to 40 jobs to the city, Ephriam said.
The business will be located at the site of an old truck stop on State Highway 45 near I-65. Ephriam said the city is looking at a 90-to-120-day window for groundbreaking.
“We’re excited about it,” he said. “I think the big thing for me is growth begets growth. Landing them is definitely going to open up thoughts and development plans for other businesses similar to it that may support a Love’s. They’re more like a marketing piece for us.”
The truck stop will cost the city a share of the diesel tax it collects, at least at first. The city will split 5 percent of the diesel tax with the store, in stages, Ephriam said. For the first seven moths the city gets all the revenue generated from the tax. For the next seven to 18 months Prichard gets 80 percent, and so on until all of a $3 million investment is paid off.
“It takes money to make money,” Ephriam said. “This was a great opportunity to share in that revenue dynamic, not necessarily taking a loss because while we’re sharing the diesel tax, but we’re getting all other forms of revenue.”
Love’s management also asked the city about the possibility of locating a satellite police precinct near the location of the truck stop.
“I told them I thought that was a great idea,” Ephriam said. “I think that’ll work for that location.”
As for the cost associated with a new precinct, Ephriam said if the city chooses to go that route, Love’s would be responsible for it.
“I think that’s something they’re going to be responsible for, they’ve committed to it,” he said. “That’s not something they asked us to carry on their behalf.”
Prichard Water Board takeover
Mobile County voters in June approved a referendum, which handed over control of the Prichard Water and Sewer System to the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System.
The “yes” vote means that it’s up to MAWSS to now decide whether taking on the responsibility of running Prichard’s water system makes economic sense. MAWSS spokeswoman Barbara Shaw said the board has until Wednesday, Sept. 3 to make a decision. She added that the board is still awaiting financial documents from Prichard’s board before any decision can be made.
When the measure passed, Ephriam said he was concerned about the financial solvency of the city, given that the move doesn’t’ guarantee MAWSS will pay Prichard for $1.3 million in municipal fees it was previously receiving. Those fees helped pay for city services, like trash pickup and also helped the city make payroll, Ephriam said.
He and Cooper also took issue with the bill because it doesn’t allow for the city to get anything in return for its $50 million in assets that will change hands.
“Who’s going to give me money for those assets?” Ephriam asked. “Those assets belong to the City of Prichard. That’s what I was arguing the whole time.”
Ephriam called the referendum one of the most detrimental pieces of legislation this state has ever seen, adding that without money from the water system, the city’s revitalization plans would be tough to accomplish.
“This is about money now,” he said. “It’s always been about money and the need to commandeer a city’s right to establish it’s own destiny. That has been taken away.”
Cooper added that the bill was written to allow MAWSS easy access to water systems farther north in Mobile County.
Both Ephriam and Cooper complained that Prichard would also be without representation on the MAWSS board and both said the move doesn’t mean the residents of Prichard would necessarily see a reduction in water bills, which is what spurred the legislation in the first place.
Morris argued that the majority of Prichard residents were in favor of the takeover and that Ephriam has lied about what the $1.3 million in municipal fees covers, namely that it’s not used to pay for garbage collection.
“If MAWSS takes over we still pay $15 a month (for garbage pickup),” she said. “It’s not for police, fire or the library. He said all these things.”
Morris said MAWSS would still collect those fees for the city, as well as pay for a business license.
Council president resignation
Prichard has also been saddled with a $40,000 bill for a special election to replace former City Council President Earline Martin-Harris. Martin-Harris resigned amid an allegation that she and her husband lived in Daphne, not Prichard. On the day she was set to go to trial for the allegation, she voluntarily resigned.
The special election will be held on Tuesday, Aug. 26, Ephriam said, and the money for it could’ve been used in other ways.
“That’s $40,000 we’ve got to find that we could’ve put on salaries, or maybe even establishing another position that’s needed,” Ephriam said. “We need an urban planner right now in the City of Prichard.”
Morris has previously said she and the UCCOP believes Martin-Harris should not only pay the city the $40,000 for the election, but should also pay back $7,000 a year in salary she collected while on the board.
“We feel like there should be some restitution paid,” Morris said.
Martin-Harris has not returned calls seeking comment for this story.
Including Morris, there are six candidates vying for the District 2 council seat. They are Gwendolyn Williams, Shelia Poole, Tommy James Bendolph, Paula Blevins and Carlton Wallace. The last day to register to vote for the election is Friday, Aug. 15, City Clerk Darlene Lewis said.