Richard Hyatt: Freeing a city from its shadowy past

rhyatt@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 19, 2013 

Freeing a city from its shadowy past

Wallace Hunter believes it is time for his city's long prison sentence to end, but he knows that getting Phenix City out from under the cloud that has covered it for decades will not be easy.

As a 6-year-old, the city manager dreamed of being a fireman. Now, after 28 years in government, he dreams of lifting a burden that Phenix City has carried since visitors to depraved haunts near the Chattahoochee River heard the shuffling of playing cards, the clatter of dice and the giggles of B-girls.

Good people have tried to shed this slimy reputation. But while they were cleaning up the mess books were written, documentaries were filmed and movies were produced telling the story of a town ruled by corrupted leaders who made a living off of old-fashioned sin.

The election of Mayor Eddie Lowe and a 2012 model council renewed the hopes of many people. Then when Lowe, the former Alabama football star, talked about replacing the negative with the positive, Hunter responded with a plan to confront the Sin City stigma.

This week Lowe unveiled "Positively Phenix City," a campaign that encourages the community to push back against its naysayers. It began with a fast-moving video, a website and signs that invite people to "Come Grow with Us."

Behind this effort to rebrand a city that for years has been faceless is Hunter. He displays the energy of a child who has overdosed on sugar. He wants to retool the city's image so it will be attractive to an audience that includes potential investors and college kids who want to bring classmates home for the holidays.

"My drive is to spread the positive," he said. "We know we can't wipe out the negative, but we have to show everyone that this is a new day."

Shadowy memories of gambling and corruption are being replaced by a new Phenix City. The riverwalk on the Alabama side is glorious and is also feeling the splash of whitewater rafting. Troy University is relocating to the end of the new 14th Street Pedestrian Bridge along with plans for a retail center and a first-class hotel.

Leaders aren't overlooking the jazzy story of neon and one-armed bandits, though. That's why Lowe appointed a committee to explore a local history museum.

"Everything has a place," Hunter said. "Once we're moving, we'll bottle that history and put it where it belongs -- in the museum. It has to be deemed dead, not walking around alive."

A city mired for so long in the mud of a sinful past is building a hopeful future and citizens who have served a lengthy prison sentence may not be set free.

And it's about time.

More Richard Hyatt:

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Richard Hyatt: New Comer Gym should honor Fred Hyder

-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him on Twitter @hyattrichard.

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