Phenix City’s tourism and riverfront economic development this year is to be aided by a task force of scholars and consultants as RiverWay South offers its resources to plan new initiatives.
The nonprofit organization formed in 2004 will add Phenix City to its roster of towns along the Apalachicola, Flint and Chattahoochee River system that have sought advice on using their recreational and cultural resources to draw visitors.
RiverWay director Carole Rutland announced the new partnership today at the Rotary Club of Columbus meeting at the Columbus Trade Center. Phenix City Mayor Sonny Coulter and three council members attended.
Coulter said he hopes RiverWay can help Phenix City come up with a riverfront development plan that coincides with Columbus’ whitewater project, in which two dams are to be partially demolished to create a kayaking course. Whitewater proponents hope that work will begin this summer.
Over the spring, summer and fall of this year, college students from Troy University, Auburn University and the University of Georgia will come to Phenix City to immerse themselves in its culture and history, and talk to residents about what attractions they’d like their city to develop.
Organizers hope to hold a “visioning committee” meeting of key people April 13 to get a feeling for the scope of the work to come, and then the students will come in late May or early June. Other steps in the process include holding town hall meetings in which residents can offer their suggestions, which will be recorded in a database, said Shawn Culligan of Troy University.
The students will compile all that data and then work out a plan to boost tourism. They have developed similar plans for Fort Gaines, Ga., Apalachicola, Fla., and other towns along the rivers.
An intriguing aspect of this year’s project could be Phenix City’s own love-hate relationship with its history. The town gained notoriety in the 1940s and early ‘50s for the vices it offered soldiers from Fort Benning, particularly gambling and prostitution. The gambling syndicates were known also for corrupting municipal elections.
In 1954, when Phenix City attorney Albert Patterson won the Democratic nomination for Alabama Attorney General, having campaigned on a pledge to clean up Phenix City, he was assassinated outside his office. His murder resulted in the governor sending in the state militia and declaring martial law. The gambling joints were shut down; corrupt public officials were expelled from office; and subsequent elections were monitored.
This “cleanup” became a significant point in the city’s history, but some residents don’t care to have that point or the events preceding it emphasized.
Coulter said today that on a recent visit to Montgomery, he met a woman from Selma, Ala., who wanted to talk to him about how a city progresses beyond the unfortunate events of its past. She said that much like Phenix City was known for its former vices, Selma was known for state troopers attacking civil rights marchers en route to Montgomery trying to cross its Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. Camera crews recorded the assault, and peaceful demonstrators being clubbed and tear-gassed became indelible images of the Civil Rights Movement, forever associated with Selma.
Coulter said his conversation with the Selma woman, whose name he could not recall, reminded him that people haven’t forgotten Phenix City’s past. Finding a way to mark that history without appearing to celebrate its criminal aspects has long been a challenge, one with which community leaders wrestled on the cleanup’s 50th anniversary -- at one point considering a "Gangsters' Ball" before discarding the concept as inappropriate.