Sonny Coulter on Phenix City and Columbus
Like the mythical bird Phenix City is named for, Sonny Coulter just keeps rising from the political ashes.
Four times he has been mayor of his hometown, the last term ending four years ago. His mother was involved in the cleanup of the corruption, and he understands the place on many levels.
Recently, he sat down with senior reporter Chuck Williams and photographer Robin Trimarchi to discuss the new political reality in Phenix City, where it has been, and where he sees it going.
Her are excerpts of that interview, edited for length and clarity.
Q: OK, first of all, let’s get the political stuff out of the way. As a former mayor of Phenix City, what’s your take on the most recent election?
A: Well, first of all, it’s the first time we have seen the balance of power on the council shift from white council members to black council members.
Q: What does that mean?
A: You know, I’m not sure we know. You have to realize — all of us have to realize — that for all these years the black community has had to live in a society in Phenix City where the majority of city council members or commission members were white and they were in the minority. Now, for the first time, the worm has turned and all of a sudden the minority community now has a majority of city council members.
Q: I know there’s been a lot of angst, for lack of a better word, in the white community. Why is that?
A: Well, you know, it goes back to the $64,000 question that we have in every community across America. You can look at practically every state and where you have sufficient numbers of African Americans or Latinos living in a city, you’re going to have this kind of situation. It just happens everywhere. It’s human nature, I think. This is something that is relatively new to all of America, just like it’s new to Phenix City.
Q: How do you think Phenix City is going to handle this as it plays out?
A: Well, the thing that bothers me about this situation is that this past election led to a great division in our city between blacks and whites. You wonder about how that will affect us, but here’s another way to look at this, Chuck, or a different way, let’s say: When I was mayor and after the census figures came in for Phenix City, like every community, we had to redistrict voting districts in the city. What we did was — and this was approved by the Justice Department — but what we did was, we realized that the majority of voters in District 1 were white.
Q: Overwhelming majority?
A: Overwhelming. You have the opposite situation in District 3, where you had more black voters than you did white. Then in District 2, which is the middle section of town, it was about half and half. The way we drew the different districts, that worked out well. The Justice Department accepted our redistricting. Then we had District 1 was white, District 2 was a mix, and District 3 was mainly black, certainly minority. As you look at that, and really based on the same numbers of people in all three districts, it was a good way to split this out.
Q: Are you worried about white flight?
A: You know, I really haven’t thought a lot about that. At this point, no, I’m not. I’ll tell you why. I think people are going to give this government a chance. I think they’re going to wait and see what happens to see how things develop. I know from just listening to conversations and people talking to me, that one of the concerns that people have is that this new city council will begin to, on board appointments, appoint minorities to those openings as they become available.
Q: But they’ve appointed minorities. Are you talking about in larger numbers?
A: Yes. Perhaps wholly, all of them. That’s a concern. That’s one of the things that people are worried about. As I said earlier, you don’t know what to expect. I think rather than jump to conclusions — and for me to say what’s going to happen and there’s going to be white flight or anything like that — I would rather take a wait-and-see attitude toward how people begin to interpret the performance of our city government.
Q: That’s what you had hoped people would do when you took over government, right?
A: Absolutely, it is. It is. You know, but now —
Q: Have you talked to Mayor Lowe about this?
A: No. When Eddie was elected the first time, one of the things that he told me was that he wanted to keep me involved, that he wanted to talk to me about the things that were going on in our city and so forth. You know how many times he has contacted me? None.
Q: You haven’t been involved the last four years?
A: Not at all.
Q: Let’s wrap this part up because I don’t want this all to be about that. I want to talk to you about the history of Phenix City. Your family was obviously involved in the cleanup of Phenix City in the ’50s.
Q: When you see what Phenix City came from in the ’50s, how far has Phenix City come from that past?
A: Light years, light years.
Q: In what way, Sonny?
A: Well, for one thing — let’s go back to something a former beloved football coach at Central High School said to me one time. He said, and this was before I ever got in politics, but I’ve been politicking all my life, so...
Q: Now you were in politics the day you were born.
A: Yes, I know, I know. One of the things that Tommy Garrett said to me... “Sonny, Phenix City is the only city I have ever seen that is classless.” Now, when he said that to me, I thought he meant we just didn’t have any class. That wasn’t what he was saying. What he was saying, and he clarified this, everybody in Phenix City was the same. You didn’t have an upper class, you didn’t have a lower class, you didn’t have a middle class. Everybody was part, I guess, of that middle class.
Q: Are there classes now?
A: Oh, sure. Sure there are, yeah. We have almost two different Phenix Cities. North Phenix City stands apart from middle and south Phenix City because that is where so much of the new development has taken place — new residential neighborhoods, high-dollar homes... a new hospital, new shopping center and apartments and condominiums and the like under construction now on Riverchase Drive. It’s where Rock Island is, St. Andrews, McIntosh.
Q: Is it the cornerstone of the tax base for the city?
A: Absolutely. That is one thing that this new city council is going to have to keep in mind, because one thing the city cannot afford is to have white flight from north Phenix City, because that is where so much of the revenue comes from. If you don’t have the money, you can’t offer the services. This mayor and council are really going to have to watch that.
Q: Let’s talk about politics. Have you ever not been a politician?
Q: You got elected mayor four times?
A: Yeah, but you know the people of Phenix City have been very good to me.
Q: What do you love most about Phenix City?
A: People. Short answer.
Q: What about the people?
A: Well, I guess it goes back to what Tommy Garrett had said. Until recent history, everybody has been the same. When I say recent history, what I’m referring to is now you do have different classes of people because, for one thing, we have different education levels in Phenix City that we used to not have. We have a lot of people who have moved into Phenix City from other places. Tremendous amount of people live in Phenix City from Columbus.
Q: What’s the difference in Phenix City and Columbus?
A: Very little, except we are a bedroom community, and for so many years that was what many people in Phenix City tried to fight. Didn’t want Phenix City to be a bedroom community; they wanted us to become like Columbus in being able to attract businesses and industries and create jobs and that kind of thing. We just never had the resources in Phenix City to be able to attract, although we’ve had some great, great industries and do now in our town. We could not compete with Columbus when it came to drawing to our side of the river as opposed to those companies coming to Columbus. ... I think we’ve always been the bedroom community.
Q: The north bypass changed everything, right?
A: Oh, yeah, yeah. What I’m about to say here is — arguable, of course, and it’s just my opinion — but the two most important things that have happened to Phenix City in my lifetime have been the building of the north bypass bridge and CB&T buying F&M Bank. Now, what I mean by CB&T buying F&M Bank, all of a sudden the powers that be in Columbus had a financial stake in Phenix City. Up until that point, (they) had never really had a real financial stake over there.
Q: Well, the Phenix City folks didn’t want the people from Columbus over there with a financial stake.
A: Oh, over the years, of course, this was even before my time in Phenix City — and I don’t mean my elected time, I mean before my life really began as an adult — the people in Phenix City were telling the people in Columbus, “You stay on your side of the river and we’ll stay on ours.” Well, they did. Columbus people stayed on their side, Phenix City people stayed on their side. Columbus prospered and Phenix City nearly dried up. Now we have always had, and even today, 60-some-odd years later after the cleanup, Phenix City still fights to some degree that stigma because that’s what so many now old-timers remember about our city.
Q: Talk about the Phenix City riverfront now. There’s an amazing opportunity there.
A: Absolutely. You know, what has always, always been in the forefront of my mind as far as riverfront development goes, Columbus as usual had a leg up on Phenix City when it came to developing the riverfront, but what Columbus did — and this has always amazed me and I’ve never said it to anybody before publicly — but Columbus chose to develop the Columbus side of the riverbank in more of a passive mode than a commercial mode. When you look at other cities that have riverfronts, what a great resource that is for creating revenue. You don’t create revenue from a passive source.
My thinking — and hopefully I’ve been able to share this with others there in Phenix City, and I know many people have agreed with me — we need to continue to develop our riverfront in a way that will encourage businesses, restaurants, shops, entertainment-type venues, up and down the river that will draw people to the river other than whitewater rafting, which is wonderful. I’m just tickled to death to see that. Wish I could do it, but my health won’t allow me.
Q: You’ve been involved in various parts of your career with trying to relocate or redevelop Riverview Apartments, right?
Q: Are Riverview Apartments the stumbling block to total riverfront downtown development?
A: Nope. Honestly, there is a move underfoot right now to move some more of those apartments.
Q: When you see a Courtyard Marriott, you see Troy University...
A: Which, by the way — let me stop you right here — those are projects that were begun under my watch as mayor. So was the widening of the street, the straightening it out, the...
Q: Creating the boulevard.
A: ... The doing the things that were necessary to get Mat Swift and (W.C. Bradley) to want to buy Phenix Plaza.
Q: W.C. Bradley owns the Phenix Plaza and the riverfront between 13th and 14th bridge.
Q: How important is that?
A: Oh, you can’t put an importance on that. It is wonderful. We couldn’t ask for any more.
Q: Is that who you want owning it?
A: Because they’re progressive. Look at Bradley Park Drive in Columbus. Good example of what they do.
Q: Let’s kind of get close to putting a bow on this. You’ve been retired, you’ve been dealing with some health issues, your wife (Kathy) was the clerk of Circuit Court...
A: She’s got about two and a half years to go.
Q: What are you going to do when both of y’all are retired?
A: I don’t know, I don’t know. I’m telling you, we have often talked about maybe moving to the beach. We have talked about maybe moving to Auburn.
Q: Could you leave Phenix City?
A: I don’t think so. The thing that really holds us there are our grandkids, like everybody else. I don’t want to leave them.
Q: But you’re also held there by the history of the place, right? Your family history.
A: You know, my dad was historian of Russell County. He wrote the book “A People Courageous.” ... It is a conglomeration, really, of stories of different people who grew up and contributed to Phenix City, Russell County, that side of the river. My dad wrote that book. He was also city librarian at a time that Phenix City and the County Commission both were owners of the library. Now Phenix City owns it.
Q: What are you most proud of?
A: I think probably the relationship that we have built with Columbus.
Q: You think you had a big part of that?
A: Yeah. When I first became mayor, we didn’t have a relationship. It was really — Jane had begun, (former mayor) Jane Gullatt had begun doing the things that were necessary for that relationship to start. I tried to build on that.
Q: As a politician, how do you deal with the people that don’t want progress because they don’t want progress?
A: Oh, I usually just ignore them. You know, you can’t please everybody. You have to do what you think is right. Sometimes you’re right, sometimes you’re wrong, but one of the good things about politics is, if you make a mistake, you can change it. You don’t ever do anything that can’t be corrected if it’s wrong. You just always have to remember that. You can’t slow down. Government...
Q: Give me an example of something you screwed up and came back and fixed.
A: There haven’t been that many. Well, I think as we were trying to get the Housing Authority in Phenix City to relinquish control of the point on which today Troy State University is located, and probably the new Marriott hotel as well, I met with the — along with my city clerk, my city manager, one of my city council members, may have had my city attorney there — met with the Housing Authority director.
Q: Chuck Roberts, right?
A: What I asked him was to please allow us to have that triangle that was so important because we wanted to put Troy there. We knew Troy wanted to come there. CVCC wanted to locate downtown. We knew that there were entrepreneurs that would love to build a nice hotel there, which now they have done.
In meeting with the director of the Housing Authority, he sat at lunch at O’Charley’s at a big table with me and all of the folks that I had taken from the city, and he promised me that that triangle was going to be donated to the city and that he was not going to spend money, federal monies, on renovating the Riverview Apartments that were there because our ultimate plan was not only to get the triangle but to move the residents at Riverview Apartments to another part of town. Build new apartments, not put anybody out of a home, much like Columbus is doing now with some of their buildings. He agreed.
That meeting that I had with him was on a Thursday. On Tuesday, his Housing Authority board met and they approved a contract with a contracting firm to renovate the apartments that he had sworn to me he wasn’t going to do.
Q: How far did that set Phenix City’s riverfront development back?
A: Years. Years. You know, it’s an unfortunate thing and it turned into one of the more distasteful, if you will, kind of action that we had to take. ... Not only did he sign a contract to renovate those apartments, he took the triangle off the table. Now, keep in mind, that Housing Authority board serves at the pleasure of the mayor and council. The reason it took years for us to get that property done was that we had to appoint people from that point forward to the Housing Authority board that felt the same way that we did that something needed to be done with those apartments in order for us to develop down there.
Q: Sometimes government doesn’t work, does it?
A: It does not work fast. No, it doesn’t ... we began putting those kinds of people on the board.
Q: Like-minded folks?
A: Yes, and let me tell you, one of the people, and I don’t like to name people, but it was so important that we get this one individual on that board, because he had the courage —
Q: Was it Jim Lynn?
A: Yes. ... Sammy Howard, former mayor, and I met Jim at lunch one day and explained to Jim what the whole situation was what we, Sammy and I and other leaders in the community, were trying to do. We just couldn’t do it because of the director of the Housing Authority, who felt like he owned those apartments, he owned the Housing Authority and apartments all over town. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. It took years for us to get enough people on that board to make a change at the director’s job, but we did.
That was one of the more distasteful things that I had to do. When you know you’re doing something that is good for the community, that’s good for our city, and you have somebody who happened to be one individual who was standing there with his fist balled up and just telling us, “You’re not going to do it. You’re not going to do it,” well, we could do it. It took awhile, but we got it done. Thanks to Jim Lynn and his leadership on the Housing Authority board, today we have Troy State University and we have Marriott Courtyard there in Phenix City. Sometimes you have to do things that you don’t want to do, but you have to have the courage to do it. Jim had the courage.
Q: You have had a lot of health issues, right?
A: ... Yeah. (In 1998) they wound up doing four bypasses on me. Now, that was 18 years ago. Over the years, I have now had seven stents added to my heart, to the four bypasses, and I have three stents in my left leg.
Q: Man, you have more plumbing in you than ...
A: I really do. Oh, you have no idea. I have two artificial knees. I just had three bones taken out of my wrist.
Q: You’re a bionic man.
A: Boy, I’m telling you, there’s nothing bionic about it.
Job: Retired. Four-term Phenix City mayor. He served as mayor from 1989-1995, 2001-2005, 2008-2012.
Education: Central High School, 1961; attended Columbus College
Family: Married to wife, Kathy, for 38 years. She is the clerk of Russell County Circuit Court. Two sons, Jay and Sam. Five grandchildren.