By: Ali Elizabeth Turner
It was Mayor Ronnie’s first day back at work after surgery, and I had to admit I was a bit worried that he would hit the ground runnin’ like he always does and try to do too much, too soon. However, he is an adult and knows his own limits. So, laying my well-intentioned misgivings aside, it was time to hear about all the progress being made with regard to our most famous blighted property, none other than the former site of the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing plant.
The mayor started our time together with celebrating the fact that over 300 condemned properties, which had formerly been havens for hustlers and drugs, had been legally torn down after due process. “And, almost 90% of the demolition costs have been paid by the property owners,” he said. He went on to tell about a time around 5 years ago when he was taken by some legal and land development professionals from our area out to Pilgrim’s Progress, and who bluntly said to him,
“This is the most blighted piece of property in our county.” Mayor Ronnie knew it was time to get going with solving what was going to be a complex problem, and “got after it.” The City of Athens had to track down the Point of Contact for Pilgrim’s Pride, and finally found him in South America because the company had been sold to a foreign corporation.
From that point on, Mayor Ronnie would begin each conversation he had with the Pilgrim’s Pride folks with the phrase, “You need to write this off and donate it to the City of Athens,” setting forth the hope that they could see the benefit in being immortalized as the “Patrons of the Park.” They weren’t having it.
In 2014, Mayor Ronnie was selected by Design Alabama to make a presentation regarding the challenges of dealing with an abandoned, blighted commercial property, which in turn caught the attention of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. Their involvement helped put our “Pilgrim’s Plight” on the map, and other cities in Alabama, as well other states, who were facing a similar problem, reached out to Mayor Ronnie for coaching.
The mayor put together an offer to purchase the property for $500, 000, and at first, Pilgrim’s Pride wasn’t having that, either. However, after nearly five years of negotiations, we now have an agreement for a purchase price of $550,000. “It has been a long process, a good process, and we have a great opportunity for a development,” he said. He then added, “I think this is going to be one of the best projects we have ever done.” It will cost another $500,000 for demolition and to bring every aspect of the property back to a place where one can “sow and mow.“
So, what are the plans for “sowing and mowing”? Well, we have private investors who are interested in developing the area in part for multi-use applications, including shops, high-end residential units, restaurants, and more. If it goes through, it will be our own version of Bridge Street, and it will help us to fend off our neighbors’ endeavors to absorb us. Pilgrim’s Pride has the potential to be one of the best gifts we can give ourselves as we prepare for the future.
I asked the mayor, “Do you think we are growing well?” I certainly know what it’s like to see developments spring up quickly, which result in fostering chaos. He thought for a moment and said, “I really do think we are.”
The next day Mayor Ronnie would get his surgical staples removed, and I grimaced as we began to pray. Then it was time for Ronnie to roll, and I resisted the temptation to remind him that “Slow and steady wins the race.” The man was clearly happy to be back in the saddle, even if he was going to have to ease into it, and most grateful for all the support sent his way by the folks of our city.
By: Ali ElizabethTurner