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Magical McClellan

Forget swords into plowshares. What's going on at the former Fort McClellan is much more ambitious: an elegant synthesis between the arts and the environment, creating an arts village set against a lush backdrop of mountains and trees with a vitality that may someday equal SoHo amid the skyscrapers and asphalt of New York.

"We're doing something here that has never been done before," says RD Downing, a Calhoun County Commissioner and a member of the Joint Powers Authority or JPA. The council of nine members manages redevelopment of the base. "We want to focus on the connection between art and environment. They are really inseparable. It's like a laboratory out here; there's so much that can be created and developed here to contribute to the quality of life."

"Beginning with the environment -- water and land, buildings and community -- we're developing an experimental arts center that is about process and growth," says Pat Potter, an artist and an ardent advocate for this project. Even its location is a synthesis. "McClellan is between Alabama's highest mountain and its lowest valley and it's also halfway between Atlanta and Birmingham."

Pete Conroy is a member of the JPA and a professor at Jacksonville State University experienced in the field of sustainability and green commerce. "There are ten million people within driving distance of McClellan," he says. "If you look at demographic growth patterns, our region will soon be dealing with the impact of pressure on three sides: Atlanta, Chattanooga, Birmingham. We're right in the middle of those growth circles."

Fort McClellan, 18,000 acres bordering Anniston's center, closed in 1999. Since then, parts of it have been reborn as a residential development, an entertainment and events district, a college campus, a public golf course and an upcoming technology park. The most unusual component, however, is the arts district.

"At the core of the arts district would be a theatre of regeneration," Conroy continues. "It would utilize the wasted heat from a glass blower's shop to bake artisan bread and brew a local ale, with the used hops, yeast and barley recycled into some of the bread recipes. Microbrewers, bakers and glass blowers have all come to the table to discuss the concept and agree that it could work.

"I think it was a coincidence that a glass blower was telling me one day how he wastes 90% of his heating on the same day a baker was telling me how operating costs were killing his business," Conroy says. "We'd be creating a metaphor emphasizing the reuse of a military base and the grander ecological cycles, and all that could be described as a theatre of regeneration.

"It's also particularly important to emphasize ecological and environmental sustainability in a place that's nationally known as an area of contamination," he explains. Anniston was only recently referred to as "the most toxic town in America."


Potter speaks of reusing the asphalt as it's dug up, incorporating it into the architecture. A cavernous building called "Building 236" used to be the motor pool and now will become space for public art exhibitions. Across the road is a row of low metal buildings. "At first they were going to tear these down, but when a group of artists came they saw that these buildings would make perfect artists' studios."

McClellan is already drawing hundreds of people to a flat, grassy stretch adjoining the proposed arts village every summer. The Music at McClellan outdoor concert series is four years old. "We are the summer home to the Alabama Symphony Orchestra," Downing says. "We want to develop that relationship and hope to add an educational component."

Conroy is a moving force behind the concert series. "When I was growing up, my summers were filled with the Boston Pops," he recalls. "When I moved to Alabama I missed it. So when this opportunity opened up, we just kept calling and calling till we raised the money. We raise a quarter million dollars every year to pay for it. It's an extraordinary outdoor concert series."

Snaking through McClellan is the site for another prime example of potential reuse and redevelopment: the Chief Ladiga Trail. It is part of the national "Rails-to-Trails" program that converts old, unused railroad beds into trails ideal for cycling and walking. A 33-mile stretch from the Alabama state line to Anniston is already completed. At McClellan, it will pass through the arts village, the Longleaf Concert Grounds and ultimately provide access to the Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge.

Although all of this requires a good imagination (at present it looks like a collection of rundown buildings connected by ragged patches of asphalt), there is one very solid company in residence. The Howard Core Company bought two buildings in the district last year. They are one of the world's largest violinmakers and wholesalers and occasionally restore older instruments.

"We make between 15-20, 000 instruments a year," says Alex Weidner, an owner of the company. "We thought this was a perfect match. We take an old instrument that's been through the wringer and bring it back to life with the perfect balance of skilled craftsmanship and TLC. Now we're taking an old building and doing the same." The company will eventually open a showroom highlighting its violins, violas, cellos and basses.

Another fully-realized piece of the project is the creation of the 9,200-acre Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge. "It's significant because it contains the largest stand of old-growth longleaf pine in the world," Downing says. Many trees here are in excess of 200 years old. Although 60-90 million acres of longleaf pine covered the Southeast 400 years ago, today only about 3 million acres remain.

"It took about seven years to get the wildlife refuge established," says Conroy. "I had led hikes and expeditions there for years. We knew it was a rare ecosystem." There were a few obstacles to the creation of the refuge, however. Conroy approached the National Park Service and the Forest Service, but since the property had been used as an artillery range, they were concerned about unexploded ordinance.

"But the people at the US Fish and Wildlife were so interested in preserving this ecosystem they decided they could work around that. Bill Garland, a longleaf ecologist there, was a lot of help." Along the roadways old shells have been cleared, and signs and fences clearly warn the public away from dangerous areas.

Lest all these plans sound too "pie-in-the-sky," consider the successful reinvention of one part of McClellan by architect Julian Jenkins. "It was a labor of love," he says. "We started about five years ago by acquiring 48 buildings in the headquarters area." They included 20 two-story homes, 16 smaller cottages and the officers' club and adjoining theatre, all in a graceful Spanish Colonial style. Jenkins renovated the houses and promptly sold them all.

The officer's club was transformed into the Terra Cafe. Next door is a large hall, renovated as a venue for exhibitions, performances, receptions, conferences and banquets. The former base theatre has also been painstakingly restored and shows art movies and occasionally hosts live theatre. A farmer's market provides a retail outlet for local farmers and a diversion for Saturday morning shoppers.

"Everybody gets it," Conroy says. "We've already received an economic development grant. Also by law the JPA's sale of property at McClellan has to be reinvested in McClellan. Considering that, and combined with retail operations, I think we'll be sustainable.

"Artists are looking for less expensive alternatives to the high dollar real estate found in major cities. They're also looking for peace and solitude. Being next to a wildlife refuge and offering a high quality of life, McClellan becomes that intersection. It's only logical to assume that McClellan might someday rival SoHo."