EatSouth and Kudzu-like Unease

Alsomitra macrocarpa is a tropical climbing gourd native to Southeast Asia. Its seeds are the ultimate gliders, drying up and circling the forest floor on “wings” that can grow up to 5 inches long. They drift on wind currents, seeking to propagate the species (also known to us as the “Javan cucumber”).

And so it is with Montgomery’s EatSouth, which is losing has lost executive director Edwin Marty for the hipster-rich soils of Austin. He’s off to work for the City of Austin, which is ironic because a lot of people have been curious for years about EatSouth’s relationship to the municipal government of Montgomery. Like the javan cucumber seed, he is floating away on the wind to spread the brand of Earth-friendly sustainability and civic-corporate well-being.

Marty was only at EatSouth for a handful of years, but even before his arrival in 2011, a lot of observers were curious about the Hampstead Institute, of which EatSouth is ostensibly some sort of non-profit subsidiary side-project. The Hampstead Institute is a non-profit too, but seems to neither be an “institute,” nor much else that is readily identifiable.

We do know that the name of said “institute” comes from a housing development called Hampstead, which is a sort of master-planned community to the southeast of Montgomery. If you haven’t been out there, think Seaside in a cow pasture. It’s less Truman Show than wannabe-Aspen, but it also has a farm. And a windmill. And a lake. And all the other trappings of rural living without the inconvenience of actually having to labor on their three acre plot or put up with the visual clutter of people living in mobile homes. It’s just like rural living except there’s a Tipping Point instead of a Dollar Tree.

And that’s all fine and good. Rich people have every right to buy cow pastures and build Fantasy Land in them. We like wine bars too. You want to circle the SUVs around a fake 20-acre lake? Go nuts. Fill your house will all the Italian imports (or Panama City Beach imports) that you can afford. Deforesting and colonization is Manifest Destiny, so build away.

Where it gets interesting is when you start asking who’s selling these escapist slices of cow pasture. On the “contact us” page for Hampstead (the real estate thing, not the “institute”) you’re directed to contact Jim Farrior, Director of Hampstead Commercial Leasing & Sales at Colonial Commercial Realty, Inc. He’s also featured over at Colonial Commercial Realty’s website, where he is listed just above a guy named Josh Lowder, who is the vice-president of CCR, in addition to being on the Board of Directors of the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Redevelopment Authority. You can learn more about this young corporate exec in this cheerful RSVP Montgomery profile.

What does all this have to do with EatSouth? We’re getting back to it. Josh isn’t the only Lowder in this tapestry. There’s also his dad, Jimmy, who was described in 2008 this way:

Mr. Lowder has served as chairman of the board of The Colonial Company and its subsidiaries since 1995. He is a current member of the Home Builders Association of Alabama and the Greater Montgomery Home Builders Association, and he serves on the board of directors of Alabama Power Company. Mr. Lowder is the current chairman of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, a past board member of Leadership Montgomery, past president of the board of the Montgomery YMCA and past chairman of the Montgomery Area United Way Champaign. The Montgomery Area Business Committee for the Arts presented The Colonial Company with the 1997 Business in the Arts Award and in 2000 with the coveted Frank Plummer Memorial Arts Award for lifetime achievement. Mr. Lowder was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Greater Montgomery Home Builders Association in 2004. He graduated with the highest honors from Auburn University with a Bachelor of Science Degree. Mr. Lowder is a member of the investment committee of the board of trustees.

High roller, eh? He is also featured in this amazing photo, which tells you his lineage and connections to a gigantic 2009 bank failure — the sixth largest bank failure in American history, to be specific. More on that here.

There is a lot to enjoy about this ad. The pic of the three grinning brothers, looking like they just got away with something; the ad copy, calling the bank a muscular child; the assurance that "dad" lurks in the background. From the May 1982 issue of Alabama Magazine.

So we’ve got young Josh Lowder living in the Colonial real estate subdivision, trying to get you to buy a house out there at Hampstead where they have an urban farm. Colonial also has the A&P Lofts, which is home to True, that restaurant that is featured in nearly every issue of Made. Made is run by another local Lowder (Anna) and her husband Harvi Sahota.

Oh, and according to the documents filed with the IRS, the Hampstead Institute (doing business as EatSouth) was founded by three folks, two of whom are married to each other. That’s right — Harvi Sahota and Anna Lowder. Sahota runs a “design and communications” company based in the aforementioned A&P Lofts. His company, called Matter, seems to design and produce Made, as well as do design and PR work for nearly every above listed entity, including Eat South, True, Tipping Point, and the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce.

There’s one other interesting connection that implicates you, a concerned tax-paying Montgomery resident. As of last summer, we have a new civil servant in town. Mac McLeod became our city’s “director of retail and commercial development.” His previous job? President and CEO of Colonial Group. From whom did the city government use $1.95 million of your tax dollars to purchase the land upon which to build the new east Montgomery high school? Correct.

Did you know that EatSouth is actually EAT South because EAT is an acronym standing for Educate, Act and Transform? And certainly it’s a good thing to give presentations to local kids about healthy eating. It’s good to show people how food is grown and to talk to them about food waste and organic farming and sustainable agriculture. It’s better to have a downtown urban farm than a toxic Superfund site.

But it would also be better to have a local food awareness group that was promoting vegetarian potlucks and environmentalism that didn’t feel like a greenwashing campaign for a gigantic corporate real estate holdings with fingers in nearly every pot of money for miles.

Speaking of good eating, who doesn’t love biscuits? According to the March 2014 issue of River Region Living magazine, the Poarch Creek Indian casino (Wind Creek) will give $5,000 to EatSouth for every Montgomery Biscuits home run hit in 2013. I’m no minor league baseball historian, but the Biscuits hit 72 homers in 2013. That’s 72 homers x $5,000 = $360,000. That’s a sweet pile of syrup for Edwin Marty (who is by accounts a pretty nice guy) to be walking away from.

EatSouth’s website says that such numbers only reflect a small portion of their operating budget. Their funding website says that 20 percent of their income comes from produce sales (we understand they run a legitimately great CSA), 20 percent grants, 25 percent corporate support, 20 percent individual donations, 10 percent events, and 5 percent program service fees. The only event of theirs we’ve ever been to out at Hampstead  was some kind of beer tasting. It was pretty good.

We live in a world where image is everything, and a lot of good people think that having a food-centered non-profit is a good rebuttal to the existing stereotype of Montgomery as a crime-ridden blight factory. But if it’s important to look beyond the superficial image of Montgomery as dumpy, it’s also important to look beyond the image projected by alternative narratives. It’s crucial to be clear-eyed about tangible results being created and what money is creating them. And in that sense, EatSouth is leaving us hungry for more.

Biscuits Beat Rays

We went to see the Montgomery Biscuits hosts their pro affiliates, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (we’re never dropping the “devil,” no matter what the marketing people say). The minor league guys won!

It was a nice day for baseball once the gray clouds passed by and the sun broke through. The stadium was full (early reports say this was the 6th largest crowd in Riverwalk Stadium history). Everyone was in a good mood.

Rather than write up the game, we’ll hold off on saying a lot more about the new season because Opening Night is Thursday. We might say more then. The Biscuits have a new manager and a bunch of new faces on the team.

Until then, go back and read the tremendous volume of writing (and robust conversation in the comments section) from our season preview from 2012. Enjoy!

Montgomery Alabama Recycling 2014

We moved to Montgomery in 2008. Our then-mayor, Bobby Bright, was immediately elected to represent our district in Congress and he was replaced by Todd Strange. Mayor Strange took office in 2009 and took only a few months to cancel our curbside recycling program.

Under Mayor Bright, we’d separate recyclable household materials from our solid waste. Trash went in the familiar wheeled green plastic cans (like we use now), and recycling went in a special orange bag that you’d set out on the curb. When you were running out of orange bags, you’d tie one to the handle of your trash bin, a special silent communication between you and the sanitation workers. They’d see your gesture and leave you a new roll of bags. The cycle would begin anew.

Mayor Bright interacts with recycling. All mayors need coloring books.

Mayor Bright interacts with recycling. All mayors need coloring books.

Mayor Strange had some good arguments for ending the curbside pickup. Public education and enthusiasm levels were low, so not enough Montgomery households were separating their trash and using the system. Also, gas prices make it expensive to run a citywide network of curbside pickup service. Worse, despite low participation, they were still picking up more recyclable materials than they could handle. For whatever reason, the recyclables were being taken to mentally-challenged workers who could only handle a fraction of what they were getting. What couldn’t be sorted was sent to the landfill.

Rather than fix this idiotic system, Strange cancelled the whole thing and started talking about a special magical plasma facility that would burn all solid waste, regardless of whether it could be recycled. No more time-consuming sorting. No more environmental consciousness by consumers and households. Just throw it all in the green bin, Strange told us, and this amazing new technology would “gasify” everything and turn it into electricity and the city could sell the electricity back to the power grid and we’d all get free jetpacks and hoverboots.

We were skeptical.

We wrote about the end of curbside recycling. We looked into why we could only recycle certain kinds of plastic, never glass, and complained about the new “dropoff” system. We wrote about what’s involved with driving recyclables to Birmingham. We made fun of fake civic environmentalism efforts. We hoped that City Councilor Arch Lee would continue to carry the recycling policy torch of Martha Roby after she went to Congress. We continued to look at landfill policies.

The plasma plant fell through. The city’s money spent to study the project only confirmed what we knew. It wasn’t feasible.

Then, another ray of sunlight. We were told in July of last year that a “revolutionary” new facility was coming to Montgomery (1551 Louisville St). The company’s press release said we were looking at a $35 million new facility to be open about four months from now. 110 jobs. 85 percent of the stuff headed to the landfill will go to this factory. 95 percent of recyclables will be recovered.

We are told that our trash:

will be separated using the latest in screening, air and optical separation technologies.  The system sorts and recovers commodities such as cardboard, mixed paper, metals, aluminum cans, plastics and wood based on density, size, shape and material composition.  Additional sorting will be done by hand at the site.

Organic waste will allegedly be turned into compressed natural gas. The company’s materials about the project can be found here. Another press release (with video from an unfathomably smarmy-looking corporate exec!) can be consumed here.

Other than driving plastic (and glass, and newspaper, and cardboard, etc.) to Birmingham or Auburn, what have the people of Montgomery been doing? Some have been taking things to Target, out in the Hellscape. This is not really an option. The Target has tiny little bins at the front of the store, the kind that someone might put a single Coke bottle in after shopping. This is not designed for a carload of materials. We subscribe to newspapers, the actual printed kind. We order things from Amazon that come in recyclable cardboard boxes. We generate large volumes of recyclable waste — and we don’t even have any kids. Taking stuff to Target is not an option.

Stuff that doesn't have to go to the landfill.

Stuff that doesn’t have to go to the landfill. We generate this volume regularly.

Some people take stuff to Mt. Scrap (824 N. Decatur St). This is something of an option, especially if you’re into helping a private company generate materials it can sell for profit — with no oversight as to whether they do or don’t just dump everything into the landfill.

We have been taking stuff out to McInnis Recycling Center (4341 Norman Bridge Rd.), which is one of the city’s official “drop off locations.” This isn’t ideal. On Sundays, you have to compete with the traffic from the Fresh Anointing International Church, which sounds like a pretty fresh location that is full of anointed folks and one rented cop trying to direct an armada of cars spilling out onto Norman Bridge Road. Also, bin size is relatively small.

McInnis Recycling.

McInnis Recycling

These are your only two options. For whatever reason, the place at Huntingdon we once used has closed up shop. We don’t know why. In Montgomery, information about recycling is hard to come by — just fragments from rumors and dreams. Maybe that’s why we blog about it all the time. We’re just citizens grasping at straws, wishing our city could help us to minimize our impact on the environment.

Look, we accept the fact that a lot of people in Montgomery probably think of recycling as some kind of Maoist lifestyle plot that goes hand-in-hand with yoga, vegetarian cults and Obama’s “War on Coal.” But conservation has a long tradition and ought to make sense when resources are finite.

Maybe one day we will get a tour of the Infinitus Renewable Energy Park at Montgomery (also known to insiders as IREP at Montgomery). And maybe there’ll be some kind of oversight to ensure that the landfill-bound materials end up where Infinitus says they will. We don’t need to invoke the specter of the Downtown Plume to underscore the importance of not letting companies (and state agencies) have a free hand when it comes to discharging toxins.

We’ll check back on this issue in June, which is the date that the new plant is scheduled to open. Surely the company will issue some sort of press release and the city will have some sort of ceremony. A ribbon may be cut and the Montgomery Advertiser will republish some magniloquent press release. And people will keep filling their trash cans just like nothing ever happened. No sorting, no thinking.

Primitive. Hopefully, soon a thing of the past.

Primitive. Hopefully, soon a thing of the past.

Is Retail Dead?

Grandma Advertiser told us this week that Foshee Management is going to start in earnest on mixed-use properties on Dexter. They’re calling it the Montgomery Market District, which is a little odd because a) Dexter Avenue is a name known around the world and b) there’s no market there, unless they mean the slave market, which was right there, and they can’t possibly mean that, can they? Anyway, they’ve bought a domain name and set up a website for this part of town. This website informs us that Dexter used to be called Market Street. Perhaps it was renamed for a reason.

Quibbles about the name aside, the idea of retail returning to downtown is pretty exciting — especially given that it’s struggling around the city right now. The Look left Five Points for Zelda Road and is now shuttered. Talbots closed over there too, and there’s been no replacement for some time. M. Bagwell’s been closed so long we’ve forgotten what it looked like inside. Locally-owned hardware stores are vanishing. Ciao Bella moved down to that trailer/incubator down by the Alley; the Mulberry Street businesses seem to be in a constant state of turmoil with a few exceptions, perhaps because it’s hard to park over there. The Dandy Lion seemed so promising and is now suddenly closed. There’s a weird absence of retail in the Alley development itself. And although there are some bright spots (the Herb Chateau is a welcome new business, as is Hue Studio over in the A&P lofts, and Fairview Homebrew seems to be doing fine; of course we can’t mention everyone here, please don’t write), there’s just not a lot of places to buy interesting stuff around here. Which is weird.

Except that it’s not. This week The Atlantic ran a piece called “Radio Shack is Doomed (and So Is Retail)” that delivered some sobering facts about shopping. Amazon, it turns out, is more than three times more efficient at selling products than the competition. That’s part of the reason this chart (from the article) looks the way it does:

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 1.25.58 PM

This is part of why Zelda Road looks the way it does – tons of tutoring businesses, health places, food options, but not a lot of shops.

Ever since a trusted local business owner told us that retail was dead, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this matter. Driving around our town and others, we’ve asked each other: What store would you put there? What makes this street so cool and this other street not so cool? The answer seems to be a mix of establishments. Bars and restaurants are cool and all, but they’re generally more hopping at night. What about daytime options? What about contributing to the arts and culture vibe of a city? As much as we’re not into rank consumption, tangible things remain important to our lives, just like everyone else.

I know Montgomery’s not New Orleans, but one of the things that makes the French Quarter so fun is its abundance of awesome used bookstores. And other shops – not the big tourist/gator head/hot sauce emporiums, but places like the store where they hand loom rugs. We were in Memphis a year ago and visited a cool neighborhood with a great record store and a few other shops worth wandering into after we ate a great vegan meal and picked up an awesome cup of coffee. Down in Mobile, they’ve opened a big cavernous vintage/antique/junk shop type place downtown – it doesn’t seem like it would work, but it does. Birmingham’s Five Points has a great eyewear store, a shop with strange gifts, a health food market which covers all of your incense-and-hippie needs and an amazing record shop. The Second Avenue development has What’s On Second (highly, highly recommend) and a few other places to complement the bars, restaurants and cafes there. Albuquerque’s Central Avenue has an amazing mix of one-of-a-kind retail, food, bars and cafes, even with the recent addition of an Urban Outfitters.

There’s something about a well-curated shop or two that makes a neighborhood special. We’re not talking about a chain store; we’re talking about someone who lives in your neighborhood picking out things for sale that they think other people in the neighborhood might like. When you transact with this person, you’re not just buying a thing. You’re transacting with your neighborhood, engaging in a conversation whose currency is nominally monetary but even more important than mere coins and bills.

Up in Decatur (Morgan County), we wandered into a cool shop that combined a performance space with records, comics, vintage clothing and a few arcade games. This was perfect – the kind of place where you want to chat with the owner, spend some money, and even meet some people you might like to know. We think RAD! Vinyl Records Shop over on the Atlanta Highway is promising. Why didn’t that shop get tax credits invited downtown to make the Alley a more interesting place? As it is, it’s a drive-to destination, rather than someplace you  might shop before meeting friends for a drink or a meal. Retail is social; this is a major thing the big boxes miss and something Amazon will never capture. Sure, your trash bags or dishwashing detergent may not be a social purchase, but buying a well-made shirt or a vintage mirror might be. Or could be, which is the point here. Retail should be aspirational, not merely (only) transactional. As much as some of us make fun of the artisanal facial hair boutiques of Brooklyn, they do provide a particular retail experience not offered in the current market – these folks should be celebrated as entrepreneurs even as their sideburns are relentlessly mocked.

We’re not merchants and have never run a retail shop, but we keep asking ourselves what we would sell, given the chance. Sure, we’d love to run a bookstore – not to compete with Capitol Book & News, but to complement them. We know that record stores are having a hard time right now, but they have an awesome one down at the planned Seaside community in Florida. And we know Montgomery’s not the richest place in the world, but there are folks here with disposable income, especially if you give them well-priced stuff and a good shopping experience. We need more antidotes to Wal-Mart, something different and more human-scaled than Eastchase. It’s probably only a matter of time until Eastdale goes under too, then the city’s going to have another dead mall on its hands with no schools willing to move in. Is retail dead, or does it just suck?

Maybe people shop online not just because it’s convenient, but also because shopping is pretty unpleasant at the big box stores. Maybe the chain stores are too predictable, and you can find something more interesting online at Mod Cloth than you can at Ann Taylor. These are not insurmountable obstacles. Painted Pink over on Mulberry does it right, even if their clothes aren’t for you. They have outstanding customer service and great communication with the outside world (they post pictures of new clothing regularly on their Facebook page). When you go in there, even if it’s just to browse, you feel like you’re being let into the closet of someone with very specific taste. A great store is like a great museum: It’s specifically organized, with rotating exhibits and leaves you feeling good afterward, even if you didn’t buy anything.

But of course, you need to buy stuff. If you don’t, retail operations fail. We could set up a couture gowns store in the Alley, and everyone would come in and coo over the merch, and we’d be out of business before we could even make a single rent payment. So it’s clear that shops need to offer a mix of the affordable and the aspirational – heck, even Wal-Mart knows that. You might admire the new lawnmower but walk out with a deeply discounted pack of Axe Body Spray – still, they got you in the door and relieved you of some of your monthly paycheck.

For starters, the city should invest in supporting a store for local artists like the Christmas pop-up shop downtown. Except it should be permanent. On a recent long layover in the Minneapolis airport, I was delighted to find a store specializing in local products. This was evidently the product of a special initiative. It makes the airport about a million times better (that, and they have pinball machines on every concourse). It’s too much to ask for something similar at Montgomery’s tiny airport, but it should certainly be part of the Market District, if not the Alley. You could say that there’s not enough local craftwork to fill a permanent store, but I’m sure that’s false. Even if it’s true, that’s a chicken-egg problem. Artists are encouraged to produce when there’s an actual place to sell their stuff, not clawing for attention on Etsy.

Also there should be a store that sells weird stuff. A mix of vintage and new, like the Tip Top Atomic Shop in Milwaukee would be cool, even if rockabilly’s not your thing. One key will be not to poach other retailers, even though I just said we think RAD! Records should be in a different place. Maybe Montgomery can’t support two record stores just yet, but if you want to build a vibe downtown where young people want to live and work, you need to give them places that sell cool things to spend money on. Definitely a junk shop should be high on the list – lofts need interesting furniture, and paying top dollar for loft living means that you might need a slightly cheaper coffee table.

Obviously, there should be a cool coffee shop. It should also sell stuff, like books and stationary and cards. It should also have a performance space and a pinball machine or two, while we’re dreaming. Chris’ Hot Dogs shouldn’t have a pinball monopoly in this town any longer! The Standard up in Birmingham is awfully nice as a model for using old space, but could be combined with a little retail for added interest here.

Most importantly, there needs to be some kind of grocery store — one kind of retail that will never go out of style and isn’t likely to be eroded by online buying. The lack of one stymied downtown living in Los Angeles for many years. Sure, there’s not going to be a Publix downtown anytime soon, but there needs to be a functional market where people can get milk and eggs and canned goods without paying a fortune. The mayor should do everything in his power to get a Trader Joe’s downtown. That would bring people in from all over town, lifting the boats of other retails shops there.

On Dexter Avenue, which seems like an improvement over Market Street even as you can learn (as we did) how Andrew Dexter got the street named after him. This guy, in an alternative future a Apex Predator-level Goldman Sachs employee, was a Rhode Island banker who bought sight unseen land in Alabama and moved in aggressively to found New Philadelphia, across the fountain from Alabama Town. If you’ve ever wondered why downtown streets meet at weird angles, Dexter’s partly to blame. At first, Montgomery was two cities that merged around an Artesian well (also the slave market site) – read Who Was Dexter Avenue, Anyhow for more. In any case, this guy was kind of a swindler. He ran a bank that failed its shareholders in spectacular fashion in the early 1800s, even as he set aside land for what would become our state capitol. He gave some of his land to be used as a burial ground, but himself ended up in an unmarked grave somewhere on the way to Mobile, not even 50 years old.

This is the global brand we embrace? Fairly you might ask after the costs of remaking it into the Market District. But Dexter is the one that took us to the dance. He performed in a predictably clumsy way at first but warmed up later, surprising us with his innovative footwork much later on, dipping us in ways we hadn’t expected until our whole world changed. Why are we ditching him? Andrew Dexter was our city’s first failed retail experiment. We should still embrace his inadvertent and lasting legacy, at least when it comes to the delightful narcissism of branding.

Maybe you’re of the Olive Garden school, where it’s commonplace so guaranteed; maybe you’re of the Chipotle school, where it’s known and therefore good; maybe you’re of the El Rey school where people you know know it so it’s good. Wouldn’t you rather be on Dexter than in the Market District? Wouldn’t you rather say you’re a few blocks from the failed Subway or Dr. King’s church or close to the failed Winter Building with the alleged shackles in the basement? You don’t have to be Cayce Pollard to feel like something dangerous could be afoot here. We say to Montgomery: Make the right decision. As crazy as it might be, being a little more New Philadelphia than Alabama Town might be the right direction for our fair city right now. Minus the racism, and the oppression/appropriation of indigenous peoples. Is that even possible these days? And can we add charming well-priced gifts?

We’re doomed.

Unspooling Your Mind

It can be tough to write about Montgomery because our current world encourages us to hide in shells crafted by globalization. Local quirks are being slowly smoothed out into a series of memes shared between you and the people of every other city.

Our local festivals and traditions are being kept afloat by pre-Internet generations, those who haven’t fled for larger regional centers. Our disposable income is being spent on isolating video games and isolating marathons of binge watching television shows. That’s not a slam against “House of Cards,” which we hear is quite good, but it’s a recognition that there’s quite a lot to Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” thesis.

If you’re not familiar, Putnam uses the decline of public bowling leagues as a lens through which to examine the death of civic life. With a decline in shared public spaces, democracy suffers. People don’t know their neighbors, live in silos, etc.

Montgomery already had a lot of that going on due to the whole racism thing. We didn’t need a decline in bowling leagues (or public swimming pools) to suggest that people were self-segregating in our community. We also are a city that has struggled to support music venues and restaurants and parks and many of the other places where people mix and mingle. Our shared sense of community can too often be reduced to political complaining — and that in turn encourages folks to just stay home at night. When we stay at home with the television (or Internet), the problem gets worse.

Our talking points naturally evolve and become less local. We say less about Shashy’s or Capitol Book and News, and mostly talk about whatever media products we are passively consuming. Enough has already been said about how Amazon and Ebay (not to mention soulless chain stores) undercut local businesses.

But what’s so great about the local anyway? Aren’t we all just digital natives that transcend petty borders and outdated tribal identities?

I’m not sure. But I do know that we all suffer when the public sphere is abandoned by the public. And although I can go from breakfast until bedtime without doing anything “authentically Montgomery” these days, I know that the burden is on me to engage. Left alone, I could well drift into isolation: pets, favorite shows, work, digital space.

I’m going to work on being a better citizen, embracing unique elements of local identity, improving my community, and emerging from the protective armor of globalization. Part of that means kicking this blog back into a higher gear. I was recently encouraged by a compliment from a friend (who I didn’t know even read this blog) and am inspired and humbled that our writing is appreciated. Being resolved and following through is the only thing I can do.

Free Magazine Review – Sort Of, But Not Really

Many of you know all about the Free Magazine Reviews that we do on this site. They are among our most popular features, and we get piles of emails about them. Many hands have been wrung about how cruel we are to poke fun at the crappy wastes of paper that we have picked up around town.

It has come to our attention that there is a new-ish entry onto the crowded free magazine scene. Perhaps you have seen “The Pride of Montgomery.” No, it’s not a gay pride magazine, although that joke has already been made by everyone.

What it is, dear reader, is actually something even more interesting. This “Pride” is a glossy free monthly magazine that appears to be published by a Prattville dentist, yet features a column from Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange at the start of every issue.

The issue we got today is certainly funny enough to merit the full “Free Magazine Review” treatment. Anytime a magazine publisher uses his own magazine’s pages to write a column titled “Toothpaste 101,” you know you’ve got some serious humor potential. However, this isn’t the column where we make fun of Pride’s font selection (which is atrocious) or the laughable so-called articles (“New Tips for Glam!”)

Rather, this is simply an opportunity to examine the details of Mayor Strange’s column in Pride, which can be found on page 4. In a world where we rarely hear these kinds of big picture perspectives from elected officials, it’s worth taking a look at our mayor’s vision for Montgomery in 2014.

Headline: Continued Growth, Prosperity for Montgomery in 2014

Is this really a headline? Is this Strange’s goal? Is it a bold prediction or merely aspirational? If it’s aspirational, well, duh, yes, who is against prosperity? I guess the pro-chaos and blight candidate didn’t win the election. I’m glad the mayor is willing to exert the leadership needed to say that he wants the same things as us everyone else ever. But if Mayor Strange is going on the record predicting joy, why not fold that into a snappy headline like, “Mayor Forecasts Good Things, Doubts Prospects For Evil?”

Here’s the text of the mayor’s column (in bold) followed by some reactions:

“Many of us use the month of January to review the previous year and anticipate the 12 months ahead.”

So very wise. Go on …

“Both exercises reveal good news for Montgomery, the Capital of Dreams, and perhaps a challenge or two.”

So, 2013 was good. 2014 will also be good. Audacious stuff. And way to work in the Official Branding™. Much better than “Cradle of the Confederacy,” which remains emblazoned on countless public buildings and signs.

“We can be proud of the stabilization of the City’s finances accomplished in 2013. The retirement plan for City employees was revised to ensure new employees will have a fund that is solvent without burdening taxpayers or taking resources from other needs.”

Oh, so we “revised” the retirement plans for city workers? That means “cut,” right? Or “slashed?” Did we “decimate” them, or merely “reduce” them? Were city employees becoming big time fatcats with gold watches and cars made out of diamonds? Why did we have to “revise” their retirements? Do they not need as much money to live on when they retire? Do they plan to eat catfood when they get old? What flavors? It better not be Fancy Feast because if it is, we might need to “revise” those retirement plans some more.

How much did we make from this “revision” of city worker retirements? Enough to start a citywide curbside recycling program? Oh. I guess not. OK, go on …

“The City’s reserves, which were depleted during the Great Recession, are now up to $15 million. Ratings agencies view healthy reserves as an indicator of sound management. Standard and Poor’s awarded Montgomery with an “AA” rating.”

Let’s be clear, AA rating isn’t the highest, but it’s good. Government entities often get good ratings because they can, say, raise taxes and are often seen as likely to pay back their debts. Cities can issue bonds to pay for projects, so bragging about credit ratings is fine (“Hey, we’re not Jefferson County!”) but it isn’t the key measure of economic health. The City of Calera also has AA rated credit and nobody ever says, “Hey, let’s be more like Calera.”

How about the fact that the City of Montgomery is tied (with Birmingham) for the single highest sales taxes in the United States? We (and Birmingham) pay TEN PERCENT SALES TAX on pretty much everything we buy, including groceries. The next highest in the nation is a tie between Chicago, Glendale (Arizona), and Seattle. I’ve never been to Glendale, but I know we are not getting as much cool stuff for our astronomical sales taxes as the people that live in Chicago and Seattle. Look, I understand that nobody wants to raise property taxes, so we’re stuck relying on regressive sales taxes that punish poor people, but I’m embarrassed to admit that no city in American has higher sales taxes than mine. That says a lot more about our city’s economic health than the fact that S&P rated us AA.

“Montgomerians can also take pride in the many key projects that took place in 2013. The Wright Flyer replica and park salute our notable history in civilian aviation. Maxwell Boulevard has been upgraded and is primed for further development. The demolition of the State House Inn will lead to an improved Madison Avenue corridor. Genetta Park in West Montgomery is protecting our watershed and will soon be a spot for recreation and education. The former Steve and Barry’s store at the Montgomery Mall has been converted into a Public Safety center for Police and Fire & Rescue services.”

Wow, that’s quite a list. Slow down! That’s five things! Projects! Let’s take them one at a time.

1) Seriously. Who is into that Wright Brothers statue? Anyone? Anyone? The park is great, yes. But that was true when it was Overlook Park. Now that it is named Wright Brothers Park and has a metal plane in it? It’s about the same. Does anyone look at that hyper-literal model of a glider and feel pride? It’s OK, I guess. I might have opted for something a little more artistic and evocative of the transcendentally beautiful human aspiration for flight, something suggesting innovation and soaring. But if it’s a large metal THIS IS WHAT IT LOOKED LIKE replica that we get, I guess that’s OK too. I just don’t see showing that thing off to visitors or putting it on postcards. But yes, we should be proud of our history and stuff. For sure. Agreed.

2) Maxwell Boulevard has been upgraded. Wooo! Let’s get fired up for some medians! Wooo! New striping on roads! Ya’ll feeling that surge in civic pride?

3) State House Inn has been torn down. Good. It was a disgusting eyesore. But can we at least all agree that this happened because “Evil Big Government” interfered in the private free market and “rewarded failure” by purchasing private property and using PUBLIC MONEY to “bail out” a “failed investment” and turn it into something else? For all the talk about tea party this and capitalism that, for the “I’m just a businessman” mayor to tout these kinds of projects, it’s pretty mind boggling.

4) Genetta Park: Let’s be clear. This area has been called “Genetta Ditch” for years. That’s not the most appetizing branding, but it has always been a ditch and it still looks like a ditch. If they stick a park between McDonald’s and the Interstate, great. Parks are awesome. But this thing appears to be on a 10-year timeframe and it’s a bit too early to share the enthusiasm about whatever the heck this thing is going to become.

5) They’re sticking a police station and fire station in the bombed out abandoned husk of Montgomery Mall. OK. Cool. See above regarding Issue #3. They took a failed investment and a bad business plan from a businessman who allowed his giant building to fall into decay. He let his investment deteriorate and then sold it to the city. We like police stations and fire stations (unless those fatcat city employees are getting too much money in their retirement plans … see above). And we are glad something is being done about the depressing spectacle of Montgomery Mall. Certainly police and fire stations will be immune to the market forces that dragged an entire mall into oblivion and caused tax payers to purchase it with Socialism disguised as “we’re just free market loving businesspeople.”

“We will devote attention in 2014 to exploring other occupants at the former mall, encouraging the Board of Education as it reviews plans for the LAMP and MTEC programs, as well as the Central Office consolidation. Special attention will also focus on avoiding the inordinate increase in homicides we sustained in 2013.”

We’re blurring three issues into this paragraph. First is “we’re trying to find other tenants for the mall.” Good. Fine. See above about Uncle Strange’s Big Government Real Estate Bonanza seeking to make sweetheart deals with potential tenants. Book stores and video game arcades and shoe stores aren’t coming back to that side of town any time soon. Second, we have a glancing mention of the school system, which experienced a catastrophic grade changing scandal in 2013, resulting in the firing of the Superintendent and the quasi-takeover of the entire system by the State Board of Education. Funny how that didn’t rate a mention in the ol’ year end wrap-up. Third, the murders. Yes, we agree that we’d like to have fewer of the murders please.

Sidebar: How great is the mayor’s use of the word “inordinate?” As if having 25 murders instead of 50 would be a totally ordinate number.

Update: Since I wrote this, we have learned that the schools aren’t moving into the old mall. That is dumb. How could the city and the school system not get on the same page about this? I bet the mayor is mad.

“2014 will be marked with continued progress. The improvement to the Dexter Avenue streetscape is already underway. To meet the demand for living spaces downtown, developers have plans to build apartments on Maxwell Boulevard East and the Frank Leu site at Bibb and Commerce. Questplex, the home for the Children’s Museum of Alabama and the Library of the 21st Century will revitalize Court Square.”

Again, there’s a lot going on here. First, Dexter: Yes. Good. It’s horrible how merchants have fled downtown. A once-thriving retail scene is now a sorry collection of faded storefronts. Also, the Internet has murdered retail everywhere. We look forward to hearing what will be purchased on Dexter that can’t be ordered cheaper from Amazon. Also, see above about Municipal Socialism rewarding holdout building owners by using public funds to buy decrepit buildings at above-market cost. We support this, of course, but it’s good to be clear about what we’re talking about. Maybe the city should buy that stuff and just keep it and open some restaurants and bars. Bet the local economic developers would love that.

Second, downtown living: Good. Build nice lofts. Someone should do it. But it’s funny how this gets a single sentence and not a word about, say bicycles or a downtown grocery store. People don’t want to live where there is no commercial ecosystem. Downtowns with residential living all need drug stores and places to buy food and maybe a place to throw a frisbee.

Questplex? Sure. Do your thing. The city needed to buy more real estate from the market failure known as Colonial Bank. So put a museum there for kids or whatever.

“Like many agencies, the City will find a way to stabilize increasing health care costs. It’s the right thing to do for the health of our employees and as custodians of taxpayer dollars.”

Oh, for real Todd Strange? We can’t stop a citywide murder spike nor provide curbside recycling, but we’re going to as a mid-sized municipal government going to DRIVE DOWN THE COST OF HEALTH CARE? Even the federal government, undertaking one of the most ambitious social and regulatory projects ever attempted in American history cannot do that. How is the City of Montgomery going to make MRI scans cost less? Oh, sure, we can cut health plans for city employees. That would certainly drive down health care costs … at least the costs borne by the city. It’s not like those people would stop getting sick. It’s just that we’ll be picking up the tab for those people when they go into emergency rooms because their city health plan no longer covers preventative kidney treatments or whatever. And didn’t you just brag up above about “revising” the retirements of city employees? Is this a threat to gash their health plans as well? Next time some bored city worker treats a resident like crap, I hope everybody remembers the good people that could have taken that city job but declined because they instead took a job that wasn’t hacking away at their benefits all the time.

So two of the main fiscal things Mayor Strange tells us to be proud of are the cutting of city retirement plans and the upcoming cutting of city health plans. Take that, you fatcat city workers! Our fiscal conservatism with your benefit plans is what allows us to buy failing businesses around town and sell them to motivated developers who want to open theme pubs and lofts. #FreeMarket

“Indeed in 2014, we will continue to pursue our vision of “sustaining a safe, vibrant and growing Montgomery in its entirety, that we are all proud to call home.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Love. Love Won’t Keep Us Together…

Montgomery’s most famous musical legend is probably Toni Tennille, who was part of one of the most laughable public cheese-peddling duos of the previous generation. Sadly, the Captain and Tennille are getting divorced, dashing the hopes of all who care about the relationship of some septuagenarians from Arizona.

Your Montgomery roots have always got your back Toni, at least until things get rocky for Montgomery native Tommy Shaw and he needs to crash on our couch or something.

For other super-awesome Montgomery-born celebs, click here.