Saturday, October 07, 2006

Growth of Fair Hope

October 7

Somewhere along the line the little town of Fairhope began a slide down the slippery slope of growth. In 1928, Fairhope librarian Mary Heath Lee wrote, "All too soon the village becomes a town, and our cherished local color, individuality and quaintnesses blend and tone down until little remains to distinguish us from our neighbors."

A joke circulated in Fairhope in the 1960's, "How many Fairhopians does it take to change a light bulb?" Answer, "Three. One to change the bulb and two to watch and say how nice the old bulb used to be."

Well, those comments were made in the distant past. There is little memory of what we are growing out of, even though a few like me seem to be compelled to inform the newcomers, who wait for us to finish without really listening. I was able to sell 1,000 copies of Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree between 2001 and 2003, but the new edition is getting dusty on the shelves of the two bookstores in town, and few if any of the newcomers are awed by the heritage of Fairhope. All they want to do is plan, manage and control its growth.

I wonder if it is possible to plan, manage or control growth of a community. There is a committee of beautiful young mothers who are waging a campaign to retain the K-1 Center, an elementary school complex that sits right in the heart of the city, using some of the buildings that used to be Fairhope High School. Their hearts are in the right place, surely, as they print out their placards and posters and petition for money to improve the inadequate facilities of the little school. Many of them say having that school in that place is what makes Fairhope special to them; the city will not be the same if the school is moved. They liken their movement to the one to stop Wal-Mart, and I'm sorry to tell them that I see it the same way myself. Well-intentioned, but wrong-headed and doomed.

The block on which the K-1 Center stands is prime real estate. The nursing home on the south end is to be razed, and the school building, which went up in the 1920's, is worn out. It's a pleasant place, nostalgic even, but, like so much in Fairhope, its time is past and there is money to be made by destroying it. If parents are truly seeking a link to the past at a school which is part of Fairhope's reformist heritage, why are they not investing some energy in the preservation of the Marietta Johnson School, one of the most valuable and unique institutions Fairhope has ever been a part of -- and one which would benefit their children and all of mankind? The public schools of Alabama are part of a corrupt system, and no matter how dedicated and talented any particular teacher is, there is nothing to be gained by supporting that system.

The 15 million dollar performing arts center that was to be placed out on the highway next to the new high school has changed its mind, since funding was not forthcoming from the school board. The project has been scaled back and the new theater will now be built on the campus of Faulkner State Community College, according to local newspaper reports. This will put it closer to the center of the activity of the new Fairhope, with the new 39,000-square-foot library just across the street, a new Hampton Inn just a few blocks away, and a parking deck that will house some 200 vehicles."The synergy with all of that going on has the potential to be extraordinary," said Rebecca Byrne, chairwoman of the Fairhope Center for the Arts, a group behind the fund-raising for the performance center.

Extraordinary indeed. Yesterday's Baldwin County edition of the Mobile Press-Register states that this will create a downtown hub for tourists. Proclaiming that all the projects fall in line with Fairhope's "comprehensive plan," proponents of the plan to have the theater on the campus of Faulkner will strengthen downtown. Faulkner, a two-year college that specializes in technical and vocational training, has no theater or arts programs in its Fairhope curriculum, yet its President, based in Bay Minette, is quoted as saying the new facility will be used for community concerts and programs as well as college drama productions and convocations, and will be available for the high school to use.

We're talking about a 1,000-seat house. Fairhope is full of musicians -- little trios, quartets, and community bands -- and they play mostly for free, at seemingly spontaneous events that spring up all during the year. Fairhope High School has a band and a jazz band, and there is a Baldwin Pops orchestra. Of them all, the only one I can imagine using the space would be an occasional turn by the Pops. As for theater, Fairhope High School has never had a drama department, but there is a drama club there which might grow if it had a 250-seat theater on or near its campus.

What a 1,000-seat-auditorium would get used for would be bus-and-truck companies of Broadway shows like Rent or Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk, or Jeff Foxworthy and the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. We might be able to prevail on the Alabama Shakespeare Festival to bring in a show when they're touring, and there might indeed be a concert series. But this size auditorium will be difficult to finance -- think of the utility and maintenance bills -- and almost impossible for local groups ever to use.

I am not capable of thinking long-term here. I'm too old, I guess. It seems more logical to me to build a facility based on the community's needs and wishes, rather than something that the planners saw somewhere else and decided to replicate in Fairhope. The boondoggle of the oversized library is a good example. It might have started when a few earnest people decided it would be better to have a bigger library -- but now it is so big that the City had to bale out the project by planning to move city offices to the upper floor "for a few years" in order to use some of the excess space and help underwrite the costs.

Everyone says you can't stop growth, but you can manage it. I'd just love to see an example of that happening. And I'd like to see it here.

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