Publisher column: Keys to the City

Fort Payne gets a new lease on the future with its Main Street Alabama designation.

It seems Fort Payne, Ala., has a knack for reinventing itself. Long before its official incorporation in 1889, it was home to a sprawling Cherokee village called Willstown. It served as an important settlement as Cherokees fought in the courts to hold onto their lands. When area Cherokees were rounded up in 1838 prior to the infamous Trail of Tears, the encampment built here spawned a new name that has stuck for almost two centuries.

20313559404_c4b874a5de_zFort Payne remained a rural frontier community until the 1880s, when wealthy New Englanders speculated in the area’s ore and coal deposits they thought would bring them increased riches. Quickly Fort Payne became a boom town with fancy hotels, parks, neighborhoods and an infrastructure that included level streets, electric lights and running water. It looked like the model Southern city of the future.

But by the early 1890s, when the boom busted due to subpar iron and coal, Fort Payne stepped back into the dark. In the early 20th century, the small town started down a road toward renewed prosperity with the opening of hosiery mills throughout the city. Fort Payne became so well known for producing quality socks for a large percentage of the U.S. population that city officials proudly billed it as the Sock Capital of the World. That was until reduced tariffs on textile products coming into the United States caused most of the mills to close.

While city leaders have worked hard to recruit industries that have helped diversify Fort Payne’s economy, the past decade has been a struggle. Fortunately, Fort Payne’s location among a plethora of natural attractions such as Little River Canyon National Preserve and DeSoto State Park and the area’s penchant for attracting artists, along with the city’s Southern charm and hospitality, have made tourism one of the leading drivers of the economy. But a return to former glory remains a struggle.

In late spring, Fort Payne received news it was one of three Alabama towns (the others being Jasper and Elba) named a Main Street designated city.

Now, Fort Payne can not only draw upon the expertise and resources of Main Street Alabama (a nonprofit organization that helps communities improve downtowns and neighborhoods in order to increase economic development and create jobs), but is a part of the National Main Street Center, a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. On the national, state and local levels, Main Street has a long track record of positive results.

Main Street organizations that make up the national network have rehabbed more than 251,000 buildings, produced $61.7 billion in investment and created 528,557 jobs, according to the National Main Street Center.

Since Fort Payne was officially named a Main Street city, a board of directors has been formed and a Main Street Alabama resource team has visited the city to help residents create a vision for Fort Payne’s future. Main Street is not a quick fix. It takes hard work and cooperation to make the program a success. But as a board member and participant in the resource team’s “visioning sessions,” I could see the excitement building as residents, business owners and city leaders came together to share ideas of what Fort Payne can become. All agree growth shouldn’t and doesn’t have to compromise Fort Payne’s charm and heritage; instead, these will be the building blocks for charting a new course.

Being named a Main Street city gives Fort Payne the tools to reinvent itself once again.

The boom of the late 19th century may have been a short-lived venture, but following the bust two important elements remained – the historic downtown itself and the resilient spirit of citizens past and present.