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  • On the Verge of Greatness

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    Bringing Up the ‘Beloved Community’

    November/December 2015
    By David Zaslawsky  
    Photography by Robert Fouts

    When Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange said that the city is on the verge of greatness, although he just as quickly acknowledges that he is unsure how to define it, he does have a good idea of what it looks like.It resembles his Vaughn Meadows neighborhood, where the mayor sees black children in their front yards; white children in their front yards; and Asian children in their front yards.

    “That’s where I want us to really be,” Strange said. “We’ve got a city that is not divided, but we can do more uniting with our citizens. When we can be as proud of what’s on the west side and the north side as we are with the east side then I believe we will have approached (greatness). Whether we ever get there or not I do not know. I don’t know if you get there in four years, but what you can get to are safe neighborhoods; people black and white, Asian all playing together; working together; socializing together. When that happens, then we will have made giant strides.”

    He quoted Martin Luther King Jr. about the “beloved community.” For Strange, the beloved community “is when we all – all of us – care about our kids; want the best for our kids; and work together to achieve that particular goal. And that we do have good-paying jobs for black; for white; and for Asian; and whomever else that wants to come here and not just be in a certain sector of town and say, ‘That’s the rich side of town vs. some other side of town.’

    “You are always going to have different parts of our community that are going to have more success and easier success than others. I want to develop retail. I want to develop housing and good neighborhoods and good parks all over the city.”

    This is the mayor’s third and final term after winning re-election in August. He hopes that in four years, Dexter Avenue “will be a model for what downtown redevelopment can achieve when you put private and public sectors together and get creative and think outside the box. And go find individuals that can, in fact, be part of the development and not just let those individuals come to you. Be proactive and go find them, which we’ve done.”

    He thinks that the east corridor will resemble “another Prattville” with 25,000 new households. “We won’t get there in the next four years, but we’ll be well on our way with big subdivision tracts.” He said there are already signs of that with churches, apartments and houses.Four years from now, the mayor thinks there will be continued growth in the downtown residential sector. “I think you will see West Montgomery moving in a direction that we all can be proud of whether it be from the retail standpoint; a residential standpoint; commercial standpoint,” he said. “We will not get there, but we will be moving in a direction that we’ve not moved in 30 years in West Montgomery.”

    There will be timely infrastructure investments instead of having to “wait three, four or five years past the useful life of a road,” Strange said.

    Remember his Vaughn Meadows neighborhood. “I would hope that we see what we talked about in the beginning – all of us coming together and I hate to use the word One Montgomery, but we would be a Montgomery that really is colorblind.”

    The final-term agenda and goals are, as you’d expect, ambitious and wide ranging – everything from street paving to education. The street paving as well as other infrastructure investments are what Strange calls the “blocking and tackling so that we can in fact have the opportunities for these families to make a better living.”

    Street paving is a big deal. The city has paved about 130 miles of roads and has another 170 miles to go, including such key connector roads as Fairview, Carter Hill, Narrow Lane and Wares Ferry. New paving helps spur other development, Strange said.

    He talked about infrastructure investment in West Montgomery – sidewalks, repaving and relocating utilities to “prime the pump” for private developers to investment their money.

    He did say that the West Fairview Avenue streetscape will be completed during his final term in office.

    The mayor was adamant about the city holding the Montgomery County Board of Education accountable. In a word, “proactive.” He said that he was told there was $350,000 available for pre-K programs but that no one applied for the money. “If they (school district officials) need help writing grants we’re going to help them write the grants or we’re going to ask them, why did we leave $350,000 on the table because we didn’t ask for something?”

    The city was also proactive with hiring longtime educator Camille Finley on a contract basis to develop ideas to improve education. That is the genesis for the community school concept and the city helped acquire $500,000 in funding from the state Legislature for the pilot program.

    “We are going to say, ‘Why aren’t we getting it done? What do we have to do next? What’s your next move?’ ”

    Strange was quick to say that the city is “not trying to take over the schools. If everybody agrees and we’ve got the game plan and we’ve got the money, why aren’t we getting (it done)?”

    The city has always been an advocate for education, but heard that “it was your job; not your responsibility and you have no authority,” Strange said. “We may not have any authority, but the citizens hold us responsible. They also hold the school board responsible, but at the end of the day they know that elected officials are responsible for anything that happens in that governmental area.”



    Game-Changing Projects Motivate Mayor

    November/December 2015
    By David Zaslawsky

    One of the key reasons that Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange ran for re-election was seeing key projects completed.

    Just as important was “not letting people down” who believed in what the mayor’s administration was doing, and those who gave up careers to work at City Hall.

    He knows that there will be many new projects that won’t be completed during his final four-year-term, but there are key projects that Strange called “game-changers” that will be completed under his watch.

    One of those projects is One Center – the old Montgomery Mall, where two new high schools will be located: Loveless Academic Magnet Program High (LAMP) and the Montgomery Preparatory Academy for Career Technologies (MPACT). Those schools are scheduled to open in fall 2016.

    A new Municipal Court is being built on Madison Avenue and could be completed in about one year.

    Another 17 homes are being built at Lanier Place in West Montgomery, and that will be a significant accomplishment considering the project is only the second residential development west of Court Street in the last 30 years, according to Strange. There was a new multifamily project by the Cleveland Avenue YMCA about three years ago. “We’ve been working on Lanier Place for the 17 new houses for three years now,” Strange said.

    He could have made the announcement before the mayoral election, but held off because the importance of the project “would have been lost in the rhetoric of the politics, so you wait until after the election. It’s about the betterment of that particular neighborhood.”

    All the development on Dexter Avenue is another game-changer, Strange said, but one of the most important game-changers is what Strange called a “paradigm shift”, and that’s cyber. “Because of our uniqueness with the military and Gunter (Annex), the cyber school of the Air Force is going to be at Maxwell – we have to take advantage of that,” he said.

    “We have to leverage that and make our city a cyber city; make our city a gig city, where you can connect to any device anywhere in the world in record time. That in and of itself is a major, major push of this administration. We’ve been working on it for a while.”

    “These projects that we’ve been working on, we have been working on them for four or five years,” he said. “At the end of the day, I know there will be projects that we would have just started, but my expectation is there will be projects that we have finished.”

    He said that he ran for a third term “because of all the people that really believed in us – believed in the vision of what we could do in downtown Montgomery. Or believed in what we could do with the old Montgomery Mall or trying to make a great neighborhood out east with the investment we made in Park Crossing (High School) and to establish the infrastructure as far as the transportation side of the equation.”

    laT-?ZStrange said that he could not walk away and let those people down, or many who work at City Hall, including members of his Cabinet. “They bought into something and we’ve been working together for a couple of years.”