By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
A Gadsden landmark is entering a new phase in its monumental life.
Following several years of efforts to repurpose the structure commonly known as the Coca-Cola Building, the property supporting the nearly 100-year-old building located at 644 Walnut Street will soon serve the community in a new way. While current owner Alabama Teachers Credit Union purchased the building with the intent of development and preserving such a historical piece of Etowah County, the project proved too grand a task for one party alone, leaving Alabama Teachers’ management and Board of Directors with some decisions to make.
“We wanted to take this old building and make it useful and attractive,” said CEO Ron Summerall. “Our desire was to purchase the building and capitalize on its history and reputation, with a nominal investment. As you travel Walnut Street, it appears to be a fairly attractive building in need of a little work. But it’s when you get inside of the building that you see the need for repairs that would involve significant renovation costs.”
“You start to feel the pinch of the fact that it’s almost a 100-year-old building. For several years, it’s needed some things and the list has grown too large to justify the expense. It’s just a bigger project than we can do alone.”
Ultimately, Alabama Teachers was left with a final option and last resort – the building’s demolition, which will begin in April. Summerall emphasized that the credit union did not purchase the building to merely tear it down. He expressed his genuine displeasure with the situation that he had hoped would result in a different outcome. Yet, this finality arises as the conclusion to a series of diligent attempts to save the property.
Since its initial ownership, Alabama Teachers has met with representatives of numerous organizations to try to write the future of the building. The credit union consulted with the Gadsden-Etowah Chamber of Commerce, the City of Gadsden, DGI, JSU, East Alabama Regional Planning & Development Commission, and others including a group of investors and a development firm from Chattanooga specializing in capital investments and renovations.
Alabama Teachers sought input from local legislators, meeting with individuals like then state representative Craig Ford to explore potential alternatives. When COVID-19 resulted in worldwide lockdowns last year, that meant another year of deterioration for the building.
The credit union’s advocacy for the building emerged from its vision for the property’s future – a hope Alabama Teachers strove to transform into reality.
“It would’ve been something shared,” said Alabama Teachers employee and local small business owner Christi Robinson, who assisted with the project. “It would’ve been partially occupied by Alabama Teachers and the other part would’ve been something we could’ve shared with our community, and hopefully up-and-coming business owners. We were looking at coworking spaces and small business incubators. There are similar projects currently underway now that started after this one, and hopefully they can get those off the ground. We have gone down those same roads.”
“The Coca-Cola Building,” referring to its earlier days on Walnut Street, first served as Coca-Cola Bottling Company. Following the consolidation of Coca-Cola operations, Gregerson’s Foods housed its corporate offices inside the primary structure, which measures just over 20,000 square feet. Since Gregerson’s, the building’s ownership passed from hand to hand prior to Alabama Teachers’ purchase.
Although the building itself could not witness a revitalization, the foundation where it rests still coincides with Alabama Teachers’ positive vision for the community. Though green space will remain on the little over two acres, the possibilities of how the property could serve the residents of Gadsden and Etowah County remains, with Alabama Teachers welcoming the potential that abounds.
Whether that potential manifests in an extension of the credit union, a co-working space or something entirely new, only time will tell.
“We just want it to be known that we had a heart for the building and heart for preserving some of the historical aspects of it,” said Robinson.
“The credit union has experienced good growth,” said Summerall. “We’ve been very blessed and very fortunate. The Gadsden office houses the entire operations of this credit union, of which we have six branch offices. If we continue to grow at the pace we have over the last few years, we will potentially need to look at further expansion, but for the time being, the property will become a green space.”