Progress Edition: City of Gadsden growing, new mayor sees development


Messenger file photo

Development and improvements are happening all over Gadsden, but there is renewed focus on the city’s two most distinctive natural resources: Noccalula Falls and the Coosa riverfront.

For more than a decade, the City of Gadsden has developed the east side of the river, devoting funding to a number of projects that feature one of the premier event sites in northeast Alabama in The Venue at Coosa Landing, the Coosa Landing boat docks, a road connecting those two areas, riverfront trails and boardwalks and a Buffalo Wild Wings.

In cooperation with Gadsden State Community College, the city is continuing to develop the Gadsden Sports Park, an extensive recreation complex that includes multipurpose athletic fields used for soccer, renovated baseball and softball fields and a Miracle Field for those with special needs.

Since Mayor Craig Ford took office in November, however, the focus has expanded to the other side of the Coosa.

“We’re somewhat landlocked on the East Gadsden side of the riverfront,” Ford said. “To develop the riverfront, we’ve got to come over to the downtown side, and we have big goals and a vision to make this happen.”

Gadsden has a large area of land that can be redeveloped, ranging from the former McCartney Construction site on Albert Rains Boulevard on the north end to the land behind Arby’s on Rainbow Drive at the south end.

To develop its riverfront, the city has chosen to work with Orchestra Partners, a Birmingham-based group that has planned and led revitalization projects in downtown Birmingham and throughout Alabama.

Mayor Ford’s vision for redeveloping the riverfront along this corridor involves a bold vision to reroute the current U.S. Hwy. 411 off of the riverfront so that area can be utilized for commercial, recreational and economic development. It is the same thing Chattanooga did decades ago, a project that helped spur that city into a growing local economy and a regional industrial and tourism hub for the South.

The development of the Gadsden riverfront is part of a citywide master plan being produced by the firm of Goodwyn Mills Cawood, which will lay out a path and vision for the future development of the city.

Because the last plan for the city was completed in the mid-1970s, creating an overall master plan has been a priority for Mayor Ford.

“Having Orchestra and Goodwyn Mills Cawood on board at the same time means that they’ll be able to coordinate and work closely together, which is great,” said Ford.

Work is also being done to prepare for the future of the Noccalula Falls area and the roads leading to it.

In 2019, a team of planners, architects and landscape architects from the nonprofit group DesignAlabama spent time meeting with the community and developing a plan for the Noccalula Corridor.

Though that momentum was put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Ford’s administration has been working with DesignAlabama to use that plan as the basis for new developments.

“There are a lot of possibilities for things we can do that wouldn’t interfere with the aesthetics of the area and that would fit right in with the neighborhood,” Ford said.

Christmas at the Falls provides around $1 million annual revenue that is reinvested into the Falls. Ford pointed out that by taking out a bond or a loan, millions of dollars can be used to give the area a “facelift.”

Travelers from around the country stop by the Noccalula Falls Park Campground, and the plan is to spend $2 million to $3 million dollars on drainage improvements. Other improvements for updating the campground include more log cabin rentals, yurts, accommodations for campers without RVs and new signage.

One of Gadsden’s fire stations is adjacent to the park and building a new station would not only offer a much-needed upgrade to a city facility but also allow for a design that fits into the overall look of the area.

Another goal is to improve the visibility of the Falls area for travelers on the interstate. Mayor Ford has been working to get better lighting and signage along Interstate 59 to direct visitors from the exit to Noccalula Falls Park.

Though the city’s top attractions are the most visible parts of the overall process, plans are being made for each area of Gadsden.

“We’ve got kind of a blank slate right now, and this is our opportunity to address what we want and need in our city,” Ford said. “This is our chance to put Gadsden on a positive course for decades to come, and we’re going to make the most of it.”

Over the next year, the City of Gadsden will engage citizens in each neighborhood to help design and evaluate the future of all aspects of Gadsden. The comprehensive planning process will create a roadmap for redeveloping Gadsden for decades to come.

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