It is easy to see the appeal of the Guntersville area. All one has to do is look around. Nestled on the edge of a picturesque 69,000-acre lake with lush tree-lined mountains in nearly every direction, Guntersville is a place that puts the “great” in the great outdoors, which is why it is one of the top tourist draws in Alabama.
Since graduating from the Alabama Communities of Excellence (ACE) pilot program in 2006, Guntersville officials have increased efforts to make the cityscape as attractive as the surrounding landscape. As local merchant Phillip Mosley said, “We wanted to spruce things up, because company is coming.”
So, under the guidance of ACE, the city embarked on a $5 million downtown enhancement project. It was the first of many steps that Guntersville has taken to strengthen its long-term economic prospects through leadership development and strategic planning, using lessons learned from the ACE program.
“ACE has been great for us because it’s provided a lot of resources we wouldn’t have otherwise had,” said Guntersville Mayor Leigh Dollar, who was first elected to the position in 2012. “The training opportunities and networking have been invaluable. Guntersville has always been very good with partnerships, but ACE has shown us other ways to partner with people. That’s so important, because it takes everybody working together to make great things happen.”
This spirit of cooperation began shortly after Guntersville entered the ACE program. The city’s 2004 mayoral election was decided by a single vote, and it took more than a year before all the challenges were sorted out and new mayor Bob Hembree officially took office in December 2005. A month later the city held a meeting to discuss its long-term strategic plan, with 75 residents participating. The meeting was entitled, “Guntersville: United for the Future.”
“Our city was very divided after that election,” Guntersville ACE coordinator Milla Sachs said. “I truly believe that ACE was the catalyst for the beginning of the healing that would unite our city and help us navigate into the future and get to where we are today. Through our participation in ACE we developed a team approach where we could focus on building a strong and prosperous community.”
A vibrant place
The city invested $105,000 into a master plan for the downtown enhancement project, then began looking into state and federal grant opportunities. Instead of sitting back and waiting for the funding, city officials were proactive and begin doing what they could to enhance downtown. Under the direction of horticulturist Wendy Walker, the city purchased several large planting pots, filled them with decorative floral arrangements and placed them along sidewalks.
“They’re almost mini-gardens,” Walker said. “It wasn’t that costly, and it was something we could do right away. If you don’t at least start with something, you’re never going to have anything.”
Eventually, with the help of a $744,000 transportation enhancement grant from the Alabama Department of Transportation, as well as federal appropriations, Guntersville was able to transform its downtown with new sidewalks, decorative lighting, benches, trash cans, and gutter and drainage improvements.
In addition, the city cleaned up a blighted vacant lot in the heart of downtown and turned it into Errol Allan Park. Numerous events are held on the park stage each year, including more than a dozen concerts organized by the Mountain Valley Arts Council with funding from the Alabama State Council on the Arts.
All these changes have caught the attention of businesses. Several have added their own storefront improvements, and many of the shops and restaurants extend their hours on nights when events are taking place at Errol Allan Park.
Downtown as a whole is livelier than it used to be, with new businesses moving into empty spaces. For example, a lot that had been occupied by a used-car dealership is now home to Bakers on Main, which has 25 retail shops along with a café and event space.
“The renovation has done so much for Guntersville,” said Mosley, who six years ago moved his Mosley Monogram business from the retail strip-mall corridor on the outskirts of the city. “All the poles and wires are gone; the shops have cleaned up. Downtown is now a vibrant place to be. That’s the reason we’re in this building, because the city was doing all that work. And now our business is way up.”
City of 21 parks
Guntersville’s attention to aesthetic details extends beyond downtown. There are 21 parks in the city, including 175 acres along the city’s 6-mile lake shoreline, and Dollar said maintaining and improving those areas is a point of emphasis.
The city is extending by 1 mile the 3½-mile trail that runs along the edge of the lake, with the ultimate goal of connecting the entire peninsula. That is in addition to the more than 36 miles of hiking trails at Lake Guntersville State Park.
“We really concentrate on our park-and-rec system,” Dollar said. “Having the connectivity of the trails is so important, because it allows people to get around and enjoy our natural beauty. And having Guntersville State Park is an incredible asset. There’s no question that the lake and all our outdoor activities are the economic engine for the city.”
Much of the park improvement is accomplished with financial assistance from nonprofit organizations. That is why you can go from Civitan Park to Kiwanis Pier to the Rotary Club Cabin. Civitan Park, in particular, has seen major improvements with the construction of Every Child’s Playground, which is handicapped-accessible. More additions are planned, including a splash pad, shaded seating and a walkway along the lakeshore.
“We consider recreation to be one of our main industries in Guntersville, so we’re constantly trying to enhance our areas,” Parks and Recreation Director Tank Conerly said. “The more people you have coming here to fish or play or just look at the scenery, that’s more people who stay in our hotels and eat in the restaurants and buy gas. That brings money back to the city that we can use to continue to build and enhance.”
Art and nature
Improvements large and small are evident throughout Guntersville. On the large side, Federal Aviation Administration grants enabled a $20 million extension of the airport runway from 3,000 feet to 5,000 feet, allowing small jets to take off and land. The airport is near one of the city’s three industrial parks, which Dollar said has been attracting new businesses since the expansion.
A new middle school was built in 2006, and now the city is planning a new high school. In 2007, the National Guard armory from the 1930s was renovated and became home for Guntersville Museum, which has hosted exhibits from the Smithsonian, U.S. Space & Rocket Center and Mid-America Arts Alliance.
Arts in general are extremely popular in Guntersville, from the Whole Backstage community theater to the annual Art on the Lake show that brings in hundreds of artists, with proceeds going to scholarships for local students.
“One of the advantages we have as a small town is it’s very easy for people here to get involved, whether it’s theater, music or visual arts,” said Becky Scheinert of the Mountain Valley Arts Council. “It’s easier in a large city to just sit back and be a spectator. Here, it’s much more of an active involvement.”
In 2018, for the first time since the 1980s, boat racing will be held at Lake Guntersville with a three-day event that Marshall County Convention & Visitors Bureau President Katy Norton said is expected to attract about 60,000 spectators.
“We think it will have a huge economic impact on our community,” Norton said. “Some of the fishing tournaments here have a $500,000 economic impact over three days. We’re always looking for new ways to utilize our natural resources, with events or activities surrounding the water, that bring people here.”
When those visitors arrive, they will discover something that Mosley said they may not expect from Guntersville. “People just don’t know what they can find right here in this little gem of a town,” he said with a smile.
But it’s certainly becoming easier to see what the city of Guntersville has to offer. In fact, all you have to do is look around.