Fort Payne seeks to solve long-standing challenges in 2020

The new elementary school in Fort Payne is one of the upcoming projects Mayor Larry Chesser is anticipating in the new year.

Fort Payne Mayor Larry Chesser previewed several of the projects the city is working on as the community starts 2020.

Two big challenges that have faced the city for decades are what to do about “Joe’s Truck Stop” – the sharp right turn on Alabama Highway 35 at the base of Lookout Mountain, where a number of gruesome truck accidents have occurred – and how to get emergency vehicles more quickly across to the east side of town since long trains often stop mid-day on the railroad tracks that dissect Fort Payne down the middle.

Surveying is being done on a proposed re-route of Highway 35 that would eliminate Joe’s Truck Stop while also providing for an overpass over the tracks. “The city’s portion of the cost is estimated at $10 million,” Chesser said.

Another troublesome spot in town is the bottleneck at the intersection of Highway 35 and Airport Road, with a solution to correct in the final engineering phase. “Work is expected to begin in early fall of 2020. Our cost is expected to be in the $200,000 range,” Chesser said.

Additionally, two sewer projects, serving the Terrapin Hills feeder and the south section of Airport Road, are in the works at a total cost of $18 million.

The city is also reapplying for grants to demolish the old Fort Payne hospital, which sits in a dilapidated state on Forest Avenue. Chesser said it should cost in excess of $1.1 million to remove the dangerous eyesore, where asbestos and mold were found. Petitions were collected in 2018, with plans to salvage a portion of it for a storm shelter and community center scrapped once the extent of the damage was realized.

“Grants [to fund the demolition] have been applied for the last two years but have been turned down. We are working on securing that grant again with renewed vigor,” the mayor said.

Progress is often measured by upgrades made to local industry and infrastructure, and Chesser said both should happen in 2020.

“Valley Joist is about complete with its new location construction and full production will start during January. YS, Inc has about finished with their location on Valley Head Road. It will be a chemical packaging business and will also have side railroad tracks for other companies as well,” Chesser said.

Work is progressing on the city’s new elementary school with a 2021 target date for opening and a cost in the $20 million range. “A new veterinarian’s surgical clinic is also being constructed in that area,” he said.

Construction of a soccer complex off Valley Head Road has started, but Chesser said the total cost and completion dates are yet to be determined. The Fort Payne City Council set a work session for January 14 to discuss final layouts for the athletic complex.

One of the most dramatic events of 2019 was the burning of the old public works building. Chesser said a new structure for the department is nearing completion at a cost of about $1 million, with insurance covering this expenditure.

“Our police department building [the old City Hall] is undergoing renovations, and the outside work is complete. The total cost will be in excess of $1 million,” Chesser said.

Chesser said eight new tennis courts are also under construction at Fort Payne High School, with the approximate cost of $400,000 being shared between the city and school system.

Shared costs are one way the city spreads resources more widely. Fort Payne has requested the Alabama Department of Transportation help with the costs involved in the city paving Gault Avenue going forward because the road is part of a federal highway. “We paved in excess of $500,000 on city streets this past year and plan on doing so next year,” Chesser said.

With these projects and others that will emerge in the months and years ahead, Fort Payne steps into a new year and a new decade preparing to meet long-standing challenges.

It’s also an election year, and Chesser encouraged everyone to get involved.

“Be informed, as to the stand of the candidates who’ll be running,” he said. “The General Election will be very important, especially the Senate race. The 2020 Census is also coming up, which could mean a lot to our state. If it isn’t accurate, it could mean a loss of a House Seat, as well as a tremendous loss of federal funds. I hate to see California pick up one of our seats.”

Chesser said he has no plans to seek re-election as mayor and feels there should be several qualified candidates. “The [city] council addressed the pay of the mayor and council for next term to make the jobs more attractive. I feel that the pay is still low compared to other cities, and people are reluctant to leave good paying jobs to go into uncertain pubic service.”

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