Tempers flare at council work session

Fort Payne City Councilman Johnny Eberhart and Mayor Brian Baine listen as Marisa Foster makes a case against displacing the gymnasium which houses her business.

The Fort Payne City Council held a work session Wednesday to discuss plans recently outlined by the Alabama Department of Transportation for an emergency stop truck ramp that would require demolition of a historic local landmark and a handful of homes.

As currently planned, the ramp would cross into the right-of-way on one side of Alabama Highway 35, encroaching on houses and the old Recreation Center located at 650 Wallace Ave. NE, which the City of Fort Payne now leases to Foster’s Training Facility, owned by Marisa Foster. She and several of her supporters attended the work session and exchanged fiery words with Council members about the truck ramp and other matters.

Foster said she’s trying to get as many people as possible to provide written comments for the record and submit their comments postmarked no later than April 28 to Alabama Department of Transportation, North Region – Guntersville Area, Attn: Logan Jolley, P.O. Box 550, Guntersville, AL 35976. Comments can be emailed to stop-truck-ramp@dot.state.al.us and voicemail messages left at (256) 571-7230.

The ramp -- comparable to one in Guntersville at the bottom of Sand Mountain coming from Albertville on Highway 431 -- will use pea gravel to slow down a runaway truck that has lost its brakes or accelerated too fast to negotiate the sharp 90-degree turn onto 5th Street North at the area commonly referred to as “Joe’s Truck Stop” – a concrete and steel barrier installed in the 1950s to keep cars and trucks from crashing into nearby houses.

Foster said there are better solutions than the truck ramp and suggested the city, for example, possibly hire a officer to write tickets to any truckers who do not stop to check their brakes at the mandatory pull-off area atop Lookout Mountain. Installed in 2014, truckers are supposed to pull over and test their brakes so they do not start down the incline at full speed, but it is unmanned and they are on an honor system. She also suggested the speed limit be lowered to 15 mph.

Ultimately, the plan is to extend Wallace Avenue and remove Joe’s Truck Stop completely, but the city is merely at the stage of raising funds for a feasibility study, so that solution is still likely years away.

Fort Payne Mayor Brian Baine stressed that the planned ramp is a state project. Foster responded that the support of the city could help to stop the project.

Baine noted the positive impact of Foster’s Training Facility.

“There is no question of the good you’ve done. I’ve seen it,” Baine said, adding that he has asked local realtors about commercial buildings where Foster’s could relocate.

“The Foster family makes it what it is,” Foster said. She said the gym has about 150 members, including 20 athletes playing college sports and citizens who have lost a lot of weight.

“My Plan A is to save the gym. Plan B is to find another place. If I have to move, that’s what we’ll do. But I don’t know that members will be willing to drive 30- to 45-minutes to exercise at a gym outside of Fort Payne,” she said.

Council President Pro Tem Lynn Brewer led the meeting in the absence of Council President Walter Watson.

“None of us likes this truck ramp better than you do,” Brewer said, “But if we deny the state on this project and someone dies in a crash at Joe’s Truck Stop, we assume some liability.”

Foster said she doesn’t want anyone to die at Joe’s Truck Stop. They said the state highway department moves so slowly that the ramp’s construction might happen after her lease expires.

Angry comments were directed at Council members for failing to visit the gymnasium and not notifying them about a previous meeting where the gym was mentioned. They interpreted the comments as highly disrespectful of Foster’s. A local news station livestreamed the meeting on Facebook.

Foster’s coach Perry Earl also addressed the council, struggling to contain his anger over the video, saying, “Everybody knows what [the gym] looked like seven years ago. But we are getting slandered, saying the rent is too cheap. That shouldn’t be part of it.”

Foster’s supporter Tammy Lankford Ashley said, “All we are asking you people for is to show us a little respect. When I watched that video, ya’ll were so embarrassing and a total disaster to me and this town ya’ll are supposed to be representing. Ya’ll talked about Foster’s in a negative way on the video. Lynn, you said some things that were negative that you didn’t know the whole story. [Councilman] John Smith is the only one who has showed us any kind of help, been respectful, reached out to us. Somebody was sitting there making a paper airplane. It was all [expletive] and giggles. What are people seeing from this? Ya’ll are supposed to be leaders and helpers – not act like a bunch of children. Talk about somebody who you didn’t ask to come and who didn’t know about [the work session] and act the way ya’ll did on a video. It embarrassed me, and I’m going to show it to everybody I can.”

“We are getting off track, but your point is taken,” Brewer said.

At that work session, the Council talked about the city paying $12,500 for maintenance including mowing the grass and $2,600 to convert the gym’s lighting to LED. Repairs were also made to the ceiling and floor, they said, noting that the cost to taxpayers exceeded Foster’s monthly rent.

Foster said there were leaks in the ceiling when she moved into the building and the lighting had become a liability issue. She said she attempted to coordinate softball tournaments but the field conditions were not amenable to doing so and the COVID shutdown disrupted her operations. She also offered to mow her own lawn.

Foster mostly held her tongue during the meeting, saying she is solution-oriented. She was surprised when people told her she needed to watch the video. She said she feels that if someone’s name is brought up in a meeting, they should have an opportunity to respond.

“I’m blessed getting to do what I do every day,” Foster said. “There are so many unanswered questions.”

Baine was asked to follow up with ALDOT after the comment period ends on April 26.

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