Q & A/Southern town hopeful despite losing landmarks
In January 1999, a natural gas explosion destroyed three buildings in the three-block downtown area of Bridgeport, Ala. Ten months later, the town’s Spanish-style railroad depot burned as it was undergoing restoration, and last December, an historic hotel burned. Although the charred buildings have been cleaned up, the fires have scarred the northeast Alabama town of 3,000. Mayor John Lewis, however, remains hopeful that the town will be able to recover from its losses.
Q: How did the town react to the fires and the explosion?
A: The explosion was very devastating because we had four fatalities. We’ve just had a lot of problems, but, I think we’re going to be able to do some things in Bridgeport to make changes and at the same time preserve our past.
Q: What things do you have planned to help the town recover from the fires?
A: Well, we are in the process of trying to revitalize our downtown area. We’re going to get people to sandblast the buildings, put windows back in some of the buildings, get some [retailers] to come in, maybe something like an antique store or even outlet stores — something that will draw people in to the downtown area.
Every summer, we have a weekend called Jubilee, but I think we may be in the process of moving that to the fall and turning it into an arts and crafts festival. [We could] invite people in from all over the United States to display their art and then advertise it and get people into the Bridgeport area for the weekend.
The railroad built a new bridge, and they donated the old bridge that spans the Tennessee River to the city. We’re in the process of making a walking route around historic Battery Hill and down to that bridge. We’re going to open up that bridge so people can walk across the river to the island that [runs] six miles up the Tennessee River. There are a lot of historic Indian mounds on the island. [The bridge] will eventually have lights on it and a fence around it so people can walk at night, and maybe it will have some park benches sitting on it.
Q: Are you looking for private developers to come in and work on those projects?
A: Yes, we’re looking for private investors to come into Bridgeport. We would love to have people come in and build homes. Every time someone builds new homes in Bridgeport, they seem to sell immediately before they even get the house completed.
Q: Why are they attracted to Bridgeport?
A: The climate here is very moderate, and I think a lot of people like to live here for that reason. Geographically, we’re in a great location for industry because they have several means of transportation in and out of Bridgeport. They can use the river, the rails or the roads. Bridgeport has one of the best water systems of any small town in Alabama. We have the natural resources. We have everything. The only problem is that it’s just untapped, and someone is just going to have to tap into a lot of these resources that we have and make them readily available to people. [That will] generate some income for us.
Q: With everything that’s happened, how does the town manage to keep a positive outlook?
A: Well, I’m very positive in my thinking, and I’m the chief officer of the city, so I guess, when your leaders are positive in their thinking, most other people are going to be positive, too. I think most people think we have to go on, and [everything’s] all behind us now. You have to try to address your problems and don’t worry about things. You just have to keep striving along.