If ever there were a poster child for the phrase “It takes a village,” it might just be the beautification of Fayette.
It’s a tale that includes the mayor (and previous mayor) of the west Alabama town and the beautification committee and garden club, too, of course. But it’s a story that also includes lifelong residents and newcomers, a couple on a mission and about 200 prisoners from the city jail.
Oh, and frogs, which we’ll get to later.
All of this is being done in an effort to spruce up Fayette, not only for its 4,500 residents, but also to attract new businesses to the community.
It all started back in the 1970s, when John and Doris Brasher, longtime owners of a convenience store on Highway 96, decided to move their popular home Christmas light display to Fayette Park.
“It’s gotten bigger and bigger ever since,” says John Brasher. “About 4,000 cars came through last year.”
But that was only the beginning. The Brashers fixed up a popular triangle in town, and many other projects followed. And all with an interesting workforce, turning to the local jail and its inmates.
“Most of them were in jail and on drugs, and we wanted to get them off of drugs,” John Brasher says.
And it’s worked. The Brashers estimate they’ve used about 200 women from the jail over the years, with about half of them getting off drugs and leading a cleaner life. Their efforts have earned them the National Garden Club Special Achievement Award of Merit. Their efforts have also changed lives.
“I couldn’t believe that they cared so much,” says Jennifer Chaney, who worked on the Brashers’ clean-up crew. “I’ve been clean four years now and going to school for human services. I’ve got a lot of things going for me, and it all started with somebody giving me a chance.”
Others, like Heather Glasgow and Courtney Whitehead, echo those sentiments, saying working with the Brashers taught them life skills and helped spruce up the community, too.
“I did some college classes and graduated from HVAC class, and it all started with them,” Whitehead says.
The beautification of Fayette started with the Brashers, too, to hear others tell it.
“It’s amazing what they’ve been able to do,” says Ron Davis. “They are the heart and soul of all of this.”
Davis got involved in Fayette’s resurgence in 2010, when then-Mayor Ray Nelson put together the Fayette Beautification Committee. The committee’s first big project was the community center, which was “run down, needed painting and needed roof work,” Nelson says.
Nelson turned to Davis, who was plant manager at ZF. Davis has gone on to become president of his own company and of the Alabama Automotive Manufacturing Association.
But he recalls those Fayette days vividly.
“There were pretty significant needs in Fayette around the community center,” recalls Davis, the first chairman of the beautification committee. “We decided to use some of the skill out of the automotive industry. The team came to Fayette and did the repairs. Repainted the tin roof, repainted the inside.”
That transformation was just the beginning of the work of the beautification committee. “They’ve done some amazing things,” Nelson says.
What followed were smaller projects — a sign in front of the community center, a fencing project at the elementary school — and much bigger ones.
“Right across from city hall, there were two burned-out buildings, the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen,” Nelson says. “We ended up putting gravel all over the foundation and brought in an old firetruck. It’s an art/flag park.”
Fayette Flag Park is now the focal point of the downtown area and part of what caught Kathy Bordelon’s eye a few years ago when she and her husband were looking to retire. They were looking toward Tennessee — until they drove through Fayette.
“We rode down Temple Avenue, both of us checking out the city,” she says. “As I drove down Temple Avenue, I said, ‘I’m not believing this.’ This little town is so beautiful. Who is doing all of this work? It’s gorgeous. And it’s so clean.”
So, the Bordelons moved to Fayette, and they brought the frogs with them.
Painting the frogs
Kathy Bordelon met Doris Brasher through her church and became involved in the garden club and beautification committee, which Bordelon now co-chairs with Davis. “We sit around the table and throw ideas around,” she says. “We all come up with ideas.”
And one idea that came from Bordelon was the frogs.
“Back in South Louisiana, the city I was in, we had big cement alligators that would be on display at different places in town,” she says. Fayette was already home to the Frog Level Festival each fall.
“We jumped on the idea of frogs,” Bordelon says. They worked with the local Sipsey Arts Alliance, finding artists to paint big fiberglass frogs. They’ve started with three, and two of them have been completed and were unveiled in September. One sits at the Fayette Depot and the other at the town’s civic center.
“We’ll continue doing this,” Bordelon says. “We’ve asked the community foundation to give us funds for two more frogs, and we’re hoping to spur business owners who might want their own frogs.”
That community foundation is one of the secrets to Fayette’s beautification success. The robust foundation gives about $700,000 to community projects, including those of the garden and beautification committees, Nelson says.
It makes for a great combination, Bordelon says.
“You need good people, and you need the funds, and we have both,” she says.
Continuing the work
Current Mayor Rod Northam says the work of the Brashers and the committees have changed the face of Fayette — including the installation of about a dozen murals in the downtown area — and created an inviting feeling for residents and businesses alike.
“No question about it, it’s one of the first impressions people have when they come through this city,” he says. “They see the work that has been done. We’re aligned in what we want to accomplish. What are things that will hopefully bring people to our city?”
The Brashers are still going strong.
“Every weekend we drive and we look at all these towns,” Doris Brasher says. “We look at what they have that Fayette doesn’t have that we can bring back to Fayette. When a business comes in and says what a pretty town you’ve got, we’re going to move a business in here because it’s such a beautiful town.”
Nelson says the beautification efforts have led to an automotive muffler plant locating in Fayette.
“It’s important that our community looks attractive,” he says. “We’ve done a lot, but we still need to do more.”
Alec Harvey is executive editor of Business Alabama and Art Meripol is a Birmingham-based freelance contributor.