Today, thanks to those who chose to look beyond its polluted shores, Five Mile Creek has a bright new future as a community asset. The stream is helping to bring economic revitalization and hope to the communities along its banks.
Years ago, Five Mile Creek’s image was dismal. The Five Mile Creek watershed in Jefferson County has been impacted both environmentally and socio-economically by heavy manufacturing and the development and subsequent decline of the coal mining and coke-processing industries of the early 20th century. The stream was known to be one of the state’s most polluted with an unfortunate nickname of “Creosote Creek” due to its former chemical odor and slick sheen on the water’s surface.
The remarkable story of the Five Mile Creek Partnership began when the City of Tarrant’s Fire Chief William “Billy” Hewitt began looking to convert a dilapidated and flood ravaged mobile home park into a new city park. During this same time, Wendy Jackson of the Freshwater Land Trust was looking to acquire land along the stream as part of the Jefferson County Greenways Program. A chance meeting between these two eventually lead to the establishment of the Five Mile Creek Greenways Partnership.
In 2002, the cities of Birmingham, Center Point, Tarrant, Fultondale, Brookside and Graysville signed an intergovernmental agreement that pledged cooperation to develop a series of parks and greenways along Five Mile Creek. In addition to the communities, Cawaco Resource Conservation and Development Council, the Jefferson County Commission, the Freshwater Land Trust, and the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham signed the agreement. Also pledging support were the region’s two members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Republican Spencer Bachus and Democrat Artur Davis, along with the state’s two U.S. senators, Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions. The Five Mile Creek Partnership was thus created with the goals of improving Five Mile Creek’s water quality and to provide recreational opportunities.
Since the intergovernmental agreement was signed, more than $4.2 million has been secured through county, state and federal sources to begin the transformation of Five Mile Creek from a polluted, flood-prone eyesore into an environmental and recreational haven – one that could eventually become a major tourist draw for the region.
The partners shared a vision of a network of trails, greenways and parks along the entire 28-mile stretch of Five Mile Creek. Creekside buffers will help improve water quality while stimulating economic revitalization and growth for the communities along the Creek. This vision was hailed as innovative, and the Partnership’s long-term goals were thought by some to be overly ambitious. But these hardworking partners have proved that sometimes the greatest catalyst to positive change is simply saying the words “we can” when others say “we can’t.” On November 17, 2002, The Birmingham News praised the partnership in an editorial that read,”…these are not towns with deep pockets in search of a project to eat up the budget surplus. They are small towns whose leaders simply want to build a legacy for future generations.”
Today, with no dedicated funding source, the Five Mile Creek Partnership has worked to create a greenway plan that includes a network of parks and greenways in each of the towns along its shores. Other Partnership accomplishments include:
- The acquisition of 588 acres of land in the upper watershed by the Freshwater Land Trust. Additional acquisitions in Jefferson County, Brookside and Center Point are being finalized
- $1,250,000 in transportation funding awarded to develop Tarrant’s park and greenways system
- A $200,000 Brownfield Assessment Grant awarded to the Freshwater Land Trust to assess brownfields within the watershed for redevelopment as greenways and economic redevelopment.
- Property assessed by the Brownfield Grant is given a clean bill of health and is proposed as a donation to the City of Fultondale. The City of Fultondale is planning for creation of a historic park along the creek that will preserve turn of the century beehive coke ovens
- The adoption of the Partnership by the Magic City Chapter of the Alabama Power Service Organization (APSO). APSO has helped conduct three clean-up events (and a third event in April) and provides volunteers to support work within the greenways. The Brookside event in 2004 brought 200 volunteers who collected over 14 tons of debris from the stream and constructed two canoe launches. The second event in 2005 attracted over 200 volunteers to the City of Tarrant for a “Park-Raising.” The volunteers built the city’s park in one day at the former site of a repeatedly flooded mobile home park. These events have received national attention, including a photograph and article in USA Today.
- In partnership with APSO, educational materials about Five Mile Creek have been developed and are being distributed to schools within the watershed.
- Charrettes conducted by Brookside and Tarrant have planned the redesign of their downtown areas.
- The production of a quarterly newsletter that features current information and activities on the Five Mile Creek Partnership.
- The City of Tarrant acquired the former Birmingham Water Works aquaduct which will allow the city to connect their schools, senior center, playground, athletic fields, and library via a greenway that traverses the city.
- Jefferson County begins work to acquire an abandoned railroad right of way from CSX Railroad that runs from Fultondale past Graysville and includes the largest wooden railroad trestle in the eastern United States. Rails to trails projects are planned that will bring connectivity to the “string of pearls” along Five Mile Creek.
- U.S. Geological Survey conducts water quality monitoring along the stream which indicates the work of Partnership is improving the stream’s health.
These successes have largely been achieved on shoestring budgets and via in-kind donations and by leveraging every penny possible through grants and innovative partnerships. Today, the Partnership is being hailed as a national model for other watersheds.