If you type “death of small town America” into a search engine, you’ll get more than a half-million hits. You’ll find stories about the death of Rust Belt cities. Stories about the death of Southern mill towns. Stories about the death of farming communities in the West.
This is not one of those stories.
Opelika is a former mill town in Lee County, Alabama, not far from the Georgia line. Twenty years ago, it might have fit comfortably into the “death of the small town” cliché. Opelika’s downtown was all but boarded-up. The much hipper college town of Auburn was nearby and attracted any new families who moved to the region, and was the center of social and cultural excitement.
But Opelika was the hometown of Ashely Marsh, and when she and her husband John wanted to put down roots for themselves and their family, they returned to Opelika. As Ashely put it, “We bought a home in the only city we could afford.” It was not the town Ashely remembered from her childhood. “I remembered it as being exciting,” she said. “We would go shopping on Saturdays. It was New York City to me.”
It turns out that marriage was not what Ashely thought it would be, either. John Marsh, by his own admission, was a “jerk.” He says work became “his mistress.” Despite that, his business ended up more than $1-million in debt and their marriage was in shambles.
But it was at that low point in their lives and in their marriage that God made himself known in powerful ways to them. Out of that brokenness, John became a Christian. Things were so bad in his relationship with Ashely that when he told her, “Ash, I got saved,” she said, “I don’t believe you, because you are a liar.”
However, over time God restored their marriage. What God did in their lives and marriage caused them to wonder if he might have a similar plan for Opelika. “God is a great redeemer,” John said. “He mends broken things. He has written his redemptive work on our hearts.” So, he and Ashely decided to make themselves “the steward of 10 square blocks” in downtown Opelika.
The result of that intentional, focused effort over the past decade or more is now becoming the talk of Alabama and the nation. Restaurants have returned to the downtown area, including a brewery and boutique distillery. Families are restoring old homes. Retail is slowly returning.
Not all of this activity is the result of John and Ashely Marsh. Beginning in the late 1990s, the city began a modest streetscape project. Since 2004, under the leadership of Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller, other publicly funded infrastructure projects followed. But even Mayor Fuller gives the Marshes a lot of the credit for changing the “business atmosphere” of Opelika.
Today, John and Ashely’s development business has built or renovated more than 185 houses and other buildings. John told a local newspaper, “We’ve dedicated a good portion of the last 20 years to redeeming this small patch of ground. We believe there is something powerful about redeeming cities. When you save historic structures, it makes a generational difference.”
John and Ashely’s roots run deep in Opelika, and they are committed to what they are calling a “50-year plan” for the “redemptification” of their hometown. John says his work is an attempt to answer the question “how do we help our city flourish for the next 50 years?”
However, their success is attracting attention. In 2016 the Milken Institute named Opelika to its “Best Performing Small Cities” list. In 2015 “Forbes” called it the seventh best small city for jobs in the country. The trade magazine “Southern Business and Development” named it on of its “Ten Smoking-Hot Small Market Economies in the South.”
This kind of attention is also attracting imitators. John Marsh is starting to consult with city leaders in Stanford, Ky.; Winter Haven, Fla.; Albany, Ga.; and elsewhere. “Since we’ve been faithful in our little spot, God has allowed us to go into other cities. We have seven cities that have different patrons with portfolios of up to $100 million that we helped through our consulting company.”
John and Ashely Marsh have advice for others who want to be involved in restorative work in their own towns. Ashely says she believes a key is to focus on “beauty and hospitality.” She says these biblical values are a powerful force in a local community. John adds this: “Give. Pour yourself into a community. Be generous. You don’t want to be the Dead Sea, just taking it in and not giving it out.”
He concluded: “We invest in people, and places. And we see things with a redemptive mindset. That’s what we do.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: John and Ashely Marsh will tell their story at this year’s Wilberforce Weekend, sponsored by The Colson Center. To learn more and to register: www.wilberforceweekend.org