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PHENIX CITY, AL (WTVM) -
Go back 60 years and Phenix City was filled with gambling, prostitution, and murder. The bad reputation still lingers, but now, leaders in east Alabama are trying to transform what was once known as sin city - with tens of millions of dollars in economic development and cleanup.
There's been a movie made about it, called "The Phenix City Story," about how gamblers and organized crime were in control of corrupt Phenix City in the early 1950's.
Historic pictures and movie posters fill the Phenix City Room, created by Allen Woodall at his antique mall in Columbus. Woodall often crossed the river to gamble, 6 decades ago.
"[We] would head to Phenix City and hit the 5-cent slot machines," Woodall recalled.
"Night clubs and honky tonks were down under the hill," lifelong Phenix City resident Emory Carlisle said.
Carlisle, 87, remembers seeing prostitutes sitting in window after window. His city's bad reputation extended all over the nation, when he was a soldier.
"Some of the GIs I came into contact with said, 'Oh, you're from Phenix City.' They'd think I was part of that bunch, but I wasn't," Carlisle added.
In 1954, Albert Patterson was elected as Alabama's new attorney general and days later, he was murdered - where a marker now sits, on a hill across from the old Russell County Courthouse. Woodall says, that night, he was at the Bamboo Lounge in Phenix City.
"All of a sudden, someone yells, 'Hey there's been a murder in town, everybody get out of here!'" Woodall said.
Alabama's Governor then declared Marshall Law and federal troops helped clean up the town.
The cleanup continues today, as people still know Phenix City for its shady past. In fact, just a few years ago, Alabama's former Governor Bob Riley used the east Alabama city to make his point about the dangers of gambling, in his state-of-the-state address.
"How can we so soon forget the lessons that Phenix City taught us?" Gov. Riley asked, at the time.
Clubs and corruption all along the Phenix City side of the Chattahoochee River are now being replaced by an entertainment district in the making. The Phenix City amphitheater is already drawing music acts, and a mile down the road will be the "Brickyard" project.
Phenix City leaders tell us, the Brickyard will be 87 acres lining the river, where there are plans for hotels, condominiums, restaurants, and an entertainment district - creating 3,000 new jobs.
Still, some critics are skeptical.
"At the Brickyard, there's been some concerns it was going to be a casino or gambling establishment, but council just approved the rezoning. One of the stipulations in that rezone was that casino or gambling could never be at that place," city engineer for Phenix City, Angel Moore, said.
City manager Wallace Hunter added, "You have all kinds of vicious rumors started. That was something we've never taken part in or talked about....Once people see it, with the marina, and all the different things going there (at Brickyard), both sides of the river will complement one another."
In all, there will be $50 million in improvements to Phenix City, in 3 years time - the latest number from the city's finance director - $32 million in city funds, the rest from grants. Half of that money has already been spent, on projects like the popular splash pad at Idle Hour Park, which opened earlier this month.
City manager Wallace Hunter hopes to help turn the page. He says Phenix City has not just survived the recession, but thrived.
"Now, with the new buildings going up and removing some of the old structures and remarketing Phenix City is something we should've done a long time ago," Hunter said.
"From north, south, east and west, the city's got plenty of opportunity for retail space," Phenix City economic development specialist Shaun Culligan told us.
And on Retail Drive off Highway 431, leaders are turning dirt into development - about to fill 5 commercial lots with a possible auto parts store and more.
"Right there on the corner, there's possibly going to be a convenience store and McDonalds. Beside that, we've already got some plans for a Waffle House."
Phenix City also purchased the old Phenix Regional Hospital land, planning to transform that into the city's Municipal building soon.
Work is also being finished on the Riverwalk and the 14th street pedestrian bridge under construction. Next to that will be a future hotel, a 5-floor Courtyard Marriott. Guests will be overlooking the world class whitewater rafting course.
And next to the hotel will be Troy University's new downtown campus, a project on the fast track.
"Just as Columbus State did for Uptown Columbus, bringing traffic there, that's exactly what we're hoping for here," Culligan said.
Phenix City leaders point to the latest census and say their city has grown by about 10,000 new people recently, including military families with kids - another reason for more parks and recreation development.
"Our vision is to have a soccer complex that can be multi-functional, either youth football or soccer," Phenix City Parks and Rec director Tood Hughes said.
He's hoping to have it ready next summer - 30 acres that includes the already open 5th Street Youth Center. All parks in the city also got a facelift. And leaders hope they're changing the face of Phenix City as a whole, overcoming a bad reputation from 60 years ago.
"Even if old Phenix City came back, I think it would be great, not necessarily as a gambling town, but restore the old buildings and they've done a lot of that now," Woodall said.
The city manager added, "It's a great time to live in Phenix City."
There have already been hearings for public input for most of the new projects mentioned. In terms of paying for them, Mayor Sonny Coulter says the only way to do that is Phenix City's first tax increase in 15 years.