As Baldwin County continues to grow in population and attract ever-more visitors, local communities are experiencing both benefits and challenges, according to the leaders of three cities in the south part of the county.
A GOOD PROBLEM TO HAVE
"Growth is a good problem to have," said Daphne Mayor Dane Haygood, speaking at a recent "Bagels and Briefs" event sponsored by the Baldwin County Association of Realtors’ (BCAR) Legislative and Political Affairs Committee. "I’d much rather have the pressures of dealing with growth than dealing with issues related to dwindling population, no jobs and few revenue sources for our citizens." However, he pointed out that many people don’t like change and growth creates certain challenges, sometimes pitting preexisting interests against new developments. One of the biggest concerns relates to infrastructure and the impact that new developments, including those located just outside of the city’s boundaries, will have on the community’s infrastructure, public services and sports facilities.
"Fortunately, Daphne is blessed to have great utilities," Haygood said, "but storm water is our largest issue and growth is advancing the amount of runoff in some areas. So, one challenge is to make sure we address this in order to protect our water quality and quality of life." He added that runoff problems have gone unchecked in some areas for 20 to 30 years and are now costly to address. "We are working on this issue, on an inter-governmental basis, with the help of some funding from the BP oil spill," he said. ! Among the activities underway in Daphne to attract and retain home buyers, Haygood cited enhancements to the city’s park and recreation facilities, which in are in the works. These include new baseball and softball fields, biking and pedestrian trails, playgrounds and a tennis center. Some of the recreational development is being done in combination with transportation improvements, which should help alleviate traffic backups near the city schools, Haygood said.
IMPLEMENTING A VISIONARY PLAN
The economy of Gulf Shores has been steadily improving since the 2011 settlement with BP following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, according to Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft. Referring to the city’s "Vision 2025 For Sustainability" plan, which was announced in June 2014, he discussed the progress on the five critical actions identified in the report. Providing direct access to quality health care is the top action element of the visionary plan. With six million people coming to Baldwin County beaches each year and a large retiree base, getting to the nearest hospital, the South Baldwin Regional Medical Center in Foley, can take up to an hour, especially during times of heavy traffic, Craft said. To help address this issue, urgent care facilities have been established in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. Additionally, he said that the city is working to develop a medical facility closer to the beach communities, which will likely be located along the Baldwin Beach Express. "A better medical facility will help grow the retiree community in our area," he pointed out, adding that it also affects the ability to attract and retain families and businesses.
Another action is to develop a medical educational facility, including a veterinary medicine training center, which is envisioned for a 225-acre parcel along the Baldwin Beach Express near County Road 8, Craft said. He added that the project would be done in cooperation with Auburn University and Faulkner University and said there are hopes this site will eventually include a new high school. Other proposed actions include improvements at Gulf State Park, including the new lodge and conference center currently under construction, and continued development of the Waterway District along the Intracoastal Canal. Additionally, proposed improvements to the Gulf Beach District, intended to make it more pedestrian-friendly by diverting traffic northward and attracting more dining, shopping and entertainment, are in progress, Craft said.
INCREASING THE RETAIL AND MANUFACTURING BASE
Pointing out that Foley is the one of the fastest-growing areas of the state, Foley Mayor John Koniar said that the community continues to place an emphasis on being a retail center and has recently attracted a number of large, national chains. But sports tourism has also become an important part of the city’s economy, especially with the $14 million investment into sports facilities, including a new soccer complex, archery facility and a planned wellness center, he added.
The biggest news is OWA, a theme-based retail, dining and entertainment development, which includes an amusement park that will open in June, Koniar said. The project also will include 44,000 square feet of retail, dining and entertainment space, some of it opening in 2018; a 14-acre lake surrounded! by extensive landscaping; a 150-room Marriott TownPlace Suites; and a 90,000-square-foot indoor events center. In other Foley activities mentioned by the mayor, UTC Aerospace Systems has broken ground on an expansion that will bring approximately 260 new jobs, which will make it the third- largest aerospace manufacturing facility in Alabama.
There’s also a new National Guard vehicle maintenance facility under construction on the east side of the Foley Beach Express Industrial Park and Koniar said the city hopes to coordinate with the Baldwin County Board of Education and the National Guard to create training opportunities for local high school students there. In addition to ongoing work to develop east-west access roads through the city, Koniar said that work continues to make the community, which has 30 miles of biking and hiking trails, even more pedestrian-friendly.
Daphne Mayor Dane Haygood
Foley Mayor John Koniar
Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft