Fresh from celebrating the county’s bicentennial last year, the Mobile County Commission has been busy with projects designed to improve quality of life for residents and visitors.
A two-mile kayak trail along Chickasabogue Creek. The trail, with signage and kiosks at either end, will become the newest addition to the Alabama Scenic River Trail. Design is finished, and the project should be complete by summer.
Wetlands rebuilding near Big Creek Lake. The commission agreed to spend a $1 million federal grant to rebuild what were once pristine wetlands that surround the county’s water source in Big Creek Lake. The project is expected to be finished by summer.
Semmes senior center. The commission opened a $1.2 million senior center in Semmes to offer a variety of social and health services to residents 62 and older. The county’s main senior center was named after Commissioner Connie Hudson, who was instrumental in senior center development.
Road improvements. Mobile County voters have approved the transportation “Pay-As-You-Go” program 13 times during its 30-plus years of existence. The program allows the county to build and maintain its roads without borrowed money and with no new taxes. It has been a model for other communities. The upcoming road program includes $41 million in new projects that include 62 miles of road improvements and two intersection improvements.
City of Mobile
The Downtown Mobile Alliance is working with Andres Duany, the urban planner who designed the Florida community Seaside, to draft a new city development code for downtown Mobile, says Carol Hunter, communications director. “Airbus will have a huge impact on us. Brookley Field is very close to downtown, so we want to be ready for that impact.”
The new code, called form-based code, should help sustain the city’s historic structures, she says. “We’ve lost about half of our historic structures, but we have a great street grid, great bones and enough historical buildings to create a unique area.”
Form-based code helps create mixed-use zoning that is better than simply assigning one use to a property, Hunter says. “This opens the door to more loft/retail; we have a lot of residential opportunities downtown, such as a warehouse district that is largely undeveloped.”
Mobile’s downtown is vibrant and a tourism attraction, and the city regularly has 20 to 30 new businesses opening there per year, she says. “We are looking to make more out of our waterfront. The new nautical museum is set to open in 2014, and we want to add amenities to more of the waterfront for more people to enjoy.”
The Retirement Systems of Alabama, which already owns and has renovated historic structures in Mobile, recently purchased the Van Antwerp building, a 10-story historic office building that will be renovated for office space, Hunter says. “It has been vacant and we are eager to see it come to life, ” she says.
Mayor Sam Jones anticipates a huge impact from Airbus. “With Airbus comes the suppliers, and some of them already have set up offices here, ” he says.
“Construction has started on the Airbus final assembly line facility, and it will create thousands of direct and indirect jobs. We expect a tremendous amount of development in the next few years, and downtown expects to benefit.”
Jones says the city has been in talks with three different cruise lines to move into Mobile’s Alabama Cruise Terminal, which has been vacant since Carnival decided to move its ships to New Orleans. Carnival is one, along with Norwegian and Royal Caribbean. “We are hopeful that the terminal will be in use again, ” he says. “We are making sure that we take full advantage of the opportunity of Airbus, and enhance quality of life here.”
Mobile’s Convention Center continues to host major events, and in September 2014 it will host the World Leisure Congress, that will showcase the city and surrounding areas to about 4, 500 people. Mobile will be the first U.S. city to host the convention. The group brings together academics, students, researchers, professionals, government officials and representatives from non-governmental organizations in the field of leisure, recreation, tourism and sports to discuss issues affecting the industry.
The convention center is listed among the top 25 Most Active Convention Centers in North America.
City of Prichard
Mayor Troy Ephriam is focused on a downtown redevelopment project that will give the area a facelift, as well as create more parking in the area. It’s a project funded by the Mobile Metropolitan Organization and federal funds that the state disperses. It will include new benches and a gazebo in the city park, along with new lighting, planters, trash cans and more. Bids should be let in 2014, he says. The city is bringing back its Juneteenth celebration as well, he says.
“We are taking a look at our ordinances and see what businesses are operating and presentable to code and encourage them to fix them up if need be, ” Ephriam says. “We also want to contact owners and look into fixing the façades of vacant buildings. I believe if we change the way we look, businesses will buy into that.”
Bordering Mobile on the north, Prichard stands to gain in residents and perhaps in suppliers to Airbus, Ephriam says. “We have incentives and land and we are competitive, ” he says. “We expect growth. It’s an exciting time for us. The Airbus announcement will help us market, and we can strengthen our tax base.”
Even so, the city is in the midst of financial reorganization, Ephriam says. The city is in bankruptcy that started with a 2009 filing. It will be a slow process, but he is hopeful; he has proposed several changes to cut the budget and increase revenues. “If we modify and change some things, we can manage and rebound from this, ” he says. “We have a lot of needs, infrastructure needs, and we just need to keep working on it.”
City of Saraland
Saraland, which has its own school system, has had a new high school and football stadium for about three years, just completed a new elementary school and refurbished its middle school, says Mayor Howard Rubenstein. “We are very proud of our success in our school system, and because of that, people want to live here, ” he says. “Our test scores are up.” The school system has 2, 500 students and growing.
Saraland, in north Mobile County, has experienced a lot of residential growth on its northwest side, with plans for 1, 000 more units, Rubenstein says. That is in part due to the school system and Airbus, he says.
The city has seen several new retail businesses open, and Mobile Infirmary Health System is building a multi-story medical office building in Saraland as part of a 10-year plan that may develop into a hospital, he says.
The city is working on plans to build a sportsplex, with baseball, soccer and softball fields, not only for its residents, but also to attract sports tourism, he says. And the city’s boat ramp facility, with an elevated walkway, will be getting nature trails added soon.
Town of Dauphin Island
Mayor Jeff Collier says the city is embarking on a “working waterfront” that would include developing a boardwalk on Aloe Bay and a small business incubator for people to open shops to cater to the area.
Dauphin Island also has its own character and appeal to those who love to visit, so any development needs to keep that purpose in mind, Collier says.
“We have to try to balance economic sustainability and the character and identity of Dauphin Island, ” he says. “People like it like as it is, a laid-back, family environment; and we also want to work on managed and controlled growth.”
The city is working on eco-tourism possibilities and is looking at changing some zoning to allow property owners to use their property in different ways to encourage growth.
The city is “always recovering” from hurricanes and, more recently, the Gulf oil spill. Collier, who is on a committee to determine use of the funds coming from that settlement, says he wants to develop plans that will benefit everyone in the city.
For more information, visit mcpss.com.
Text by Lori Chandler Pruitt