From the northern mountains of Mentone to the southern beaches of Fairhope, five cities exemplify the best of Alabama life, offering lifestyle, livability, likeability and livelihood. So enjoy the view, sample the hospitality, and meet the people. Let’s explore the fab five.
If there is any doubt of Fairhope’s inclusion in Alabama’s great places to live and retire, two words seal the deal: Sunday afternoon.
On Sundays, Eastern Shore folks descend the town’s bluff for the glories of Mobile Bay. Beige beaches teem with aquatic creatures and happy humans. By land, joggers pace the bayside, bicyclists weave through traffic and pier fishermen cast lines. At sea, sailboats cut blue sky and silver water. Think of Fairhope as New England with a Southern accent. Think of it as home.
Fairhope started as a concept, not a town. In 1894, a group of defiant, free spirited souls met on the Eastern Shore bluff, believing that a township should only pay a single tax, a property tax. They dedicated their tiny Mobile Bayside community to the single-tax cause and formed a single-tax colony. The new land’s leaders proclaimed, “We have a ‘fair hope’ of success.” And now you know the rest of the story, almost.
Unfortunately the single-tax government idea fell victim to a more prevalent government idea, the IRS. Eastern Shore residents pay about the same taxes as the rest of us. But the ‘fair hope’ that is now Fairhope remained — an eclectic blend of artists, beachcombers, young parents, retirees, people who work hard and people who let them.
After a weekend of loving coastal life, many Fairhope residents commute to work in Mobile across the bay or disperse throughout Baldwin County. Relaxing in comfortable chairs on screened front porches, retired folks wave at all of them. With 23.7 percent of its 15, 700 population over age 65, Fairhope has more seniors than any of the other four “Best Places” cities and is double the state’s average (13.8).
But it’s not an old folks’ home — far from it. “Kayaking is great, ” says former Fairhope City Councilwoman Debbie White Quinn. “We love the outdoors here and use whatever excuse we can to be outside.”
Like the bar on TV’s “Cheers, ” “You wanna go where everybody knows your name, ” Quinn says. “There’s a sense of place here, a sense of belonging, a neighborhood feel. We are a growing, vibrant city, but our community spirit and feeling is very real.”
Set your GPS coordinates to 30 miles west of Georgia, 30 miles south of Tennessee. Look up at mountainous foothills, look out at the Tennessee River, look around at the city called “Someplace Special, ” and look for Mark Scott Skelton. He’s lived in Scottsboro all of his 95 years and laughs, “I may retire here.”
Scottsboro was founded by Skelton’s great-grandfather, Robert T. Scott. “It’s a beautiful place, ” the great-grandson says. “Always has been pretty, but through the years, I’ve seen it grow from rural countryside to a town of good businesses, a top medical center, and almost 16, 000 people.” And according to Skelton, Scottsboro is a town where you can be as busy or as laidback as you want.
“To me, the beauty of living in Scottsboro is, well, the beauty of Scottsboro, ” Skelton adds. “Drive up Sand Mountain and look down at the Tennessee River, more than a few people have moved here based on first seeing that view.”
Scottsboro Mayor Melton Potter agrees. “Our other motto is ‘Where the Mountains meet the Lake, ’” he says, referencing the Tennessee foothills embracing Lake Guntersville. Lake? Spanning 69, 000 acres, Alabama’s largest lake more resembles an inland ocean.
“We’ve successfully combined industry and business with nature and recreation, ” the mayor says. “Within 10 years, we’ve rebuilt or refurbished all of our schools, constructed six new tennis centers, four new soccer fields, and a state-of-the-art splash water park loved by infants to adults.”
Scottsboro was listed by Jack Shultz’s book “Boom Town USA” as one of the top small towns in America. Shultz’s ranking is based on healthcare, education, recreation, culture, taxes, cost of living, crime rate, environment, climate and access to transportation.
Highlands Medical Center in Scottsboro was recently recognized by Alabama Quality Assurance Foundation (AQAF) as one of the top-performing hospitals in Alabama.
Scottsboro residents experience a shopping experience well beyond Walmart. On the first Saturday through Monday of the month, since 1902, at the Courthouse Square, up to 40, 000 good friends gather for First Monday Market Day. Originating as an outlet for mule and horse trading, First Monday evolved, just as Scottsboro has.
Today you can buy anything from horse collars to horseradish. It’s all part of Jackson County’s town, where people meet and greet, work hard, play harder, run businesses, and meditate on a sea-sized lake, in a town that is ‘Something Special.’
Dashing through the snow in a one horse open sleigh doesn’t happen often in “The Heart of Dixie.” Your best chance is in Mentone, Alabama’s Winter Wonderland.
For many, the first experience with DeKalb County’s Shangri-La is during the “World’s Longest Yard Sale.” Mentone is a starting point on the Alabama to Michigan pilgrimage that celebrates the concept that one person’s junk is another person’s treasure. During that break in Mentone, however, a first timer might stop to think, “Who knew Alabama had a Swiss village?”
“I hear that a lot, ” says Mentone Mayor Rob Hammond. “Folks visit for the first time and tell me, ‘I had no idea this was in Alabama.’” It’s not just out-of-staters who find themselves surprised.
Winter is Mentone’s passion. Snow is its industry. “Look around, ” the mayor says. “What’s not to love? It’s beautiful here. Our ‘neighboring city’ is Lookout Mountain!”
Mentone does not have a lot of industry and business. Go to nearby Scottsboro for that. The mountainside commute is worth the trip.
And when it comes to Mentone’s nightlife market share, New York and Las Vegas aren’t worried yet. “We make our own entertainment, ” says Hammond. “Everybody here gardens, and flowers are all over the place. We also love to visit each other.”
Much of Mentone’s snow is man-made, which is okay. The snow may come from a machine instead of a cloud, but Northern retirees enjoy the white stuff without blizzards, and it provides the base for Alabama’s only ski center, the Cloudmont Ski and Golf Resort.
Residents and tourists ski in winter, golf in summer. Ironically, the population of the state’s ski slope town doubles in summer. Golfers, tourists and yard sale warriors meander the streets.
Do not let the term “tourist town” mislead you. Mentone is not a gaudy mountainside snare of souvenir traps, overpriced lodging and Indians with Brooklyn accents who allow their photographs made for a fee. Don’t confuse it with Gatlinburg.
“This is a community where everyone enjoys the lifestyle, ” says the mayor. “Our residents live among and interact with visitors.”
Two years ago the winds of change blew through Cullman at about 170 mph. On April 27, 2011, an EF-4 tornado ripped the county seat on the Cumberland Plateau, causing death and destruction, and changing lives and landscapes forever. The twister that rocked the South fortified its victims like heat tempers steel.
“The friendly, small-town charm, and the outstanding and selfless character of Cullman’s residents and business owners was displayed to the entire nation in the way they responded to that disaster, ” says Cullman Mayor Max Townson on the city’s website. “And the esteem with which the City of Cullman is held throughout the state and the nation was evident with the outpouring of support and assistance.”
What a difference 24 months makes. In 2012, Bloomberg Businessweek voted Cullman the “Best place to raise your kids in Alabama.” The magazine said, “Cullman’s schools are among the best in the state.”
Bloomberg’s news was the talk of the town. “My son was 9 years old when we heard it, ” recalls Charles DeSmith, chairman of Cullman’s Chamber of Commerce. “He said to me, ‘Dad, can you believe we are the best in the state?’ I thought a minute and said, ‘Yes, I can believe it.’ There is not one place in town I can walk and not feel comfortable and safe, day or night.”
Cullman folks enjoy not having to leave town to shop unless they want to. “We are a short drive, centered between Huntsville and Birmingham, on I-65, ” adds DeSmith. “But there’s plenty to do in town, and shopping locally is no problem either.”
Known for years as a major poultry and egg producer, the city of 14, 800 has learned not to put all its eggs in one basket. There is a huge automobile industry presence here. German, Japanese, Canadian and other automakers depend on the local workforce.
The city enjoys some of the highest rated parks and recreation venues in America. The Cullman Wellness & Aquatic Center features state-of-the-art water parks, indoor and outdoor pools and splash centers for ringing-wet infants to soaking soggy seniors. “It’s incredible, ” says DeSmith. “Cullman is rapidly becoming Alabama’s competitive swim center.”
“All of the industry, culture and recreation are great, ” says DeSmith, “But one of the best things this town offers is friendly people. There are no outsiders here.”
It’s hard not to love a town that once saw 800 mourners attend a funeral for a large-mouth bass. But in 1981, it happened in Eufaula. In fact, lots of things happen in Eufaula, and lots of people love Barbour County’s largest city for it.
“We look after our people, ” claims Ann Sparks, Eufaula’s director of tourism. “Eufaula is designed to accommodate everyone, from babies to elderly. For example, look at our transit system. The city has spent a lot of money and time refurbishing and upgrading it. We have walking paths, bicycling trails and a great public bus and van service.”
Of course, other towns have city bus services, too. The difference with Eufaula’s is that people actually use theirs. It is no accident. It is vision.
Every city boasts of visionary leadership. This one puts it in practice. The “City of Eufaula 20/20 Plan” recently completed an 18-month process involving more than 9 percent of Eufaula’s 13, 000 population. The plan reflects residents’ desires, from excellent schools to first-rate recreational facilities, a pristine environment and a diverse community.
Eufaula receives more positive press coverage than almost any other Alabama municipality. It was voted one of the best places to retire by national publications, including Boomtown USA magazine, America’s Best 100 Places to Retire, America’s Best Low-Tax Retirement Towns, Garden & Gun and Where to Retire.
Audubon International has named Eufaula as a Certified Audubon Sustainable Community. The website Exploresouthernhistory.com called Eufaula “One of the most beautiful cities in the South.”
Featured as a setting for the movie “Sweet Home Alabama, ” the city sits atop a bluff over a 45, 000-acre namesake Lake Eufaula. It is synonymous with “Bass Fishing Capital of the World.” People choose to live and retire here just for the fishing.
Others come for Southern quaintness. Eufaula is a storybook setting, leading with its large number of historical buildings, many listed on the National Register. But it welcomes starter families as well as retirees, in a town where people live, work and catch largemouth bass.
Emmett Burnett is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Satsuma.