Spotlight on Autauga & Elmore: Community Development

Autauga and Elmore counties are developing schools, retail, downtown areas and more

Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama recently donated vehicles to the Autauga County Technology Center, which helps students prepare to enter the workforce.

Autauga County

Autauga County is working on a major sewer infrastructure project that will result in more economic and community development in one of the fastest-growing areas of the county, says Jay Thompson, chairman of the Autauga County Commission. The $4 million project is on Highway 31 at Interstate 65 exit 186, where the county owns two of the larger tracts of undeveloped land in the state, he says.

“It is an expensive project, but we anticipate development once we bring sewer service there,” Thompson says. “This exit is the only one within Autauga County, and it’ll be good for us to offer opportunity for development.”

The county is aggressively working to expand broadband, partnering with the state and Central Alabama Electric Cooperative and Central Access. Working in partnership with economic developers, the county also has developed Interstate Business Park, with 15 ready-to-build sites and a ready-to-occupy industrial spec building, he says. In addition, the county is doing other road improvements and replacing the roof on part of its courthouse and the jail, he says. And it recently completed updates for the R.H. Kirkpatrick Agricultural Arena.

The county has a new municipality — Pine Level — whose residents voted to incorporate and held mayor and council elections in December 2023.

Autauga County schools recently released its 2023-2028 strategic plan, Advancing Autauga County, that addresses areas including academic advancement, providing a safe and healthy learning environment, quality personnel, fiscal responsibility and stakeholder relations. The year-long process included community input.

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The board also recently appointed Lyman Woodfin as its new superintendent. He is a 17-year veteran of the school system and most recently served as principal of Marbury High School.

The school system invests heavily in its career technology programs, opening a new 18,000-square-foot, $3.9 million expansion at its technology center. It includes a new fire science area, new labs and classrooms, automotive bays, a robotics field and an updated welding space. The school system currently offers 14 of the 16 national career clusters to more than 1,900 students across the district.

Other support for career tech includes Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama’s donation of $114,000 to expand the Hyundai Initiative for Robotics Excellence in Autauga County schools. The goal is to expand robotics teams at public schools. HMMA also donated three new vehicles to the tech center for the district’s automotive program.

Other infrastructure projects include a new Prattville Kindergarten School, which should be finished by July 2024. Marbury High School completed an agribusiness expansion and added nine classrooms.

Some schools in the district also will be getting new defibrillators and trauma kits in partnership with the Autauga County Sheriff’s Office. And five schools were recognized as Purple Star Schools by the state for their commitment to students and families connected to the military.

Prattville, the county seat, is adding playground equipment and other features at North Highland Park and renovating Newton Park, which has five new pickleball courts and five new tennis courts, says Mayor Bill Gillespie. The city already has a lot of fields for different sports and is constantly working on more.

The city also is working on building a new engineering building at South Industrial Park and a new public safety building to go along with the existing training center at the West Industrial Park, Gillespie says. The city is looking at adding greenspace downtown and purchased a former bank building that it is renovating for future use.

The city also is renovating its city-owned Stanley Jensen stadium that hosts high school, youth teams and travel soccer teams, Gillespie says. Renovations include new home stands, restrooms, locker rooms and more. It’s a $17 million project.

Work has begun on 140 acres of housing near the main Prattville retail area, with the largest development at 315 lots. And The Mill at Prattville, being developed within the former Daniel Pratt cotton gin complex, is underway and will offer 127 living units with fitness center, clubhouse and outdoor areas.

Tesla also recently placed new EV charging stations in the city.

In the town of Autaugaville, a new senior center opened.

The Art Mill in Millbrook offers art classes and more.

Elmore County

Elmore County has partnered with internet provider Central Access to provide broadband to schools, businesses and homes along 20 miles of corridors 500 feet wide, which can be expanded in the future. The Elmore County Board of Education also will provide some funding for school access and the project will be overseen by the Elmore County Economic Development Authority (ECEDA), says Lisa Van Wagner, executive director of the ECEDA.

ECEDA has refocused on sports tournaments and large events that attract visitors to the area, furthering economic development. It also has partnered with the Elmore County Board of Education, the city of Wetumpka and the city of Millbrook for renovations at Hohenberg Field in Wetumpka and the creation of 17 Springs in Millbrook.

Now the agency is looking to the cities of Eclectic, Holtville and Tallassee, asking residents what projects they are interested in. And the county is focusing on the possibility of building a replacement hospital in Elmore County, Van Wagner says.

“All these things are catalysts for economic development,” Van Wagner says. “And it is good for residents and visitors.”

Elmore County schools recently became one of only two Alabama public school systems to be recognized as Cognia’s System of Distinction. Cognia is the accrediting body that SACS and AdvanceEd merged into. The honor relies on observations of 30 standards in the areas of culture, leadership, engagement in the classroom and growth in learning.

The system recently renovated the Elmore County Technical Center so that all students could learn in one facility and programs could expand. The facility includes the main office, drafting and design, teaching and training, IT and hospitality/tourism. Also, three new programs were added — culinary, cybersecurity and diesel technology. More than l,000 students participate in the programs.

Wetumpka, the county seat, was the subject of Ben and Erin Napier’s “Home Town Takeover,” filmed in 2021. The show recently returned for a second “Where Are They Now?” episode so that fans can check in with familiar faces.

The storyline focuses on the continued revitalization of the community and its focus on arts and events. It also included stories on a new coffee shop, Restoration 49 in the downtown area, Wow Café Catering, an expansion of an existing site in Eclectic with a Wetumpka native as chef and The Kelly Fitzpatrick Center for the Arts.

Surrounding areas also benefitted from the show and its aftermath. In the original show, six homes and six commercial spaces in downtown Wetumpka were remodeled, attracting tourists and more amenities to the area. The follow-up episode aired in December 2023.

The city is revamping its Main Street with concrete medians, trees and more. And it is working to build a destination market organization that will contain all its tourism resources, says Lynn Weldon, the city’s economic development director.

“We know HGTV will not last forever, and while we still get many visitors, over the years that will change,” Weldon says. “We have a lot to offer. We are blessed with tremendous beauty and a river, and we have a great quality of life here.”

To that end, the city hired Stamp Idea Group and Yellow House Publications to help develop a plan to market the area to tourists and recruit hotels, and that resulted in a tourism map that identifies everything offered in Wetumpka, “including some things that we didn’t understand or realize,” Weldon says. “This is really going to help us not only to help residents and visitors identify what we have but also to enter the bus tour industry and offer other tourism opportunities.”

The city is hiring a tourism director to oversee all of the city’s tourism efforts. “We are working to build a destination market organization to contain all of our tourism resources to be represented,” she says. “We are everything tourism now.”

Wetumpka’s downtown has added a new mosaic by artist Linda Munoz on the stair risers from Main Street down to the Coosa River near the Bibb Graves Bridge. The art installation, “Rumbling Waters,” is in an area that already has been enhanced with a mural and more.

The city, which has been focusing on the arts for several years, also opened a new art wall in The Alley that contains 14 murals by local artist Hope Brannon that explain how the Wetumpka Impact Crater Commission was formed. It was funded by Gateway Development Corp., Alabama State Council on the Arts, the city, First Community Bank and River Bank and Trust.

The city also opened the Wetumpka Impact Crater Discovery and Visitor Center on Company Street downtown. And Taste at the Fain Restaurant is coming soon downtown.

Other improvements include a new splash pad, tennis and pickleball courts, and a Publix shopping center that is under construction.

In nearby Millbrook, the big ongoing project is 17 Springs, a project made possible by a partnership among the city, Elmore County Commission, Elmore County Board of Education, Grandview YMCA and the Elmore County Economic Development Authority. The name 17 Springs comes from a historic art festival that was hosted decades ago on the YMCA property, and it will create recreational, entertainment and retail opportunities.

Phase I recently opened, with 12 pickleball courts, 12 tennis courts, four multi-purpose fields, a grass practice (field) area, a grilling station, a lower pond for YMCA programming and a concession area as part of The Fields at 17 Springs.

Phase II is under construction and will include the 86,000-square-foot The Fieldhouse at 17 Springs, an indoor event venue big enough for car and boat shows, with facilities for indoor sports and more.

Below the fieldhouse will be a 6,000-seat stadium, plus track and field facilities for high school sports. The stadium also will be able to handle concerts and other events.

“All of our fields have very nice synthetic turf so that we’ll have no rain delays here due to water,” says Ann Harper, the city’s economic development director. “This is a great facility. We are in the central part of the state and this is only one mile from Interstate 65, boosting our sports tourism and the ability to host other events. This is a definite economic engine for our area.”

Part of the development is an 18-acre city-owned property named The Marketplace at 17 Springs, which will eventually be developed for dining, hospitality, entertainment and shopping.

“You will see a huge difference in this area in the next two to three years,” Harper says.

Another important development is Grandview Plaza, including a Publix shopping center, that should open in mid-2024, says Millbrook Mayor Al Kelley.

Millbrook has a goal of improving quality of life for its residents, with a community development initiative for amenities such as parks and festivals to enjoy. A year ago, the city hired a cultural arts director to develop new events and elevate existing ones, Harper says.

Millbrook also has opened The Art Mill, a former residence that has been transformed for arts classes and more, she says.

The city of Tallassee, an Alabama Communities of Excellence member, is undergoing improvements downtown. Utilities are being relocated to accommodate a new streetscape. The sewer lagoons have received a $4 million upgrade, readying the area for additional homes, businesses and manufacturing. The city also has almost completed a $1.1 million bond project aimed at replacing old cast iron gas mains along Gilmer Avenue, plus a newly announced $9.7 million grant from the Pipeline Hazardous Material and Safety Agency. The city also has improved its downtown water tank and the Tallaweka tank, adding a four-inch main in Riverside Heights to serve the newly built homes in the area.

Tallassee also revitalized the wooden Funtastic Fort playground and added a new Jordanville park/playground. Its riverwalk makes the city’s natural beauty a great eco-tourism destination.

Also, the new Tallassee High School opened, replacing a 100-year-old structure. The $21 million school, next to the old school site, is almost a replica of the former high school but adds a 636-seat auditorium and a new band room, which also doubles as a storm shelter.

This article appears in the January 2024 issue of Business Alabama.

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