Spotlight on Etowah, St. Clair & Blount: Community Development

These three central Alabama counties are improving schools, parks, industrial sites and downtown areas

Model photo of the kinetic wind sculpture art installation scheduled to be placed in Gadsden this spring.

Etowah County

Etowah County, with support from the community and surrounding areas, now has a very successful free medical clinic. It also provided the Etowah County Board of Education with a downtown location and moved the Etowah County Extension Office to the courthouse, officials say. The county also has maintained its A-plus rating with the Standard & Poor’s.

The county also was able to buy equipment for the sheriff’s office and approved its 2023 transportation plan that includes several road projects.

Ready for more development, the county has rebranded its Little Canoe Creek megasite as the Northeast Alabama Regional Megasite, or NEAR — a name chosen to highlight its proximity to river and rail transport. The Gadsden-Etowah Industrial Development Authority is working with Alabama Power and Norfolk Southern Railroad to provide infrastructure at the site, which will be served by Rainbow City water and sewer. Plus, a new interchange is being planned, providing access to the site from Interstate 59.

The city of Gadsden, the county seat, has been busy on several new projects, says Brett Johnson, chief of staff to new Mayor Craig Ford. The city has hired Goodwyn Mills Cawood for assistance on its first comprehensive plan in more than 50 years. “We’ll be meeting with several groups, and we will be addressing our zoning ordinance, marketing, recreation, transportation and more,” Johnson says.

The city also has partnered with Orchestra Partners of Birmingham to focus on its riverfront corridor plan, Johnson says. And the city council endorsed a charrette plan for the city-owned Noccalula Falls Park from Design Alabama, which will include $15 million in improvements and designs to encourage walkability, create gateway entrances and more.

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The city also has a new sports park on the riverfront alongside the Gadsden State campus. While phase 4 of the park project is in the works, the site is already offering facilities for baseball, softball, soccer and pickleball. “We are looking to add a lot more, and we have been able to manage to pay for it with cash. It should be about a $20 million project once completed,” Johnson says.

Major road projects are underway. The state has plans to proceed on the eastern corridor that connects I-759 to Highway 278 East, a $50 million project. And, the city is hoping to relocate Highway 411, which currently travels along the Coosa River. Tentative plans are to create greenspaces and other recreational development such as a city harbor, Johnson says.

“We are really trying to redefine the narrative about Gadsden — we are moving toward progressing as a city that looks for opportunities and creative ways to bring families here,” Johnson says. “It’s important for us to get out and tell our story — there is energy here and we are ready to grow.”

The Downtown Gadsden organization has several projects underway, says Kay Moore, director. Downtown has more than 40 loft apartments, and another 14 are projected. “Lofts create foot traffic, visitors and more activity,” she says.

The organization received a grant for a kinetic wind sculpture at Memorial Bridge, she says. The unique structure will be 18 feet high and will be placed in front of the existing new mural, she says.

The historic Pitman Theatre is receiving more improvements that will allow it to host larger bands, including a new rollup door for equipment, she says.

Rainbow City Mayor Joe Taylor says the city has received a $1.2 million CAP grant to build additional bike and pedestrian paths. And the city has purchased 130 acres to develop a downtown area. Also, the city plans to build a quality-of-life center in the next two years, offering recreational opportunities for all ages — from an indoor walking track to an Olympic-size pool to pickleball courts.

Also, Rainbow City is home to the Etowah County Mega Sports Complex, built on 139 acres off Steele Station Road and Lumley Road.

Etowah County Schools are involved in several infrastructure projects — a new elementary school, remodeling another, remodeling all six high school gyms and adding resource officers.

All local schools emphasize career and technical training. For example, Gadsden City Schools and Gadsden State Community College have partnered on GRACE Academy, which offers classes in commercial construction, electrical technology and plumbing to students and adults. The academy, a long-time dream of Superintendent Tony Reddick, was made possible through a grant from the construction industry.

Also, this spring, the Gadsden City Titans softball team will host teams from across the state at their new spring sports facilities, which feature turf baseball and softball fields, plus six tennis hard courts.

St. Clair County

St. Clair County has two county seats in Pell City and Ashville. The major county project in progress is a $25 million St. Clair County Detention Center in downtown Pell City. It’s slated to be finished this year.

In Pell City, ground was broken for a shopping center on the site of a former hospital, says Brian Muenger, city administrator. The city acquired the county’s interest in the property and sold it to a private developer who will build 100,000 square feet of retail.  Several fast-food locations have opened on the same road, he says. “As we grow, we can support more business,” he says. “We are very excited about this.”

The city, St. Clair County and the Alabama Department of Transportation are working on a Veterans Parkway extension to connect U.S. 231 with Hospital Drive, where the Ascension St. Vincent’s St. Clair hospital is located. “We are hoping for possibly more medical offices there since there is a lot of land opening up,” Muenger says.

In downtown Pell City, sidewalks are proceeding, and citywide, there is a $2.5 million paving project underway, the largest in the city’s history, he says. In the past five to seven years, the city has spent $6 million paving roads.

As Pell City grows, so does the need for housing, Muenger says, adding that in the last three years, more than 500 new homes have been built with more expected. “It’s been a real sprint here in the last few years, and we’re super excited about where the city is and where it’s going,” Muenger says.

Voters approved a property tax for schools in three St. Clair County cities, so Pell City issued a $25 million bond on behalf of the Pell City School System that will pay for many improvements including a middle school expansion, a new band hall and more. A new middle school will open soon, and storm shelters have been added at two elementary schools.

Schools in the St. Clair County system in Moody and Springville also are getting upgrades, including a modern manufacturing program, says Don Smith, director of the St. Clair Economic Development Council.

The city of Moody is the largest municipality in the county, says Mayor Joe Lee. Housing is being built — seven subdivisions with 137 lots — and several road projects are in progress, he says, and the city is using a $200,000 grant to complete a 20-year comprehensive plan covering public safety, fire, utilities and recreational facilities.

The city has begun construction on a $7 million police department facility to allow more space, Lee says, and has signed an agreement with a developer for an entertainment center with bowling and trampolines. Several fast-food facilities are also under construction.

The city of Springville just finished two multi-purpose sports fields for practice, says Lynn Porter, city clerk. There is a lot of residential growth and the city has worked with the St. Clair County Board of Education to place a school resource officer in each of its schools.

And the city of Odenville has completed $1 million in paving projects with more to come, says Mayor Rodney “Buck” Christian. The city is focused on commercial growth and is looking to replace its police department building and expand city hall. Residential growth continues.

City of Oneonta Aquatics Facility, which opened in 2022.

Blount County

Blount County is buzzing over the construction of a new multi-purpose building in Cleveland, says Chris Green, Blount County Commission chairman. The building will house the county’s Alabama Cooperative Extension Service, Blount County Economic Development Council and much more.

“It will be centrally located in the county, and there will be an advanced agriculture classroom for high school students with a teacher already assigned. It’s an extension program of our Blount County schools career technical center,” says Green. While the building is under construction, officials hope to have the agriculture classroom by fall of 2023.

The county also works with the health care community, partnering to fund a large MRI machine and more for its local hospital. “We want to continue to provide care for people closer to home,” he says.

Oneonta Mayor Richard Phillips says the city’s $10 million park and recreation overhaul is proceeding well. A new aquatics facility opened in 2022, the city is about to open a new football and soccer facility and the next phase will involve upgrades of the baseball and softball fields.

“We are also in the process of developing a comprehensive plan, which will be about a 12-month process,” he says. “We also are aggressively working on our internet access and are working with a provider.”

The city is working on a partnership with Hometown Bank of Alabama to build a downtown amphitheater, Phillips says. The city also received a Lowe’s Hometown grant to revitalize the historic Little Brick Church, and a grant from the Alabama Historical Commission to renovate and restore the city’s depot.

Oneonta is home to the Blount County branch of Wallace State Community College. The campus includes an academic building and a technical training center. Green says he hopes that adult education can be offered at the multi-purpose center for job training.

Oneonta City Schools are “the cornerstone of our community,” Phillips says, and the system has finished several upgrades on its athletic facilities, a new band room and more.

This article appears in the April 2023 issue of Business Alabama.

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