Spotlight on Lee, Russell & Macon: Community Development

Lee, Russell and Macon counties are developing schools, retail, downtown areas and more

Downtown Opelika.

Lee County

In the city of Opelika, the county seat, population is soaring and there is a great deal of housing demand, along with several new apartment complexes under development in the area, officials say. The area also has broken records for new home development in the community. Over the past five years, the city has built more than 2,000 single-family homes and hundreds of new apartments.

The Opelika Chamber of Commerce is executing a campaign called Forward Opelika, which is enabling the chamber to tackle big issues facing the community like talent attraction and alignment, entrepreneur education and more, says Ali Rauch, president and CEO.

“We’re in the process of renovating the old Opelika Library and transforming it into a business incubator, visitor center, training facility and the offices for both the Opelika Chamber and Auburn Opelika Tourism,” Rauch says.

Another new incubator, Opelika Main Street’s downtown retail incubator and resource center, opened in the former Heritage Gifts and Gourmet building. The back half of the property is the Opelika Main Street office.

The city of Opelika has competitive and recreational pools under construction at two parks, scheduled to be complete before summer 2024, says Joey Motley, Opelika city administrator. Also, 24 pickleball courts have opened, and a new city library is underway. Creekline Trails of Opelika and a city bike path are underway.

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Opelika Police Department’s Together, Opelika campaign includes interactive education in the schools, an officer training program and more.

The city is getting a new fire station, and another fire station near the hospital will be updated, Motley says.

The city has a robust arts environment with events, including Songwriters Festival and East Alabama Arts Association.

Opelika, a retail hub, continues to attract new businesses. Some recent ones include GolfSuites, the year-round golf entertainment franchise that will bring its fourth national location to the city. A new retail shopping center is coming that will feature 12 to 16 businesses, including a Publix store, that is about 15 minutes away from Auburn University.

The city of Auburn’s population also is growing quickly — the population now exceeds 80,000 — and more amenities have been added. Downtown Auburn has continued to grow and evolve, welcoming several new additions in the last couple of years, including the new urban concept Target that opened in July and Publix that opened last October, officials say.

Auburn University’s Tony and Libba Rane Culinary Science Center opened in fall 2022, with restaurants, hotels, spa and more to welcome guests and teach students.

Buc-ees has opened off Exit 50 on Interstate 85. In 2022, Auburn Bank opened its new headquarters, and new projects include Graduate Hotel and AC Hotel.

The city has several robust entrepreneurial programs, made possible through partnerships with the university and the Chamber of Commerce. Those include the New Venture Accelerator, the Auburn Center for Developing Industries, the Auburn Incubator for Manufacturing and the Additive Manufacturing Accelerator.

Toward that goal, the city received a $3 million federal appropriation to help finance an expansion of the Auburn Center for Developing Industries, which provides startups with incubator space and houses the Advanced Manufacturing Training Center to help develop skills for industrial jobs.

The city is wrapping up improvements to the Auburn Soccer Complex, with three new turf fields and a 56,000-square-foot soccer/multipurpose complex that can be used for a wide range of recreational programming.

The city is working on the Lake Wilmore Community Center to bring parks and recreation amenities to an area of town currently without them.

The city also has a commercial development incentive program, and maintains a webpage identifying available commercial properties.

Capital projects underway include a Public Safety Training Center, several road projects and park renovations. The city is making renovations on the Jan Dempsey Art Center, and the city’s new inclusive playground facility was selected as the 2022 Facility of the Year by the Alabama Recreation and Parks Association.

Schools in Lee County and its cities serve about 25,000 students, offering an array of award-winning academic programs and career-tech options.

Russell County

Russell County has a new walking trail and gazebo in the Crawford community.

Phenix City, the county seat, is getting a downtown makeover, says Shaun Culligan, economic development manager for the city. The city joined with Orchestra Partners to create a vision and plan, and improvements are underway. It is part of the city’s Fast Forward Phenix City plan, which addresses the future of the area.

The plans envision a downtown with more businesses, sidewalks, greenspace and restaurants; better walking and biking facilities; residential development; extending the riverwalk north and south and generally maximizing use of the Chattahoochee River frontage downtown.

Officials announced in July 2023 that Lindstrom & Company, a real estate development firm, is developing 11.6 acres off U.S. 280. Plans call for a mix of well-known brands including Starbucks, Chipotle, Outback Steakhouse, Valvoline and Peachtree Immediate Care.

And Eighty West, a new retail development underway on Highway 80, already includes a Dollar Tree, Taco Bell, Popeyes, Sonic and Snappy Express full-service car wash. Other new restaurants are underway.

Several road and wastewater treatment upgrades are also in progress. Also, the Public Safety Building on Broad Street has undergone complete renovation and expansion to include a larger City Council chamber, an updated municipal courtroom, additional office space and renovated existing office space.

The city also plans a new fire training facility that will include classrooms, bay storage, burn building and drill tower behind Fire Station One.

Phenix City and neighboring Columbus, Georgia, are home to a whitewater park. Centered on the long whitewater course, the park includes ziplines, disc golf, kayaking, paddle boarding, fishing and more.

Russell County and Phenix City schools emphasize STEM education, providing many career-tech options in fields as diverse as agriculture and computer coding.

Macon County

The city of Tuskegee, the county seat, has five exits off Interstate 85 and it is working on developing those areas, says Joe Turnham, director of the Macon County Economic Development Authority. There already has been success with travel centers, restaurants and more.

Through a mix of government grants, private investment and philanthropic funding, many homes and businesses are now about to connect to fiber broadband.

International recording star Lionel Richie, a native of Tuskegee, is spearheading an effort to create a community park called Hello Park. It is one of 100 community projects that will be finished this year as part of Lowe’s Hometowns, a five-year, $100 million commitment from Lowe’s to rebuild and revitalize community spaces nationwide. Richie is donating an undeveloped plot of land that his family owns across from Tuskegee University for the project.

The Tuskegee Area Chamber of Commerce set up shop in a historic building, giving downtown Tuskegee a fresh shot of energy, attracting tourists and local residents during the daytime. Meetings and events generate activity during evening hours.

The chamber showed off projects to Tuskegee University alumni during a homecoming tour in October, also offering a chance to meet with some of the visionary investors who are breathing new life into this community.

Shorter is growing manufacturing, gaming and retail — creating a diverse and dynamic economy off I-85. In 2022, The Big Dog and Small Rescue Ranch opened at a former greyhound training facility. The organizations works with neglected and abused dogs.

The town of Franklin has a fascinating slice of history with the Harris Barrett School & Museum, where each brick that forms the building was made from elements extracted from the soil by Tuskegee Institute students under the eye of Booker T. Washington.

The town of Notasulga exudes agricultural charm, complete with a winery. The town is prioritizing projects and improvements through grant funding. One of the proposed projects is to replace 11 miles of water lines and the other is to revise the town’s zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan, officials say.

Notasulga also is implementing a local alert system through geo-fencing technology that provides businesses and residents with alerts via phone, text and emails.

Macon County schools have career technical education programs, many in partnership with Trenholm State Community College.

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

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