Spotlight on Lee, Russell & Macon: Community Development

Lee, Russell and Macon counties are growing residentially and commercially.

An aerial view of Toomer’s Corner in the heart of Auburn. Photo by Matthew Tucker/AO Tourism.

Lee County

Opelika, the county seat, has begun work on its new Opelika 2040 Comprehensive Plan, incorporating citizen input into many facets of the city.

In the meantime, several projects are in progress, says Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller. The Covington Recreation Center has been renovated to add technology and amenities and to become ADA compliant. Improvements have been completed at Shady Park, on downtown streetscapes and on a new pedestrian and bicycle master plan.

The city has launched ConnectOpelika, a text and web chat platform that disperses city information to residents, who can receive immediate answers, make service requests, send personalized messages and get real-time alerts.

Population growth has resulted in several new housing developments underway. In FY 2021, Opelika issued 1,127 permits valued at more than $193 million. There are 488 new homes, 168 apartment units, 36 duplex units and 28 new commercial buildings.

Opelika attracted several new businesses recently, in and near downtown and in the city’s shopping centers. Also, the city recently annexed 1,300 acres. The city also is close to finishing the Opelika Mobile Wellness Clinic and will turn it over to the East Alabama Medical Center to operate it.

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The city of Auburn’s population also is growing quickly and may reach 100,000 by the 2030 census, officials say. The city is accommodating growth in many ways. In addition to the Wright Street Parking Deck, AuburnBank’s new Burton Street Parking Deck also brings hundreds of new parking spaces downtown.

Auburn has several robust entrepreneurial programs, made possible through the city’s partnerships with Auburn University and the Auburn 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.

“Our incubator system has served 22 startups this past year, including the expansion of two companies and four virtual lease memberships,” says Auburn Mayor Ron Anders. “To keep up with increasing demand, we are constructing additional incubator space to include more offices and production bays, designed through a student design-build competition in coordination with the Auburn University College of Architecture, Design and Construction.”

The city just launched a new recruitment campaign called “Work in Auburn,” which gives the community easy access to all manufacturing jobs available, Anders says. And by the end of the year, the city will open the AuburnBank Building, downtown Auburn’s first true Class A professional office building. The four-story building will house AuburnBank’s new headquarters, 45,000 square feet of office space on the second and third floors and retailers on the ground floor.

A major development in the city is the Auburn Medical Pavilion, located in the Auburn Research Park. It is a freestanding ER, level III trauma center that features 12 exam rooms, a lab, diagnostic radiology services, a pharmacy, helicopter landing pad and more. It is a joint project of Auburn University and East Alabama Medical Center.

Officials in October broke ground for a new Buc-ee’s travel center. It represents the Texas-based company’s third Alabama location.

Schools throughout the county are thriving.

Lee County Schools, which serve more than 9,300 students, have a new 2021-2026 strategic plan that focuses on five different areas.

Opelika City Schools, with more than 4,700 students, has grown by at least 100 students per year over the past three years, so the district plans a sixth-grade school that should be open by fall 2023. The school system also bought 5,000 additional Chromebooks since 2020, allowing high school students an individual computer and K-8 students a computer shared with just one other student.

In addition to academic course work, Opelika High School offers career tech options ranging from culinary arts to video production. It also offers dual enrollment options and a Ready to Work program.

Auburn City Schools, one of the fastest-growing school districts in Alabama, has more than 9,200 students and nearly 1,200 employees. To address the massive growth, school officials have several projects underway as part of its $172.33 million 2028 comprehensive plan, funded with the city of Auburn’s 5 mill capital fund assessment and 16 mill special school tax funds.

New construction includes Woodland Pines Elementary School for grades K-2, slated to open in August 2022; a new academic wing, cafeteria and fine arts buildings at J.F. Drake Middle School; a new gymnasium at East Samford School and renovated track facilities at Auburn Junior High School.

Auburn City Schools’ career technical education has 15 program offerings, from advertising to engineering to precision machining. Work-based learning is another popular career technical program with internships.

The Phenix City Riverwalk runs 1.21 miles along the Chattahoochee River.

Russell County

Russell County has worked on a new walking trail and gazebo around a pecan orchard in the Crawford community, says Chance Corbett, Russell County Commission chair. The county also has created a wedding and event center at the former 1868 courthouse in the Seale community. In the future, the county is looking to renovate a former post office building into a meeting space and museum.

The county is considering possible uses for American Recovery Act funds, looking at recreation, sewage improvements, helping nonprofits and increasing broadband, Corbett says.

Phenix City, the county seat, has the popular Phenix City Art Park, a place where artistic talent can flourish and allow the community to experience art in fun and unique ways. This community space should attract more festivals, events and art experiences, and eventually will stretch down the entire Phenix City Riverwalk.

Phenix City, in partnership with nearby Columbus, Georgia, is home to the RushSouth Whitewater Park, the longest urban whitewater course in the world. The park has expanded to include ziplines, a disc golf course, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, fishing and more. A major tourism attraction, it has several events planned this year and next.

Both city and county schools are busy with improvements.

Russell County schools, with 3,697 students, saw an increase from last year and is working to provide each student with a Chromebook.

The county schools have made major improvements to the Russell County High School football and baseball fields and gym; added 12 classrooms at Mt. Olive Elementary School and added a math and science lab at Ladonia Elementary School.

Russell County Middle School received a $1 million grant for its Stars Academy.

The system offers dual enrollment options with local community colleges and an array of career tech programs from JROTC to auto tech to finance.

The Phenix City Schools have a new Career Technical Education Center Annex in progress, slated to add 33,000 square feet to support programs from health care to TV production to mechatronics, says Dr. Randy Wilkes, superintendent.

PCS is working to integrate Alabama’s early childhood education, K-12 education and workforce development efforts into a seamless educational journey so that all students in Phenix City gain the critical skills they need to be competitive in the workplace, he says.

The school system also is building two multipurpose buildings at Ridgecrest Elementary and Westview Elementary schools to accommodate growth. Also in progress are four classrooms, three special-education classrooms and a band room at Phenix City Intermediate School; roof replacements for two schools; soccer/physical education field renovation and turf at Central High School; and weight and locker rooms at South Girard School.

Moton Field Municipal Airport is home to the Tuskegee Airmen, but also serves as a training and education center, as well as a public airport.

Macon County

The city of Tuskegee, the county seat, has five exits off Interstate 85 and is eagerly anticipating the new Tuskegee Travel Center on exit 38 that plans to open this year, says Joe Turnham, director of the Macon County Economic Development Authority. It will include quick food restaurants, a convenience store, fueling center and an electric car charging station, Turnham says. The area already has added a Torch Travel Center and Love’s Travel Center.

Such centers have a lot of economic impact, he says. The newest travel center is anticipated to bring in $500,000 in taxes annually and employ 75. “We are working to capitalize on our interstate exits,” Turnham says. “We also are in discussions with Greyhound for a bus terminal at the new travel center.”

The city also has teamed up with Point Broadband to lay 60 miles of broadband fiber that should include more than 1,000 residents, 27 businesses and all industrial parks, Turnham says.

The city’s Tuskegee Moton Field Municipal Airport has a new director, Nikki Jordan. Many improvements are underway.

The town of Shorter, with 600 residents, has many projects on the horizon, says Mayor Willie Mae Powell. The city purchased an existing Macon County school, D.C. Wolfe Elementary, that serves four-year-olds to sixth graders, with plans to run an afternoon school program and offer all types of extracurricular activities, Powell says. The city also plans to work on a charter school.

Shorter also is working on a new park on Highway 80, Powell says. An existing house will be used as a multicultural center and plans call for adding a walking trail and museum. The town also has new retail.

Macon County schools has career technical education programs that partner with Trenholm State Community College for several programs.

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