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Baldwin County, the State’s Undisputed King of Growth, Added Another 3,000 Residents Last Year (2015)
No other county in Alabama is rising faster. For mayors, schools, planners and families trying to put down roots, it’s astonishing, nerve-wracking and challenging, all at the same time. Baldwin’s population has climbed by 21,444 since 2010, pushing it past 200,000, according to the latest Census data.The next-quickest growers were Madison and Lee, at 18,278 and 16,697, respectively. Madison County is home to Huntsville, while Lee County includes Auburn. In fact, those three counties have accounted for 49 percent of the state’s population increase since 2010.
But it’s Baldwin that stands out. The county - with a land mass larger than Rhode Island - features no single large metro. Instead, it’s a proliferation of smaller cities and their residential surrounds. The northern half of the county has remained quiet and largely rural. But the southern half is exploding, from Spanish Fort to Daphne and Fairhope, across to Loxley, Robertsdale and Foley, and down to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. Shelby County outside Birmingham was once Alabama’s standard-bearer for growth, but no more.
According to statistics provided by the Baldwin County Association of Realtors, the county has experienced a 39 percent increase in the number of residential properties purchased since 2011. And during the period, sales in each new year topped the previous one.
The average days on the market for a house in Baldwin County was 169 in 2011 and 173 in2012. It fell to 158 in 2014, then to 145 in 2015. (**In 2016, the average was 156 days for BaldwinCounty and 138 for Daphne.)
At the same time, the median sales price went from $190,000 in 2011 to $233,007 in 2015. (**In 2016, the median sales price for Baldwin County was $240,038 and $264,469 in Daphne.) “People are coming to Baldwin County because it is an affordable and offers all the benefits without high crime rates and great choices in real estate,” said Sheila Dodson, CEO of the Association of Realtors. She acknowledged the ongoing construction of new subdivisions on the Eastern Shore, namely in and around Spanish Fort, Fairhope and Daphne.
The proximity to Mobile is obviously a bonus for the Eastern Shore. Mobile boasts of the coast’s major workplaces: Shipbuilder Austal USA employs 4,275, the University of SouthAlabama employs approximately 4,000 andMobile’s hospitals have 5,000 or more. Airbus built its first North American aircraft assembly plant in Mobile. It opened in 2015 and is expected to add 1,000 workers in the next couple of years.
Baldwin civic leaders and boosters can cite a long list of attributes fueling the growth. They mention the lure of the beach, relative affordability, popular schools, a coastal vibe, and on and on. And they mention that Baldwin feels safe. The latter, for County Commissioner Chris Elliott, is a sometimes understated attribute.
“We’ll have petty thefts, but compared to large cities, we just don’t have the violent crime,” Elliott said.
Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack said the county simply doesn’t have many homicides. He believes that the record would be no more than a dozen. “On average, we will have three to four homicides a year. A big year for us is six,” he said.
Westward across the bay, Mobile had 26 murders in 2015, and is on pace to exceed that figure in 2016. Eastward across the Florida line, Pensacola recorded 27 homicides last year.
“We’re book-ended with two metropolitan areas with crime rates at the national averages or above,” Mack said. “That’s where you see the bignumbers. You come to Baldwin County and seethe low numbers.”
That particularly stands out, he said, in light of the booming population.
At present, Baldwin is the seventh-largest county, but it’s on track to leapfrog Tuscaloosa County to No. 6. Only 276 residents separates the two counties. Tuscaloosa County added 1,457 residents between 2014 and 2015.
“We’re excited about the situation,” said Heiko Einfeld, (former) executive director with the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce, commenting on the growth in general.
But there are obvious challenges. Among the most critical is dealing with traffic congestion. In the summer months, when the county’s biggest draw - the white, sandy beaches bring tourists from all over, highways such as Alabama59 are jammed for miles.
“That’s our challenge,” Elliott said. “It could mess us up.”
Baldwin leaders and lawmakers are pushing for funding to extend the Baldwin Beach Express from Interstate-10 to I-65, creating a wide new path for beach-bound families. The first 12.8 miles of the new road opened in 2014, linking the Orange Beach/Gulf Shores and I-10.
The full Beach Express’ construction is included in a bill, sponsored by state Sen. Bill Hightower, R-Mobile. That bill would divert some of the state’s $1 billion economic settlement in the BP oil spill case toward funding the construction of the 24.5-mile extension.
County and city officials are also looking at ways to ease pressure on U.S. 98 and Alabama 181 on the Eastern Shore. For U.S. 98, a synchronized traffic light plan is being offered. For Alabama 181, a $3.5 million redesign of its I-10 intersection is in the planning stages.
Schools are another challenge. The county-wide school system enrolled 16,000 in 1985-86; it overtopped 31,000 this year.
The 45-school school system pegs the growth rate at 500 students per year. That’s about the size of one new elementary school annually. But Baldwin has built no new public school since 2009. More than 90 portable trailer classrooms have been placed at school campuses to help cope with the crowding. But last year, Baldwin voters overwhelmingly rejected new property taxes meant to pay for a $350 million school construction and renovation campaign.
With that plan scrapped, school leaders are looking at smaller taxes. The school board recently announced it would stick with a $15.5 million building plan that will add classrooms and cafeterias to six schools. The additions are expected to reduce the number of portables to 60-65.
“The growth has been tremendous,” said Superintendent Eddie Tyler, who joined the school system last fall. “It’s always encouraging, but there again, you have to figure out how to manage the growth.”
He said, “We find ourselves in a situation with our facilities and money ... it’s just difficult right now.”
Elliot, the county commissioner, said the perception remains that Baldwin has quality schools, and thus is a good place for families. “Schools will continue to be a driver,” he said.
But it’s not just young families coming for the schools. Retirees are moving to beach cities and the Eastern Shore.
Herb Malone, president/CEO of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, said the “quality of life” is the lure.
Said Malone: “Most people who have moved here attribute it to the overall lifestyle... the great assets we have.” He said, “To some it’s the cost of living, to others it’s about a nicer climate than where they are moving from. It’s probably a little altogether.”
** 2016 figures were provided to the City of Daphne by the Baldwin County Association of Realtors MLS Department.
Re-printed in Daphne's Jubilee Breeze magazine | Article By John Sharp | Reprinted with permission from al.com 2017