There are great moments in history when our city leaders can look back and say, “Man, we really screwed the pooch!” Let’s hope this won’t be one of them.
Three separate unincorporated communities in the area loosely known as “West Mobile” — WeMo in shorthand — are asking to join the Port City. This would bring roughly 13,000 new citizens into the city, as well as the “Schillinger Corridor” bristling with big-box stores, restaurants and other businesses. Mayor Sandy Stimpson has asked Mobile’s City Council to vote to allow three separate referendums for these areas to join, and this is the part where things get dicey.
Why do they get dicey? Politics, of course.
From a logical standpoint there’s really no reason not to allow these votes to occur. The City Council has allowed such votes in 1992, 1993, 2002, 2007 and 2008, with varying degrees of success — but votes were allowed. Projections by the mayor’s office are that the city would net out nearly $1.5 million in sales tax revenue the first year alone and by year five that would grow to $2.2 million.
Yeah, yeah, I know how projections go. They tend to be pretty glowy and high-end, but even if they’re a little less, explain why the city shouldn’t take an additional $1.7 million, for example? More importantly though, let’s go back in time 20 years to look at that area south of the intersection of Schillinger Road and Airport Boulevard. Not nearly as much there, right? Now, come back to 2019 and the place has exploded!
This is a massively growing area that’s getting bigger all the time. Do opponents of annexation think that’s just going to stop? Ten years from now the tax revenue from this area will almost certainly dwarf those projections we’re considering now.
One of the other obvious benefits of bringing in 13,000 new people who are asking to be here is it has the potential to push Mobile’s population back over 200,000 for the first time in a long time. This should bring more federal dollars and has the likelihood of putting us back in line as the second-largest city in Alabama. Those distinctions bring money. Just the potential Department of Justice funds alone are in the millions annually, and that could help policing throughout our city.
So on the positive side of things we have: more people and more money. What’s the problem?
Like I said before — politics.
There are already those pushing the council not to even allow the vote, citing the nonsensical concept that we need to “grow from within first” or “take care of what we have first” before expanding the city. They argue people are leaving Mobile because we’re not doing a good enough job providing opportunity, police protection or garbage pickup. So, they claim, until people actually are moving back into the city, we shouldn’t try to bring them into the city.
That’s just fast talking, folks. These same people didn’t think the city was undeserving of annexation in 2007 or 2008 when our financial fortunes were markedly worse. There’s another agenda at work here.
It’s also important to note the people in these areas ARE trying to move back into the city. They just don’t want to sell their houses in order to do so. If we said 13,000 people in one month decided they wanted to move to Mobile, we’d all be amazed. Proud even.
The people petitioning to join the city are by and large the very people who left the city a long time ago, or who rejected previous annexation attempts. Now they’ve changed their minds. So they have the choice of selling their homes and buying something inside the city limits, or keeping the lives and homes they love and just redrawing the line. That’s immigration into the city.
Opponents have argued about how people are heading across the bay as a distraction to the fact that population seepage has also helped the explosion to the west of our current city limits. This reverses some of that seepage.
The fly in the ointment, as is always the case in Mobile, is race. The majority of the people asking to join the city are white, which upsets some politically ambitious people — maybe even people who want to be mayor. Based upon the breakdown provided by the city, the annexations would bring 8,539 whites, 3,330 blacks and 1,057 others into the city, which would still leave Mobile roughly 49-47 percent black/white and maintain the city’s majority black status.
There’s already a lot of silly talk that Stimpson is trying to make the city “whiter” so he can win re-election. We heard the exact same thing when previous annexation brought in more black citizens, that Sam Jones was trying to annex his way to re-election, but he still lost. Twice. I sincerely doubt the addition of 13,000 people is going to create a political imbalance. It will still require winning a mix of black and white voters to be elected mayor of Mobile — as it should.
Voting against an annexation referendum based upon such flimsy reasoning is putting political opportunism ahead of the city’s future well-being.
Everyone knows the Birmingham area is the state’s largest. It’s not really even close. But the city of Birmingham is tenuously hanging onto its status as the state’s largest municipality. Like Mobile and Montgomery, The Ham has seen its population dwindle every year. But Birmingham is boxed in. All of the areas around the city incorporated and now they’re likely destined to watch Huntsville eventually pass them, as it continues growing every year.
Annexation of areas asking to come in is not some kind of fake population growth trick. For it to happen, the people have to want to be here.
But again, let’s not forget these areas are also where a tremendous amount of business growth is happening. It would be stupid to say “no” to letting them even consider joining the city, only to watch them eventually incorporate and become part of cities that would put Mobile in the same boxed-in boat as Birmingham.
Talking about “taking care of what we’ve got” before we annex isn’t really thinking about the city’s future. It’s vital Mobile incorporates these areas of rapid growth because they will mean so much more in the future that they would even now.
Yes, the city should also focus on growing from within at the same time. We need people moving into downtown and filling up the housing vacancies we have, but using that as an excuse to turn down millions a year in additional tax money and thousands of new residents who want to be here is either playing politics or a sign you need to change the battery in your calculator.
Let’s not screw the pooch, Mobile City Council. Letting them vote is the smart choice.
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