Regardless of whether or not race was a factor in Mobile’s divisive 2013 mayoral election, it appears to be among the first referendums in the city’s nearly 300-year history where African-Americans were the majority population. Meanwhile, Mobile’s white population, which peaked in the mid-20th century shortly after annexations more than doubled the city’s total land area, has steadily declined since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and continued to decline further after 1985, when the municipal government adopted its current council/mayor form to foster greater political representation of minority communities.
At the same time, the white population has increased in neighboring cities and unincorporated areas, where the black population is often a smaller percentage than both the state and national averages and public offices are still overwhelmingly represented by white elected officials.
In a socio-economic trend generally referred to as “white flight,” Mobile is no different from many other urban areas across the nation where white families began to abandon city centers generations ago for increased opportunity and investment in the suburbs. But among the state’s 12 metropolitan statistical areas, Mobile ranks ninth in population projections extending to 2040, lagging far behind cities such as Birmingham, Huntsville, Montgomery and even the Daphne-Fairhope-Foley area, which leads state projections with indications of growth exceeding 60 percent over the next 25 years.
Mobile has also been generally slow to expand its borders through annexation, increasing its tax base and total population at much slower rates than more affluent cities on the Eastern Shore.While the city’s total population has remained relatively stagnant since recording a high of 202,779 in the 1960 decennial census, those identifying as primarily white have fled at a rate of more than 35 percent. According to the 2010 census, the city’s black population increased more than 50 percent during the same period, eventually eclipsing its white population sometime within the past 10 years.
Comparatively, in the 20 years between 1990 and 2010, Baldwin County’s population grew by slightly more than 85 percent, and more recent estimates from 2014 indicate the county’s population has nearly doubled in size. With a black population of just under 10 percent, in Baldwin County, where the per capita income is 14 percent greater than in the city of Mobile, almost all the growth is attributable to whites.
“White flight takes a certain modicum of prosperity — you have to be able to have the money to move to a place, for example, like Baldwin County,” explained Dr. S.E. Costanza, a criminologist and director of the University of South Alabama Center for Public Policy who has examined the trend nationwide. Yet Costanza said while the origins of the phenomenon can be traced in part to increases in urban crime, economics and housing often play a more important role.
“Crime stems from lack of affluence, but does not contribute to it,” he said. “When you have urban blight and decay, that’s where crime emerges. If you bring back the revenue and bring back the economy, crime will subside, but whether that has anything to do with growth, it’s kind of a spurious correlation.
“As the economy rises, you get population growth,” Costanza continued, noting that doesn’t necessarily contribute to urbanization.
Mobile has only recorded a handful of annexations since 1985, when the city implemented its current form of government. The largest expansion of the city’s borders in history occurred in 1955, encompassing 76.8 square miles between Interstate 65 and Cody Road to the west and Interstate 10 and Dog River to the south. More than 69,000 residents became Mobilians by the measure, and the city added vital areas for commercial growth including Moffett Road, Airport Boulevard, Highway 90 and Cottage Hill Road.
The most recent annexation, that of The Grounds early this year, netted zero residents and a single business. Broader but more painstaking annexations of the Mobile Terrace community and portions of Tillman’s Corner were approved by referendums in 2007 and 2008, respectively, but together added fewer than 4,000 residents to the city.
Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said earlier this week that rebuilding the city’s population is “crucially important.”
“We have to grow the city, which means you’ve got to be adding citizens, not losing them,” he said, noting, “We’re not considering [annexations] at this time.”
Former Mobile City Council President Charles Chapman, who was elected to the city’s first council in 1985 and served two terms, recalled the annexation as both a demographic and a financial issue as early as Mayor Mike Dow’s first term.
“We discussed it maybe as early as 1989, but we could not generate enough interest in the selected areas to move to a vote,” he said. “It proved to be a very difficult task and from what I understand, primarily the way the Jones administration eventually succeeded in Tillman’s Corner was by gerrymandering district lines around by excluding some residential areas and including as many business districts as they could to improve the tax base, while only the bloc of residents in or around Tillman’s Corner — more or less a black community the mayor offered free garbage service to — won the vote, and it was a monumental task.”
(Cartography by Thomas Strange/GIS information courtesy of the city of Mobile) This map depicts Mobile’s growth through annexation over nearly 200 years, from 1814-2015.
The addition of a Wal-Mart and other businesses in the area was reported to have added $11 million to city revenue in its first year. Two other neighborhoods targeted in the same referendum declined the offer. The precincts encompassing Tillman’s Corner and Mobile Terrace both voted for Sam Jones in the 2013 election.
Irmatean Watson, one of three black representatives serving on the first Mobile City Council alongside white councilors such as Chapman, said since the city’s black population has been represented in municipal politics, its numbers haven’t been an issue. A companion story Lagniappe published last week detailed how Mobile’s black population still lags behind its white population in almost every socioeconomic indicator.
“It was an issue when we were more than a third of the population but zero percent of the City Commission,” she said Monday. “I think we started making progress immediately when we finally were elected, not just in our own districts but across the city.”
But even before she was defeated in a run off with now-State Sen. Vivian Figures in 1993, Watson said she realized there was political division within the black community.
“I don’t want to tell you exactly what I think the problem was or is, but maybe you can compare it to the Republican party in Congress right now,” she said. “Some of it is fundamental differences, but some of it is deliberate or historical or instilled, and maybe there is a general mistrust not just of the white community, but of the black community that does have some degree of power.”
In the roughly 20 years after the Mobile City Council was founded, nearly a quarter of the city’s white population has relocated. In the same time, Fairhope’s white population has increased by at least 77 percent, Daphne’s white population has almost doubled and that of Baldwin County as a whole has nearly tripled.
While not unwelcome, the growth in Baldwin County isn’t all positive, and has strained the planning and budget capabilities of the county’s school system and infrastructure. And while Mobile would likely welcome a similar infusion of residents, if resistance to previous polls or referendums are any indication, the city may have exhausted its ability to entice unincorporated areas into annexation.
“It’s a tough issue,” said Chapman, who was recently appointed to the board of commissioners at the Mobile Area Water and Sewer Service. “People object, there’s a lot of misinformation. People outside the city don’t often see benefits of planning and zoning, they see it as more regulations and more government and more red tape, but I don’t see it that way at all. I see it as controlled growth — planned development that always turns out better for the community. Until those misconceptions are cleared up, annexation is going to continue to be a severe uphill battle.”
Eastern Shore cities differ in annexation view
As the city of Spanish Fort prepares to host a referendum that could potentially expand its corporate limits with an additional 30 parcels of land by popular vote Nov. 3, other cities on the Eastern Shore have taken a different approach to annexation.
The bulk of Spanish Fort’s proposed expansion will come from the north and east, with neighborhoods and rural lands along U.S. Highway 31 and State Highway 228.
The referendum — scheduled for Nov. 3 at New Life Assembly of God on U.S. Highway 31 in Spanish Fort — would affect approximately 750 rooftops, or an estimated 1,700-1,800 residents, according to Mayor Mike McMillan. Some of the city’s subdivisions are currently divided, where people in one home may be in the city while their neighbors aren’t, the mayor said.
The plan would bring in residents in unincorporated areas on Stagecoach Road and on the north side of Spanish Fort Estates, as well as Rayne Plantation, Grace Magnolias, Cambron and residents on Old Highway 31. There are rural areas and farmlands included in the annexation plan, McMillan said. Spanish Fort currently has approximately 7,800 residents, 91 percent of whom are white.
“We are just trying to square up our borders,” McMillan said. “We’ve been a city for 22 years and we still have a lot of pockets that are within blocks of city buildings but aren’t in the city.”
At a town hall meeting Oct. 14, city officials told residents the benefits of annexation outweigh the additional 5-mill ad valorem tax and sales and business license fees. Those who live in the city limits also have the benefit of patrolling and response from Spanish Fort Police Department, McMillan said.
“That’s one of our major hurdles,” the mayor said. “When someone calls 911, they have to determine whether the caller is in the city or county. In areas where some neighbors are in and others are out, that’s a problem.”
(Cartography by Thomas Strange/corporate limit information courtesy of Baldwin County/demographic data courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau) This map depicts municipal corporate limits on top of 2013 U.S. Census block group demographic data. Fairhope, which is 91 percent white, according to 2013 census estimates, has not incorporated majority black neighborhoods along its jagged southern limits, while it has incorporated isolated, majority white neighborhoods in the same block group. To its north, the same issue exists in Daphne, which is more than 11 percent black citywide. There, the City Council is engaged in a conversation about incorporating historically black neighborhoods just outside its city limits.
In 2014, the city opposed the building of an apartment complex near Spanish Fort High School. The proposed site for the complex was located outside of the city’s corporate boundary and the Baldwin County Commission approved a zoning request which ultimately allowed the complex to be built. Former Commissioner Bob James was the lone “no” vote on the measure, citing concerns he’d heard from Spanish Fort residents.
McMillan said if the area had been inside city limits, the complex would likely not have been built, as it did not conform to the city’s zoning regulations.
“That’s a good example of why our residents need our zoning regulations,” McMillan said. “A large portion, 41 percent, of our city is multi-family housing. That’s not a good long-term strategy.”
South of Spanish Fort, the city of Fairhope’s planning director, Jonathan Smith, told Lagniappe in previous interviews the city prefers to annex parcels contiguous to the city’s current border by petition of the land owners. He said while the option is never off the table, annexation by referendum is “not ideal” for Fairhope.
At the same time, Fairhope’s police jurisdiction extends three miles beyond its city limits, so many nonresidents are covered by Fairhope Police Department. The city also exerts limited zoning rights outside its city limits, and nonresidents may pay to use city utilities at a higher rate than those who live inside the city limit. Fairhope’s police jurisdiction extends south to the end of Highway 1, east to Fish River and north to Daphne’s southern border.
In Daphne, City Councilman John Lake said he isn’t in favor of block annexation because when cities annex large sections of the population, they also bring in people who don’t want to be there.
“Some other cities have expanded through legislation, but we have tried not to do that,” Lake said recently. “We want property owners who want to be here. We don’t do it legislatively because we don’t want citizens to think we will just run roughshod over their wishes.”
The city of Daphne first expanded its corporate limits from the old section of town near the Daphne Civic Center when it annexed the Lake Forest area in the mid-1980s. According to Lake, TimberCreek was annexed in 1989 and several other subdivisions were annexed in during the 1990s at the request of property owners.
“The odd shape, and some of the holes, in our corporate limits is usually because those property owners chose not to come into the city,” he said, pointing to the Belforest community, which has traditionally resisted annexation into Daphne.
Belforest, which touches the eastern border of Daphne’s first district but is outside the city limit, has its own water system and is covered by the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement because Daphne does not extend its police jurisdiction past its boundary.
Lake said businesses in Belforest aren’t in the city and the city does not receive sales tax revenue from those businesses. The city also maintains the roads in Belforest, but everything else is in the county’s jurisdiction.
“I would like to see them come into the city,” Lake said. “If you step into the dirt off Lawson Road, all those businesses are in the county. We don’t get any revenue from any of those businesses, but we keep up the roads and drainage.”
Dale Liesch contributed to this report.