As the city of Spanish Fort enters its 23rd year of incorporation next month, its government faces the challenge of managing rapid growth while maintaining what it considers its hometown community traits. Spanish Fort is one of the fastest-growing cities in one of Alabama’s fastest-growing counties.
The city was incorporated July 19, 1993. U.S. Census data shows it had a population of 3,732 in 1990, swelling to 5,423 by 2000 and 6,798 by 2010 — an 82-percent increase in 10 years. In the 10-year span from 2000 to 2010, the number of households in Spanish Fort increased from 2,035 to 3,013. At the time, the data also predicted another 10-percent population increase by 2013.
Not only has the city’s population grown, but its land area has increased as well. According to Mayor Mike McMillan, Spanish Fort’s borders doubled with the annexation of the approximately 11,000-acre Highlands of Spanish Fort property, which is divided into tracts of land for residential and commercial use, multi-family housing, school sites and more.
The Highlands site is located between Spanish Fort High School and the city of Bay Minette, according to Spanish Fort Building and Zoning official Bruce Renkert.
Renkert said the tract currently has one subdivision, Stone Brook, with about 100 homes, and there are plans to build about 150 more. He said another subdivision, Highland Park, recently received final plat approval and should begin development soon. Renkert said the city has identified some areas for commercial ventures, like land near Bromley Road and Jimmy Faulkner Boulevard.
“We are about 10 years into it and right now it is fairly stable,” Renkert said of the development of the Highlands property. “We are fairly certain there will be an uptick some day.”
In its comprehensive plan, the city reports expectations to grow from approximately 8,065 residents today to 9,758 by the year 2025, assuming minimal growth at the Highlands property. However, a second projection, assuming full development of the Highlands, shows population growth could be between 21,751 and 42,995 by 2025. The second projection assumes the Highlands will reach build-out by 2050. Fully developed, the Highlands is designed for a maximum of 29,964 dwelling units. Based on Spanish Fort’s 2000 average of 2.61 persons per household, the Highlands could eventually be home to more than 78,000 residents.
Conservatively, the comprehensive plan projects growth somewhere between the two projections in the next 40 years.
“What is unique about the Highlands is that it is all raw land, it is not developed,” McMillan said. “That’s why we see projections that we will grow so much in the near future. We have a luxury that other cities don’t — a lot of raw land.
“With the growth in Baldwin County, we hope people will build in that area. With what’s happening in Mobile, which are positives for the entire region, and with Baldwin County’s reputation for good schools, people are going to move here. We are only eight miles from Airbus. We are closer to Airbus than West Mobile. The quality of life in Baldwin County is appealing to a lot of folks. That’s why the projected growth is right here.”
The city’s budgets have grown at the same time. In 2000, McMillan said, Spanish Fort had approximately $1.5 million in revenues. When the 540,000-square-foot Eastern Shore Centre opened in 2004 at the intersection of State Highway 181 and Interstate 10, Spanish Fort’s budget jumped to $3.5 million.
Closer to the bay, the 448,748-square-foot Spanish Fort Town Center — anchored by Bass Pro Shops, Kohl’s and JCPenney department stores — opened in 2008 but has never seen full capacity. Yet McMillan said it has still proven an economic engine for the city.
Cypress Equities, the Town Center’s developer, has cited hurricanes, the recession and the BP oil spill as reasons the center has not reached full occupancy. The center emerged from receivership and recently installed an approximately $2 million park with a playground, splash pad, exercise areas, horseshoe pits and a pavilion. The developer recently told Lagniappe two new restaurants would be announced at the Town Center in the fall.
Spanish Fort’s budget for fiscal year 2015 is approximately $6.74 million, with $2.75 million carried over from the previous year for delayed projects.
McMillan said conservative budgeting has helped the city carry a surplus in recent years.
“We have always done budgets under-projecting revenue and over-projecting our expenses and because of that, we have always been over budget on revenues and under budget on expenses,” McMillan said.
One thing that makes Spanish Fort unique, McMillan said, is its history of low taxes. He said between 2002 and 2014, the city did not have a single tax increase until it approved its first ad valorem tax of 5 mills and implemented a one-cent gasoline tax. Spanish Fort also has a flat $100 business license fee in an effort to make it easier to operate a business in the city.
Community center nearing completion
The city’s budgeting success helped it put a $3.3-million down payment on a $7-million, 36,000-square-foot community center which is nearing completion at the corner of Spanish Fort Boulevard and Blakeley Way.
Starting with former mayor Joe Bonner’s administration, the city paid itself $35,000 each month to prepare for the challenges of making monthly payments on a $5-million bond for the community center. In May, Bonner said because of the way the city has prepared itself for the project, it was able to get the equivalent of a 15-year house note to fund it.
Spanish Fort broke ground on the center in 2012, but construction has been marred by weather-related issues, workmanship and construction roadblocks. In May, McMillan told the Spanish Fort Community Center Advisory Board there were 46 change orders from March 2012 to March 2015, totaling approximately $355,000.
“This has been a long, drawn-out process, and yes, we are behind schedule,” McMillan said. “Weather and some other factors have led to that, and we are about to get to the end. We are finally getting somewhere.”
In 2012 the city selected J.F. Pate and Associates to build the center based on a Spanish mission-style design from Forest Daniel and Associates. The center will house the city’s administrative offices, council chambers and meeting rooms, municipal court, auditorium, library, senior center, kitchen, exercise room and multi-purpose rooms.
Currently the Spanish Fort City Council meets at the cramped and outdated City Hall for work sessions on every other Monday at 4:30 p.m., then moves to the Prodisee Center for council meetings at 6 p.m. Municipal court is also held at the Prodisee Center.
The city budgeted a total of $7.9 million for the project, but expects to come in under budget upon completion.
“When you consider that we did put a $3.3-million down payment and took out a loan for $5 million, the balance at this point is just over $1 million on the good side for us,” McMillan said. “That will change, but I feel good that we have this cushion for right now.”
McMillan said the center’s opening date is a “moving target” because of several factors, including workmanship issues with some of the masonry around the complex. He said a contractor would begin staining mismatched bricks this week, but the finishing touches could push back the center’s projected opening date. Landscaping is being installed at the center, a sign of progress, McMillan said.
“Pending the bricks, and pending some other things that may come up, it looks like we could start moving in there mid-July,” McMillan said. “It will take about a month to get in there and get everything set up. We want everything to be in there and functioning before we have a grand opening.”
The center will also address the needs of the city’s senior citizens, McMillan said. Those aged 65 and older make up 16.6 percent of the city’s population, according to the 2010 Census numbers. The senior center will serve the city’s 55-and-over residents.
McMillan said he has heard complaints from a handful of residents who say the city has spent too much money on a “Taj Mahal” they say it doesn’t need. He said he understands the community center looks nice and big, but other cities have administrative offices, libraries and senior centers in separate buildings scattered around.
“I am very proud of the way it looks,” he said. “It is going to be a great big place, but it is not as grandiose as some people are thinking.
“I’m aware that some people don’t want us to grow, they like the old ‘Mayberry’ style city. But I think what is unique about Spanish Fort is that while are growing very fast, we still have the down home feel here. People smile and say hello to people they don’t know.”
Growth challenges city’s schools, infrastructure
As the city has aged, its population of school-aged children has also increased. Spanish Fort’s feeder pattern, which includes two elementary schools, a middle school and a high school, is the fastest growing in the county with a 71-percent increase in students from 2005 through 2014. That’s an increase of 1,465 students, from 2,050 to 3,515, in 10 years.
McMillan said the quality of the city’s schools draw families to settle in Spanish Fort.
“We are blessed with great schools, that’s the biggest single item that people ask about when they move to an area,” he said. “They want to know about the schools, and because of that we are in a very fortunate situation.”
Enrollment at Rockwell Elementary was listed at approximately 900 for the 2014-15 school year with 55 classrooms. The Baldwin County school system uses a combination of birth rates, four-year cohort averages for every school and grade, the average age of citizens in each feeder pattern, housing permits and development data to determine projections for future growth.
At Rockwell, the Baldwin County Board of Education shows a projection of 1,079 students and 70 classrooms needed by the 2018-19 school year. Further down the road, projections are for Rockwell to swell to 1,324 students by the 2023-24 school year.
At Spanish Fort Elementary, the school system expects the school to grow from 695 students currently to 851 by 2018-19 and 883 by 2023-24. Numbers at the middle and high schools tell a similar story. Spanish Fort Middle School, the largest middle school in the county, is expected to grow from 849 students to 1,213 in the next 10 years and Spanish Fort High School is projected to add 604 students to its rolls in the next 10 years, from 1,071 now to 1,675 in 2024.
The school system’s numbers also show a 115 classroom deficit in the feeder pattern by the 2023-24 school year.
Baldwin County schools spokesman Terry Wilhite said Spanish Fort is a convenient location for families moving to the area because of job relocation to Mobile. Specifically, Wilhite said many Spanish Fort parents work for federal agencies, Austal and other industries in Mobile.
Spanish Fort’s schools have earned a national reputation for competitive athletic teams, which has also attracted families, according to Wilhite.
“Spanish Fort has won a remarkable amount of state and national athletic honors, and I think the word has gotten out that it is a great place to raise a family,” he said.
A March tax referendum seeking an 8-mill increase in the county ad valorem property taxes would have funded a $350 million capital campaign for the county’s schools, but it was soundly defeated at the ballot box. According to the school system, some of those funds would have been used to expand the cafeteria, add 40 classrooms, a new gymnasium, additional parking and a new practice field at Spanish Fort High School.
The system also planned to renovate older buildings at Spanish Fort Elementary. Other plans included a new elementary school on State Highway 31 and a new feeder pattern with new elementary, middle and high schools in the city’s “golden triangle” between state highways 31 and 59 and Interstate 10.
Without those funds, Wilhite said the schools may have to utilize portable classrooms. He said once the system accumulates funds again, there would be a possibility of adding classrooms at existing schools.
“But those dollars are few and far between,” he said, “and we have growth needs all across the county.”
The population boom has also been a strain on Spanish Fort’s parks and recreation department. The city has struggled to accommodate its youth football league and a growing interest in youth soccer with its two city parks.
Spirit Park has tennis courts and fields for baseball and softball, but no football field. There is a football field at Spanish Fort Elementary School, and the youth football and soccer leagues have had to share time at the high school’s field the last few years.
The city recently considered, but ultimately rejected, a $769,000 plan to install artificial turf at the high school football stadium to address the issue.
McMillan said the city has agreed in theory to purchase an additional 5.2 acres to expand Spirit Park and to purchase 26.2 acres on Jimmy Faulkner Boulevard for park space. He said the preliminary plan for the land at Jimmy Faulkner Boulevard includes two fields for football and soccer and seven fields for baseball and softball. The project would be two phases, with the first phase tackling football and soccer fields and infrastructure.
“Our demand seems to be on football and soccer because we just don’t have those kinds of facilities right now,” McMillan said. “That’s why we talked about turf at the high school and we just refurbished the fields at the elementary school.”
The mayor said the city is seeking land to acquire for a new fire station and fire safety training center, but Spanish Fort’s hilly topography has made it difficult to find the flat land that would be required.
Spanish Fort’s hilliness has also caused legal troubles. In 2009, the city was sued by homeowners on Patrician Drive who said bluff erosion threatening their homes was the city’s responsibility to fix. City Attorney David Conner said the city denied responsibility, but after the outcome of a jury trial favored the property owners, the city was required to make repairs to the bluff estimated at more than $2.5 million. The city purchased, then razed the homes, and added a concrete slope with pipes and drainage basins on the bluff, which overlooks the bypass which connects the Causeway with U.S. Highway 98.
Another challenge the city faces is reshaping its borders. McMillan said the State Legislature has approved a referendum to “square up” Spanish Fort’s borders by majority vote. He said a large portion of the city’s biggest subdivision, Spanish Fort Estates, is not actually inside the city’s corporate limits. While a date has not been set for the referendum, McMillan said it will be a chance for people to come into to the city limits and benefit from the city’s police and fire department, as well as its trash collection contract with Advanced Disposal.
Moving forward, Spanish Fort’s challenge is to keep its small-town pride while giving citizens the services to meet their needs, McMillan said.
“It takes a balancing act,” he said. “We have a small budget compared to most. We don’t have utilities tied to our budget or big condos pouring money in. I’m very proud of what we have been able to do. I’m proud of what we have and I’m excited about where we are going. We just have to set our priorities and control our spending.”