If you ask the school system personnel why the city of Saraland has seen substantial growth, they’ll point at themselves.
Mayor Howard Rubenstein is OK with that.
The numbers of homes and residents have measurably increased since Saraland City Schools opened in 2008, which has also led to an increase in businesses and sales tax revenues.
“I think the school system has acted as a catalyst to foster growth in our community,” Rubenstein said. “When you ask people what they look for in where they want to live, the first thing most people say is, ‘An education for my children.’”
When Saraland separated from the Mobile County Public School System, it started its own system with 1,518 students. Since then that size has nearly doubled, and 2,525 started school in the fall of 2013.
That student growth has caused a mostly residential community to see a rise in the number of homes being constructed.
“We got off the ground in 2008, and we’ve had very consistent growth since then,” Rubenstein said. “It really shielded us from the housing collapse and the recession that hit in 2009 and 2010. Our revenues were actually level compared with many communities that took a big nosedive.”
According to data provided by the city, 300 new homes have begun construction or have begun the permitting process since 2012. In the last five years, 1,495 homes have been proposed as a part of five separate subdivision plans.
According to data collected by the Mobile Association of Realtors, 2013 saw 294 homes sold within Saraland’s two districts of the Gulf Coast Multiple Listing Service.
Those home purchases equated to approximately $6.7 million in total sales, and the combined areas showed the second-highest concentration of new home purchases in Mobile County, second only to West Mobile.
Since 2009, 149 properties have also been annexed into Saraland.
“We do a lot of home-by-home annexation using the domino method, which means as long as your property touches the city limits, you be can be annexed in if you choose to,” Rubenstein said. “We took in several thousands acres a few weeks ago, and we’re looking to approve a 2,500-acre piece of property in one annexation at our next council meeting.”
A majority of the Saraland’s physical growth is taking place north and west of its city limits.
The current population is estimated at 14,000, which is an increase from 12,800 in the 2000 Census and 13,300 in the 2010 Census. Saraland is expecting an increase in the 2020 Census.
“The population hasn’t been skyrocketing; it’s been more of a gradual increase,” Rubenstein said. “But, you have to compare that to other cities who have shown declines during the sane period.”
Rubenstein said Saraland has a small industrial park that houses companies like Masland Carpets and the Marshall Biscuit Company, but those employers account for a small fraction of the city’s industrial base.
“Most of our citizens work in Mobile or in other areas throughout the county. There are several chemical plants as you move up Highway 43, and the ThyssenKrupp (now ArcelorMittal/Nippon Steel) steel facility has been a major source of residents for us,” he said. “Saraland is very centrally located and it allows for easy access to Mobile and points north.”
City officials think a quality school system is one of the factors that allowed Saraland to draw in residents from surrounding communities.
Another draw is the city’s well-organized police and emergency medical services.
“We have one of the lowest crime rates in Mobile County, and we maintain a very aggressive drug enforcement program,” Rubenstein said. “We’re also the only city, other than Mobile, with 24-hour paramedic rescue services.”
The influx of residents has driven business growth in the city, which led to a $153,617 increase in business license revenues between 2006 and 2013.
The trend doesn’t appear to be slowing down either. In 2013, Saraland saw $1,147,046 in revenue from business licensing, and as of April 2014, the city has already generated $1,143,019.
The large jump in 2014 revenues is likely due to the Shoppes of Saraland and Gate Centre shopping developments, which will combine to add more than 10 new businesses.
“The residential increase has helped develop the school system because that money follows the students, and we’ve seen some slight increases from a tax revenue standpoint,” Rubenstein said. “Where it helps us, is from a rooftop standpoint.”
Rubenstein said most large companies require a minimal number of total residents and minimal numbers of certain demographics in order to franchise in a city.
The city has been proactive in attracting business by sending businesses across the country a DVD called “Step UP to Saraland,” which outlines the regional market’s growth. Rubenstein said city officials have also made personal contacts with more than 200 major chains around the country.
The new businesses have also lead to significant increase in the city’s largest funding source, sales taxes.
In 2012, Saraland took in $8,323,618 in sales tax revenue, which is an increase from only $6,703,187 in 2006. This year, sales tax has generated $4,604,384 in revenue for the city in only four months.
The only increase in the sales tax rate was approved in 2006, which was a 1-cent increase to help fund the creation of the school system.
All of that additional money goes directly to the school system, but Rubenstein said the citizens of Saraland are reaping the benefits.
The city holds a lien of $28 million for Saraland City Schools that was borrowed to pay for the construction of Saraland High School. Because Saraland City Schools wasn’t established at the time, the city had to borrow the money on its behalf, but the system has always made the payments on that debt.
The city holds around $13 million in debt outside of that general obligation bond — most of which was acquired in an effort to refurbish its sewer system.
“For a city our size, that’s not a bad level of total debt,” Rubenstein said. “Those are also held in very low interest bonds.”