Residents of Baldwin County got some news from the U.S. Census Bureau which may, or may not, come as a surprise. The agency issues reports every ten years on how many people are living in the United States. The Bureau also ranks the fastest growing communities in the U.S., and Baldwin came in at number twelve. This outranks cities like Florida’s tourism mecca in Orlando, and even Raleigh, North Carolina. APR’s MacKenzie Bates reports this is leading to more than a few growing pains for the region.
It’s a busy time of day on Interstate 10 just outside of Mobile. Cars are returning home after a long day of work. For many of these motorists—home means Baldwin County.
“It’s a smaller town, with a big heart.”
Dawne Biggs avoids the I-10 rush by living and working in the Baldwin County town of Daphne. She and her family moved here from the Midwest,
“Everywhere you go, you get a ‘hello’ ‘how are you doing?’ People are eager to help you. They take you around; they invite you to church and their events. It’s just a great place to be.”
There are some big city problems to go along with that small town feel. Biggs and her family have also contributed to an almost ten percent jump in Baldwin County’s population since 2010. That’s according to U.S. Census Data released in late March.
Baldwin County has surpassed the 200,000 population mark for the first time in its history.
The county’s probate Judge, Tim Russell has a theory when it comes to the migration of families to Baldwin. They come to visit for vacation and like it so much, they want to stay.
“And I hear the story all the time. They come down for two or three years to the condos, waters, bays, rivers. They fall in love. They say, I want to get down there and be part of it. So our greatest growth is in the retiree population.”
And a study by Georgia Southern University shows this trend has been going on for a while. It says, between 1980 and 2005, Baldwin’s retiree population jumped by two hundred percent.
From Daphne, I hit road for the city of Fairhope, along U.S. Routes 90 and 98. There I met up with Heiko Einfeld. He’s executive director of the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce. Einfield says he’s noticed the increase in population, which means more growth on the commercial side of things…
“You can’t find better merchants anywhere. But they also create an atmosphere. It has that European Café flare to it a little bit. You know it’s always fun, especially at this time of year when you have this type of weather. It’s beautiful to walk Main Street and see what’s going on.”
Einfeld and I walk across the street and go inside Pinzone’s Italian Village. The lunchtime crowd provides another snapshot of Baldwin’s population. Most of the diners appear of retirement age.
“It’s more of a cosmopolitan town.”
The Village Deli is operated by John and Mary Ann Nelson. They have lived in Baldwin County for more than 40 years.
“It still has a wonderful, friendly atmosphere. We have guests that come down for the summer to spend it in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. So it’s a special place.”
John recalls a time when a grocery store delivered goods right to your door. They don’t do that anymore. But, The Nelsons say more people in Fairhope means more customers.
Fairhope Mayor Tim Kant welcomes anyone who wants to relocate to his city or even other parts in the county. He says there’s a little bit of something for everyone…
“People can live whether you want a nice large of piece of property with horses or you can live in a city or the beach or North Baldwin where you have a lot of open hunting and fishing areas. When you look at the diversity of places to live and work, that’s what draws people to the Baldwin County area.” (Kant2)
But in an ever-growing community, it’s not without its problems.
The Baldwin County school system is bursting at the seams. Here at Foley High School there are more than eighteen hundred students. Temporary classrooms, called portables, are set up outside here and at Baldwin’s six other high schools to make sure there are enough seats.
“I rarely go in to the main building unless I have to because if you had to walk through those halls during class changing time.”
Doctor Beth Taylor teaches animal and veterinary science in a portable called the Ag shack.
“It’s almost impossible to navigate through the halls.”
Just south of Foley High, Gulf Shores Elementary houses about one-thousand students. Christie Whitehead’s classroom is heading to the library in the main building from her portable classroom. She has about 25 students in a portable that should only hold 18.
She has calculated how much time is used for just commuting to other places inside the school…
“And we lose about 45 minutes of instructional time each day commuting from the library, it’s all the way in the front part of the campus. And just going to the restroom, water, the lunchroom, P.E.”
One solution to Baldwin’s school woes is money. But, that’s hard to come by. The Baldwin County School board proposed a property tax hike to raise $1 billion to the school system over the next 30 years. The money would have gone to building new schools and closing most of the portables in the county. Voters said no…
“And I had not experienced a day like that before.”
That’s Terry Burkle. She Executive Director of the Baldwin County Education Coalition, who was in favor of the new property tax.
“People who were showing up were very angry and you could see it on their faces. It didn't take the first hour that we knew it’s likely we were not going to be successful.”
Almost 46-thousand votes were cast, about a third of the county’s registered voters. We met Christie Whitehead at Gulf Shores Elementary…
“It broke my heart because the next day, my children, you should’ve seen their faces. They said Ms. Whitehead, it didn’t pass. And I said, I know baby, I know that. And they said, why? And one little girl said, ‘Am I going to be in a portable the rest of my life?’ I wanted to cry. But I can teach in a portable if I need to for the rest of my life. That’s not about it. It’s the number of children we have in the portables.”
There are plenty of possibilities as to why the new tax referendum was shot down. Matthew Brown is the Chairman of Educate Baldwin Now. He led the charge against the plan…
“We want Baldwin County to have the best education system in the state. But a couple of months prior to the election, we, just an independent group of citizens sat down and started talking about this and looked at the numbers that were presented and we had some big questions. We decided to let the public know what those questions and concerns were.”
Tax supporter Terry Burkle believes the school board could have done a better job of explaining why they needed the referendum to pass. She and the coalition would like more dialogue with the school board. The hope is to get the message out that what they are doing is for the benefit for the students.
“We haven’t been doing what we really need to do and that’s continue to inform and engage our citizens so they feel that ownership in our local schools. And I think the end will be an even better plan and an even better approach for addressing our growth challenges here in the county than we had previously.”
Tax critic Matthew Brown says if that happens, progress can be made.
“There hasn’t been an opportunity to say hey, why don’t you folks come in for a meeting, let’s sit down and let’s actually have a dialogue about this data to find out where it actually lands. That’s what’s going to have to happen before the people of Baldwin County are willing to move forward on this.”
In the meantime, the school system is heading back to the drawing board to come up with ways for more revenue to build more infrastructure.
Back at the Village Deli, it looks like there won’t be a lack of customers anytime soon. A new study from the University of Alabama's Center for Business and Economic Research predicts another 100-thousand people could soon relocate to Baldwin County. Meaning more kids in school and more customers jockeying for a table.