Imagine: Ideas for Alex CityPublished 12:00pm Tuesday, September 4, 2012
By Al Sikes, Guest Columnist
The Outlook’s “Use This Page” editorial (Aug. 18-19) made several points that deserve reinforcement. There is in fact a wealth of talent, experience and wisdom in this community, and ideas are plentiful at small social gatherings – but few of them are pursued. Perhaps we can use the Outlook as a forum for ideas to revitalize Alex City.
Another key point of the editorial was that Alex City should learn from the previous experience of “placing all of our eggs in one basket.” The permanent loss of 6,000 textile jobs has taught us not to be a one-industry town – or has it? A case can be made that our current recruiting effort to replace these manufacturing jobs is in fact placing all of our eggs in one basket.
The fact is that the total number of U.S. manufacturing jobs continues to decline. Both productivity gains and moves to other countries are reducing the need for companies to build new plants and employ new people. Realistically, how likely are we to replace enough of those 6,000 jobs by convincing multiple industries to move to Alex City? Are there other baskets? Are there ways (in addition to manufacturing) that we can provide steady streams of routine spending into our community? I’m providing one possibility and encouraging others to suggest more ideas.
Fortunately, there is one large industry (not manufacturing) that is actively looking for new locations. Like any industry willing to make an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars, this has expectations from the prospective community. If the community (possibly Alex City) can satisfy those expectations, this industry can provide an initial investment of $300 million, an annual spend of $75 million and annual local tax revenue of $3 million. And that’s just the beginning of the opportunity if we do this right.
This industry will continue to grow for the next 18 years, according to the Pew Research Center. The retirement industry is not new, but only a few communities have actively welcomed it. Now, however, because of the baby boom generation, more than 10,000 people per day are reaching age 65, and the total number of seniors in our population will be rising from 13% to 18% during the next two decades.
Retirement is an industry that spends money in the communities that welcome it! Although retired people routinely spend money, many don’t require jobs, and they don’t need costly local government services such as schools. However, because of the taxes they pay, schools and other government services can benefit from their presence.
Before working to attract the retirement industry to Alex City, we have to answer these questions: Does Alex City have something special that would attract several thousand people to permanently relocate here for this stage of their life? Even if our city had a large new community of garden homes, golf cart roads and walking paths that led to a community center, entertainment and to a variety of restaurants and shops, why move here rather than to other locations with these amenities? Does Alex City have some other distinguishing feature that would attract a few thousand of those boomers to live here?
At least one other community has successfully addressed similar questions. The towns of the Napa and Sonoma Valleys in California have recently risen from an era of lifeless towns to vital communities. To revitalize the area, these towns successfully exploited their unique feature – vineyards and wine. Today, they have new residents and tourists that come, not only for wine-tasting, but also for hiking, bicycling, hot air ballooning, historical sites and extensive culinary choices.
Although we don’t have grapes (except at Main Street’s Emporium Wine), Alex City does have an outstanding feature that already attracts many people. However, because the town of Alex City is a distance from Lake Martin, this magnificent lake-living feature is not currently associated with Alex City. Furthermore, lake living requires more money than many retirees can afford. As such, the sense is that Alex City and Lake Martin are not related. If we continue to accept these barriers of distance and division as impenetrable, then we may be sentencing Alex City to remain in its current state. However, perhaps with some creativity, we can rebuild the town of Alex City much in the same way as was done by the towns in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys.
Bringing the sense of lake-living to the town of Alex City can be done. The purchase of a residence in the new in-town development would include membership in a gated lakefront park. Daily shuttles would provide scheduled transportation for those who prefer not to drive. The lakefront park would include boat slips, storage and rental, a lodge for dining and entertainment, tennis, playgrounds for the grandkids and other planned activities. A day at the lake with friends and family could be as easy as a 10-minute ride in a comfortable van to the gated lakefront park.
Although the concept of lake living is the attention-getting feature, there are other elements that must be in place to attract retirees – housing, transportation, good healthcare, recreation and sports, arts, social and hobby groups, church families, continuing education, affordable cost of living and taxes, safety, mild climate and a welcoming sense of community.
A new in-town community of 1,500+ garden homes with sidewalks and bicycle and walking paths would provide affordable residences that are low maintenance, energy efficient and accessible to the new town square, which contains places for dining, entertainment, civic and social clubs and shopping for daily needs and desires of the 3,000+ people.
Most transportation to the nearby town square would be by golf cart, bicycle and walking. Scheduled van/trolley service would transport residents to other Alex City commerce, medical services and churches, as well as to the lakefront park.
And certainly not least of the attractions of this new Alex City are the healthcare facilities and services that are needed by this generation of people. Fortunately Alex City already has a firm foundation for this requirement with the outstanding Russell Medical Center, quality medical professionals, fitness centers and assisted living and long-term care facilities.
An old baseball adage reminds us that you can’t steal 2nd base while keeping one foot on 1st. The success of any revitalization effort requires an all-out commitment. At the same time, we don’t have to place all of our hopes to revitalize our city in any one basket. We should continue to invite manufacturing and other industries – maybe the success of one effort will fuel the success of others. Let’s make it happen for Alex City.
Sikes is a guest columnist for The Outlook.